Detroit Teaching Inmates How to Remove Asbestos Safely

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

The City of Detroit is using a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to prepare inmates for jobs in removing asbestos from schools, public housing, abandoned properties, and other city-owned properties. With the unemployment rate at 76% among newly released prisoners in Wayne County and asbestos abatement at a historic high in Michigan, the skills being taught should help most secure jobs upon reentry into society.

“These jobs are keeping our kids healthy,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. No amount of asbestos exposure is safe. It can cause lung disease and mesothelioma cancer.

Since Duggan took office in 2014, over 10,000 properties have been abated for asbestos and demolished—the biggest removal initiative in the U.S. The inmates’ classes teach them how to safely remove this asbestos.

According to inmate Mathew Hernandez at the Detroit Reentry Center, “I want to be a legitimate citizen. I want to…actually be an asset to the community, instead of a leech.” He hopes the classes will help him get a job when he’s released.

The training began in October 2016. Instructor Marty Thomson teaches the class at Detroit Reentry Center. At the conclusion of the class, inmates can apply for asbestos abatement accreditation from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In 2016, numerous contractors did not have licenses or accreditations. Some hired non-English speakers, immigrants, ex-cons, and homeless people to abate the asbestos without any protection against the harmful mineral.

“The pay is very good. This is the first step in your successful re-entry,” said supervisor of the program Sam Marvin.

Inmate Robert Ballenger said he believes he will have “all the tools tied to asbestos abatement. It’s a chance to re-acclimate myself into society.”

“We have a lot of work out there,” said Thomson. He assures inmates taking his class will get jobs.

Hernandez knows finding a job as an ex-inmate can be troublesome, but he thinks demolition contractors are “looking for people who want to work; who are willing to work. I’m one of those guys.”

“If the comeback of Detroit is going to be successful, we need everybody’s talents and this is a way to make sure we use the talents of people who have paid their debt,” said Duggan.