“A large percentage of people struggled to get a job prior to their incarceration. And if they had a job, many didn’t make enough to live on,” says UCF criminal justice graduate Robert Barnett ’09 ‘11MS, who recently won the 2019 National #Catalyst4Change Award. “Oftentimes, these are not inherently bad people. I think many do what they do because they are just trying to survive.”

Barnett, who is a community corrections officer in the Orange County Corrections Department, was honored for overseeing the county’s Inmate Construction Program, an innovative and successful re-entry program that teaches employable skills in construction and provides a long-term career path for people who are released from incarceration. The award was created by cFive, a community-supervision software company as a way to recognize dynamic individuals in community supervision.

During the program, students gain construction experience working on a wide range of large-and small-scale construction projects, from house framing to bookshelves. In addition to providing resources to the jail, each class selects a service project as a form of reparation for the community. The project helps students recognize the value of supporting their community. This past December, Barnett says students built bunk beds for children in support of The Mustard Seed of Central Florida, which helps families who suffered disaster or personal tragedy, by providing furniture and clothing.

“Many of our students are familiar with this experience and making this connection has a big impact on their understanding of need and how they can help.”

Working with Valencia College, Barnett and his team at the corrections department created a six-week construction curriculum that includes the development of valuable skills and hands-on construction experience along with several certifications that give them an advantage in the job market. The program continues work with the students after release, helping to create a resume and contact employers all the way up to securing an interview.

“We often say it doesn’t do me any good to educate you if I can’t help you get the job,” he says.

Since the launch of the Inmate Construction Program, almost 300 students have graduated with nearly 70 percent securing full-time employment.

Barnett tells students their paths could go either way. At some point within the six-week program, an entire class is dedicated to reflecting on the difficulties that their peers faced after their release. With this awareness, the new class might be better equipped to thrive in those more difficult moments. More often after the program, students do.

One student came to the program after 12½  years in prison for armed carjacking. When he got out, he was homeless and on probation for the next 18 months. But he had a car and a license, so the program connected him with a potential employer. After his interview, he got the job and made about $13 an hour while he lived in his car. Sixteen months later, he was making $18 an hour.

“He emailed us recently to say he went back to school at UCF,” Barnett says.  “He wrote that he spent his whole life in prison but now he has his own house, a fiancée, a kid and a job — all because of this program. He said we changed his life.”

Another student from the Dominican Republic, who was about to be released, was flagged by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and detained for three months, Barnett says. He moved here when he was a child, didn’t know anyone in the Dominican Republic, and his wife and 1-year-old child were U.S. citizens living here in America. They wrote a letter from the department and so did Valencia College, which he presented to a judge who ruled that he could stay. He got a construction job making $15 an hour, a raise two months later and now he’s living with his family and working in North Dakota with a good salary and benefits.

Barnett says the criminal justice master’s degree program allowed him to be creative, which gave him the tools to think of innovative ways to reduce recidivism.

In a graduate course with Ross Wolf, professor of criminal justice, Barnett remembers discussions on topics not everyone in class agreed on.

“But you could discuss it, if you could defend it,” he says. “It inspired me to explore creative ways to approach complex issues in criminal justice.”