RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Austin Ehnes came armed with crisply printed resumes for a job fair in Rapid City.
The 31-year-old man from Deadwood handed one to Dan Holsworth, who asked about Ehnes' experience with specific equipment and skills.
Holsworth — owner of G.J. Holsworth & Son, a Rapid City landscaping company — scribbled down notes as Ehnes enthusiastically explained that he's about to install a sprinkler system.
I'm "down here looking for a job, trying to get set up for when I get out so I'm prepared and get on my feet" when released from prison, Ehnes said.
Ehnes was one of dozens of prisoners — and Holsworth was one of 13 company representatives — who attended the first job fair held at the minimum-security prison in Rapid City, where most inmates leave during the day for community service or work release.
"The way the economy is there's so many businesses that are desperate for employees" while studies show "the best thing for (prisoners) to be successful in their future is to get them a job," Monica Wepking, a workforce development instructor in the Department of Corrections, said of why the DOC began hosting job fairs.
The DOC held its first job fair at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield in April 2018 and has held them at the women's prison in Pierre, Wepking said. Anyone who is about to be released from prison or transferred to work release — when inmates work in the community and are paid typical wages during the day and stay in prison at night — is able to attend.
"There is a lot of talent here. They've just made a bad decision with alcohol or drugs," said Holsworth, who's been hiring people on work release for the past 10 years.
Hiring current or former prisoners is personal for Holsworth, who spent time in prison for drug use about 30 years ago.
"I had problems, I made some bad decisions and I got good chances for a second chance," the 62-year-old said.
Becoming a successful businessman made him see "there's more to life than alcohol or drugs" and want to help others realize this too, said Holsworth, who received a pardon from former Gov. Bill Janklow.
Holsworth said he was happy to attend the job fair because it means being able to see many applicants at once rather than waiting for people to show up one by one. He said he treats all workers the same by giving them chances if they make mistakes.
"All my employees get a three-strike rule," he said.
"There's a big need out there for skilled workers" and many prisoners are prepared to fill that need since the DOC offers vocational programs, apprenticeships and real-life work experience, Wepking said.
Ehnes said he used to work in landscaping and at an oil field and graduated from an automotive vocational school while incarcerated in Springfield.
I'm a "hard worker, reliable" and show up on time, he said.
Ehnes said employees shouldn't be afraid of hiring former inmates or those on work release because they have a motivation to work.
"If they're on parole, they got to show up to work everyday or they'll get in trouble," he said.
Raymond Bell, who is about to transfer to work release, agreed, saying current and former inmates have an "incentive" to keep a job.
"I wasn't always a criminal. I fell into the drug scene after my divorce," said Bell, a 38-year-old from Sioux Falls. "Just give me a chance, that's all I say. I won't let them down. I keep my jobs, I hold on to them as long as I can, I'm hard working, I learn very quickly."
Bell said he's hoping to enter into a plumbing or electrical apprenticeship program and settle in the Rapid City area.
Michelle Bermudez was on the scene to accept applications for Muth Electric's apprenticeship program after attending the previous DOC job fairs. She said three former prisoners have joined the four-year apprenticeship program, where workers pay $75 a year for classroom and field-based instruction and earn a starting wage of $15 or $16 an hour in the Rapid City area. The average electrician eventually earns more than $74,000 a year, according to a pamphlet.
Former inmates show they are "grateful that somebody in the community is giving them an opportunity, a second chance," Bermudez said.