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 glove manufacturer American Nitrile L.L.C.
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 Rosenbaum, 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.
Dr. 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 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.