For David Schaenzer, the invitation to a new career was literally slipped through the bars of his cell. When he read the brochure about M-Powered, a fast-track program in manufacturing, his first thought was simply that it would help pass the time during his two-year sentence. The program was taught by faculty from Hennepin Technical College, to students screened and selected by HIRED, a nonprofit that helps dislocated and underemployed workers.
Although the prison setting limited the types of equipment the students could use, Schaenzer recalled, “It was a pretty good class. I learned good stuff about this field that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I got out thinking ‘I’ve got an education in welding, I’ve got an education in punch press. Those are two fundamental building blocks of our country.’ It gave me some drive knowing that I had something going for me.”
Still, he knew he faced an uphill climb. “I was quite aware that making something of yourself once you’ve gone to prison is even harder. The economy collapsed while I was there,” he said.
Schaenzer’s first job after release came through the Re-Entry Services program offered by Goodwill/Easter Seals. “It was something to do — make some money, put something on the résumé,” he said.
A few months after release, he started the second phase of the M-Powered program at Hennepin Technical College. He went to a meeting of the Precision Manufacturing Association at the college and met the vice-president of a local manufacturing company, who offered him a tour. “I loved the place,” he said, but with the recession still underway, there were no jobs available.
He worked as a temp for almost a year before the company finally called, interviewed him, and offered him a job. He’s now halfway through an apprenticeship that will lead to journey worker status as a journeyman machine operator. His employer also wants him to get recertified in welding. “The opportunities just keep rolling in,” he said.
Schaenzer has now been on the job for three years, and his employer says, “He’s got a bright future here. We’re excited to see him grow and participate. There are good things in store if he continues to make the great decisions that he’s been making.”
How hard is it to restart your life after prison?
It’s definitely a decision you have to make. The resources are available in prison and out of prison — more than I would have given credit for. You have to use the resources, and the more you use them the more become available.
What was the prison experience like?
My first rule in prison is that I wasn’t there to make friends. There’s plenty to learn, but a good sum of what you’re going to learn is how to go back to prison. I just figured it would be better not to affiliate myself. If you’re looking for trouble, it’s easy to find. If you’re not, it’s pretty easy to avoid. I got penned up with a really cool lifer who taught me a lot. He’s doing a 40-some-year prison sentence. He taught me quite a bit and made a few introductions, and that was really helpful. Respect gets you a lot, too.
How do people react when they find out you have a prison record?
Reactions haven’t been bad. I don’t typically bring it up unless I feel that it could contribute. I’m not hiding it, I just don’t flaunt it either. It’s just two years that I washed away. It was pretty much a big waste. □