Some inmates in Ohio's prison system are about to get an education in chemistry from the University of Akron, followed by a good-paying job in Grove City, Ohio, at a company called American Nitrile.
The university has partnered with the state's program for working inmates, Ohio Penal Industries (OPI), as well as glove maker Summit Glove of Minerva and American Nitrile, near Columbus, to build a program that starts with education, moves on to real workplace production experience, and ends with employment.
The idea came out of the pandemic, when institutions such as prisons, hospitals and other agencies were facing a shortage of masks, gloves and other protective gear.
At the same time, the prison system had inmates who were eager for job training that would enable them to restart their lives. But they needed training and help to become qualified, said Summit Glove President Jim Hull, who got involved in the new effort early on while talking to state corrections officials.
"They said, 'When the incarcerated are done here, there's not a lot of jobs to make license plates. ... We want something that's going to be difficult to do and will create value after they've served their time,' " Hull said.
To be fair, OPI's inmate programs make a lot of things, from license plates to mattresses and dentures, but the new idea Hull and OPI came up with was for them to make latex gloves, which are manufactured by dipping ceramic hand forms into liquid latex or another type of rubber, such as nitrile.
Hull agreed to help build a lab and production facility for OPI, but he didn't think it was going to be as simple as teaching inmates to flip switches and attach hand-mold forms. He knew that a lot more goes into making a quality glove and doing it consistently, including some understanding of the chemistry involved.
Hull contacted Barry Rosenberg, a retired chemist who is a senior fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation, with deep ties to the university.
Rosenberg spoke with OPI officials, learned of the plan with Hull, and took it to the University of Akron, which needed students.
What resulted was a plan for the school to provide courses to inmates, paid for by the state. But unlike other courses, these will be entirely off site and online, because rules prevent inmates from mixing with the public while they are still serving their sentences.
About 40 inmates have signed up for the program, state corrections officials report. At least one professor working with the inmates is excited about the opportunity.
Sadhan Jana, a professor at the university's polymer science and engineering schools, said he has been working with OPI Chief of Industries Ann King on developing the curriculum.
Students will start with training on how to make gloves, but they won't stop there, Jana said.
"That's where the University of Akron is bringing it," Jana said. "After a month of training to produce gloves, they won't need any more training. We're saying, 'While you do that and become proficient at making gloves, why not understand the science behind it?' Then we give you more education on math, writing and other things to get your degree. ... By the time they leave, they will probably complete enough to get an associate's degree."
That coursework will be transferable if the inmate eventually decides to pursue a bachelor's degree, Jana said.
What they learn will give them the opportunity to advance beyond the production floors, if they choose, once they are employed, said Hull, who already has found jobs for inmates once they are released.
Hull, via some intellectual property he transferred, is an investor in American Nitrile. That's the company building a massive, 530,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Grove City, Ohio. The plant has four glove-dipping production line, each more than 900-feet long. There eventually will be 12 lines, each with 32,500 ceramic hands being dipped in nitrile rubber to make gloves, said company founder Jacob Block.
Block said he's eager to hire inmates once they finish their sentences and have been trained in making gloves. He might only need a couple dozen to finish staffing his plant, where he said he's already hired 130 people.
The new plant might be big locally, but not nationally, so American Nitrile plans to build more, and it intends to hire more inmates to staff them.
"We're still less than 2 percent of the U.S. consumption in this category. Our plans are well beyond this facility," Block said. "So, it could be hundreds of hires."
Those won't be low-paying jobs, nor will they lack opportunity for advancement, according to Block.
"They're not going to come out of the program at minimum wage or anything close ... at least $60K to start," Block said.
Former inmates might even help American Nitrile design its future plants, he said. "These aren't just going to be packers ... but potentially engineers," Block said.
That's the role Hull is filling, working with OPI to build a glove factory at the Madison Correctional Institution in London, Ohio.
"If you don't think they're serious about building a glove factory, just look at what they've already done," Hull said.
The factory at Madison Correction already has compounding equipment and its laboratory in place, Hull said.
"The goal is to start producing in the first quarter of next year," he said. "You don't just go get a book for dummies on making gloves though; you've got to have technical savvy. We believe this group, because they're so committed, they'll be making very good gloves under our direction."
To that end, Block said he's already sending people to Madison Correctional to work with inmates. American Nitrile saved some of the first gloves it made, when there were still flaws, so it can use them for quality-control training with inmates, Block said.
As for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the program offers numerous benefits, said director Annette Chambers Smith.
Not only does OPI, which falls under her department, want to produce revenue, but the prison system also wants to help inmates succeed so they don't come back to prison. On top of that, it doesn't want to go through what it went through during the pandemic, when it and other state agencies ran out of masks and gloves again.
So, once inmates are making gloves the state will buy them and use them in its hospitals, prisons and other facilities that need them, Smith said.
"We can gain control of our supply chain and at the same time teach incarcerated people skills they can use when they leave," she said. "It's a positive program that we want to keep expanding."
OPI's King said a few dozen inmates have started taking University of Akron coursework, with more coming. She's optimistic the program will be another way the state can fight recidivism and provide better futures for those who have committed crimes but done their time.
"We release 18,000 people a year, and we hope we release them with skills employers need," King said.