by: Capella Tucker, July 18, 2007 5:07:00 am
About a dozen inmates, in standard orange jail jumpsuits, are working on various welding projects at this Harris County facility on the east side of town.
"Hey, how you all doing."
Instructor Lynn Hickman ...
"This student right here came in on Monday's registration. He's at the first state now. He's learning how to use a torch. As you see, he as learned to light it. He has his flames coming out. The sparks you see, he's literally cutting through quarter inch metal."
When David Cole was first booked at the Harris County Jail, furthering his job skills was the last thing on his mind.
"No, I didn't come here thinking about this opportunity. I was trying to figure out get my case, everything done with so I could move on with my life."
But Cole now realizes this class is an important part of that process. Cole, along with hundreds of other inmates, ride a bus to the facility for six hours of classes. Last year, more than four-thousand inmates were given the opportunity to acquire a job skill.
"It's a privilege, not a right."
George Brown directs the Harris County Inmate Education Program. The goal is to reduce recidivism rates.
"We're able to give them the skills that they need to secure some type of entry level employment once they leave. Of course we have no, we can't control the decisions they make once they leave, but the skills at least are in place to enable them to earn an honest living."
The inmates are screened, with the highest consideration being safety. Many of the classes have potentially dangerous tools ... including a culinary class.
"There are knives in there that are very large that could do a lot of damage. So inmates have to be prescreened for the sake of everyone."
Including the instructor in that class, Dan Maddux. He had second thoughts about teaching a class full of inmates.
"And to be honest with you my first two weeks I looked over my shoulder, are you nuts, cause we do work with knives. But most of these guys like anybody else you see on the street, they just messed up, did something a little wrong. Hopefully we can show them that there is a better way of life out there. Show them that they can do something."
Now Maddux wishes he could work with the students more. The average inmate is in the jail for six to eight weeks. Paint and Body Instructor Geraldo Gomez says that's still enough time to learn a skill.
"I like teaching better here because you get the guys who really want to learn. I've taught in the free-world and there it's just I'm here because my mom's paying for the school. Or I really don't want to do this. Here in jail, these guys take the extra effort to actually get out there and want to do something want to do something when they get out."
Gomez, like many of the instructors, become advocates for the inmates. Gomez is not the only instructor known to pick up the phone and line up a job for students.
"I got about 20, maybe 25, people working in industry. Three of them have opened their own shops. They also hire from me every now and then. They'll call me up. They know the situation. They've been in and what these guys are going through when they get out."
The Inmate Education Program is done in partnership with the Houston Community College System.
"Part of the college's mission statement is that we serve diverse communities and certainly the inmates are in that diverse community there."
Correction Education Director Robert Sims says they update programs according to what is happening in the job market.
"It is our philosophy that at some point in time is that they are not going to stay incarcerated forever. They are going to be back on the streets and we want them back on the streets in a productive manner more so than doing the same things to get them here."
Sims says the inmates are not in the system long enough for more traditional academic classes. In addition to the vocational skills, G-E-D classes are offered along with writing and math for the workplace.
The average inmate has about a ninth grade education. Instructor Shantae (shawn-tay) Ford ...
"Not all of our students have felonies, but we are dealing with offenders. So we're trying to teach them the skills of how do you cope in the work place if you have a felony. Some of the obstacles they may run into having that felony. Teaching them interview skills. Overcoming the question of you have a felony background or you've been out of the work place for 'x' amount of time how do you handle that."
The Texas Jail Standards does mandate education programs, but inmate Kevin Saucedo says the Harris County is not the norm.
"The type of education program that we're used to is we're usually hussled into a closet or small space, given a piece of paper and told read this and you're done."
Saucedo is in the paint and body course. His latest job was fixing a tan pick-up truck that was dented.
"And if you'd like to take a step around the truck and take a look at it you'll see, we'll show you the type of quality Mr. Gomez teaches in here."
Saucedo will earn a certificate when he completes the program. But he's also gained pride and confidence in his work.
"The quality doesn't suffer just because we are inmates, which is real important, because a big part of our problem is after we get released from here because we have felonies, it's hard for us to be reintroduced into the work place."
Saucedo has some ideas on how to deal with that issue ... and he knows that others from this program have been successful before.
"I'd like to pick-up a paint and body franchise somewhere that would allow other felons a second chance program. One of the things we've tossed around is even possibly a second chance paint and body which allows the cars a second chance while the people get a second chance in life."
Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.