It looks and sounds like your typical construction site with seasoned homebuilders hammering out the work.
“Some have done these types of trades before and want to continue because they enjoy them and some can’t read a tape measure,” said site manager Chad Squires.
Many on this hard hat wearing crew are learning on the job after serving hard time with the state. Inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility are supplying the labor in this home building program. It teaches inmates real life skills while helping with the shortage of affordable housing in Iowa.
“It’s a lot different than anything than I’ve done before,” explained Jacob Cameron.
A drug and weapons charge landed the 30-year-old behind bars in January 2021. He has spent the last 18 months getting hands on construction experience through the Homes for Iowa program.
“I love it. It’s something brand new. It’s something I plan to pursue when I get out,” he said.
Cameron is learning to install HVAC systems. From laying the duct work under the house to putting in supply runs and returns.
“I didn’t think before I came down here I would be able to do that kind of work. But so far, it’s been standing, and I’ve been able to push myself each day and at the end of the day you can really see that the hard work pays off,” said Cameron.
He’s one of about 50 prerelease workers collecting a paycheck from Iowa Prison Industries through the Homes for Iowa program.
“It’s a win-win for the state of Iowa. We’re able to build affordable, high-quality housing for some areas of the state that might not otherwise be able to have access. And it’s also teaching employable skills to our individuals that are in the program,” said Newton Correctional Facility Deputy Warden Sean Crawford.
Since the program broke ground in 2019, dozens of homes have been delivered to just about every corner of the state. This year, the men are on track to complete more than 30 homes as they work to complete their prison sentences.
“Everything we do is to prepare them for success when they return to their communities,” said Crawford.
Cameron is already one step closer to landing a job after prison.
“Hopefully, I can get into the union. If not a union, I’d like to become a journeyman. I’m working on the apprenticeship right now,” he explained.
A study this year by the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning analyzed the recidivism data of participants in the Iowa Department of Correction’s statewide apprenticeship programs. The study showed inmates who completed apprenticeship programs had a recidivism rate of 16.3%, compared to the system-wide rate of 37%.
“Yes, we’re building homes and we love putting them all around Iowa to help families, but the biggest part too is to help train these guys so that they have some skills, and they can put some tools in their bag,” said Squires.
The homes take about six months to build. Homes for Iowa is working with Habitat for Humanity groups across the state on this affording housing project.