A DTE-Department of Corrections partnership is training 24 ex-cons to be tree trimmers

Think of it as a ropes course in rehabilitation.

The first class of ex-convicts-turned tree trimmers has started class at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. Twenty-four former inmates are working to be ready to take to the skies - at least as far as their fellow trees allow them.

"We've gone to bed praying for them to do better and here they are doing better," said Jeff Gunnells, a former inmate.

Organized by the Michigan Department of Corrections and DTE Electric, the program seeks to train returning citizens for careers in tree trimming. But not only that, it's also filling available, in-demand positions.

"It's amazing, like I said, it's really a big company and it's a big thing for them to be doing this for us," said Ted O'Hearn, another former inmate. 

Class started for the group on June 10. They're expected to finish in about six to nine months. Classes include lessons on how to safely climb trees and using the equipment for trimming. However the teachings aren't limited to basic protocol. 

"We learn about soil science, we learn about tree anatomy and physiology and we learn about how it's not just the cutting up of branches," Gunnells said. "We're learning a lot."

There's a larger story being told however. Former inmates have an unemployment rate of 60 percent. If they don't find stable employment after getting out, there's a 33 percent chance they end up back in prison - that's called the recidivism rate. Flip the Script, a subset of Goodwill has seen similar trends for workers it employes after they get out of jail.

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When former inmates become taxpaying citizens, not only are they contributing back to society, but they also don't cost the state extra by remaining in prison. Those are the anecdotes that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has touted in her support for programs like the tree trimming class.

"When that goes down (recividism rate), we spend less on incarceration," she said. "People living good lives in the state and taking care of families."

DTE's tree trimming workforce is about 1,300 strong. Their job is to keep trees away from power lines, however they have a shortage of qualified trimmers - which is why the company's first class comes at a perfect time.

"When I knew nothing about this, I was absolutely on the fence. I didn't know it would work. I didn't know if there would be unexpected problems," said DTE CEO Gerry Anderson. "But when you hear from your peers 'these are among the best employees,' it changes your mind."

Anderson said the company has hired 30 returning citizens in the last two years - 90 percent are still there.

"It means the world to me to actually have financial stability, to be able to not have to worry about employment, to be able to contribute, not only to myself but my family and community as well," said Ansley Harris, another former inmate.