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Inmates Turned Electricians

May 1, 2007
A manslaughter conviction put 24-year-old Patricia Nedella behind bars six years ago. When she walks out of the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) this May, however, she'll leave with more than her personal possessions and a prison record. The former bank employee earned her electrical apprenticeship card while incarcerated, and with her two years of on-the-job experience, she'll be able to earn

A manslaughter conviction put 24-year-old Patricia Nedella behind bars six years ago. When she walks out of the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) this May, however, she'll leave with more than her personal possessions and a prison record. The former bank employee earned her electrical apprenticeship card while incarcerated, and with her two years of on-the-job experience, she'll be able to earn a competitive wage in Arizona's booming construction market. “It's a blessing,” she says. “I couldn't imagine leaving without the knowledge that I have now. This is an amazing program because it gives women self-esteem and helps them to get out into a male-dominated field that they would never step into.”Correctional institutions nationwide are partnering with community colleges and vo-tech training centers to arm inmates like Nedella with vocational and life skills so that, upon release, they can work in the building trades and become more productive members of society.

Technical training

To be eligible for the construction technology program at ASPC-Perryville, the female inmates must have their GED or high school diploma, have been incarcerated for a year or more, and have permission to work outside the prison gates on off-site construction projects. Given the opportunity to study trades such as carpentry, electrical, or plumbing, a maximum of 25 inmates can enroll in the construction technology program at one time. Five of the 20 inmates currently enrolled in the program are studying to be electrical apprentices.

During her two years as a student in the prison's vocational training program, Nedella studied on her own for electrical exams in her jail cell. She also prepared for her contractor's license, attended training sessions in the classroom, earned credits toward an associate's degree in computer technology, and worked 10-hour days on off-site construction projects. She says she feels fortunate to be one of 2,600 inmates given an opportunity to turn her life around.

“You don't have time to think about what you're doing, and you focus on the positive things,” says Nedella during an April phone interview 35 days before her release from prison. “At the end of the day, I have something to give myself credit for, and feel like I'm worth something.”

The Perryville prison in Goodyear, Ariz., offers the same standardized curriculum taught in classrooms nationwide to ensure inmates have up-to-date skills in the electrical field. Students who complete the electrical training modules in prison can earn a journeyman electrician license by continuing the program through the Arizona Builders Alliance or use their skills to find a job in the residential construction industry.

The electrical apprenticeship program within a prison is similar to those offered in the outside world with a few exceptions, says Ernie Adkins, a journeyman electrician and an electrical vocational instructor at ASPC-Perryville. First of all, he's not allowed to teach the inmates about security and access control. Secondly, the prison has a severe restriction on the types of tools that are used by the inmates on the job site.

“We are limited in some areas because of the environment we exist in,” says Adkins.

Inside prison walls

Prison inmates are not only learning the electrical trade by hitting the books and taking exams. They're also honing their skills through hands-on work within the correctional institutions themselves. For example, Nedella earned 35 cents an hour working on the maintenance crew at her prison at nights and on the weekends, which allowed her to gain even more hands-on experience during her incarceration.

By offering vocational programs within prisons, correctional institutions prepare inmates for the outside world as well as save money by using inmates to provide services that would otherwise be awarded to outside firms. For example, at the high-security, male-only Lompoc Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, Fla., students in the prison's building trade program renovated several of the buildings on the 900-acre farm and in the minimum-security section of the facility.

“You'll find that in federal prisons, inmates do a significant amount of the work for maintenance,” says Erwin Meinberg, public information officer for the U.S. Penitentiary, Lompoc, which had a long-running electrical training program up until one year ago, when the instructor retired and wasn't replaced. “If someone comes into our system with journeyman-level skills, we put them to work on many different things while they're under supervision. We would have to hire hundreds more of staff if we didn't use our inmates for labor. It also keeps them busy and out of trouble.”

A prison in Berlin, N.H., also depends on inmate labor to keep the correctional facility up and running. It pays inmate Russell Morris $3.50 a day to work on the maintenance crew as an apprentice electrician. Morris, who is serving a 10- to 15-year sentence for burglary, completed 576 hours of related technical training and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training at the prison.

“I've learned a trade that I can take with me for the rest of my life upon release,” says Morris, who lives in an 8-foot by 10-foot jail cell with bunk beds bolted to the wall, a television, a tape deck, a desk and chair, and a window that opens and closes. “I've definitely been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never thought I would leave here with the opportunity to be a licensed electrician.”

The 41-year-old former auto body mechanic is the first inmate in the state of New Hampshire to earn his apprenticeship card. His medium-security level prison doesn't offer a vocational training program, but the Department of Labor and the state of New Hampshire sponsored his apprenticeship training. Through his hard work, he ended up earning an “A” average in his coursework.

After working five years to earn his apprenticeship, Morris is still working as an electrician at the prison replacing lamps, ballasts, switches, and circuit breakers and maintaining motors. He has 57 months left to serve in prison, but he will be up for a sentence reduction soon. When he gets out of prison, he plans to work toward his master's electrician's license, stay out of trouble, and go as far as he can in the electrical field. As a convicted felon, he expects to face road blocks, but says he won't let them get him down.

“I'll be on parole when I get out, and I know there's going to be trust issues with employers and meeting new people,” says Morris, who sent letters and a resume to 60 contractors in New Hampshire to make contacts outside of the prison. “I'm just going to take everything that comes at me. I was given an opportunity like no one will ever see, and I'm going to take full advantage of it.”

Preparing inmates for the outside world

While inmates like Morris earn their on-the-job training hours for their apprenticeship by working on the prison's maintenance crew, minimum-security inmates can get hands-on experience outside the prison walls.

Nedella and the other electrical apprentices housed in the minimum-security section of ASPC-Perryville built 10 houses for Habitat for Humanity and wired a portion of the all-male Lewis prison. In late April, she and 19 other inmates worked four days a week on a renovation project at Rio Salado College. On Monday through Thursday, the students boarded a bus at 6 a.m. for a 30-mile trip to the Tempe, Ariz., community college and worked until about 3 p.m. to transform a large open space into an administrative area by building new offices, changing lighting, and rewiring the rooms.

When the Arizona State Prison at Perryville first started its construction training program, the instructors were not allowed to take the students out into the community, says Jo Jorgenson, associate dean of Rio Salado College, which partnered with the Arizona Department of Corrections in 1983 to offer work-based programs. In the recent years, with a new administration, the Department of Corrections has recognized the need to provide the opportunity for inmates to learn skills in an environment that is as akin to a real-world work environment as possible, she says.

“It's one thing to learn about electricity by reading a book; it's quite another to run wire,” says Jorgenson, who has devoted her life to working with incarcerated men and women. “They have to have that opportunity to be employable when they are released.”

To help inmates find jobs once they've served their prison terms and are released, the college often hires vocational instructors with years of industry experience and real-world contacts, she says. Rio Salado hired Adkins, who has more than 20 years of experience, four years ago to lead the vocational training classes at the all-female prison. Adkins regularly calls employers in his spare time to find jobs for his students when they are released from prison. According to Adkins, he has found that electrical contractors rarely have a problem hiring an apprentice electrician with a prison record.

“I've found that it's not much of an issue,” he says. “In only two or three instances, I've had someone that was adamant about not hiring someone with a conviction. Most of the time, they are more than willing to give someone a chance and are rather excited they had the opportunity to help someone. They don't seem to treat them any differently than another person with a journeyman card.”

Fischbach is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kan.

Sidebar: Pennsylvania Prisons Train Inmates
for Electrical Trade

About 12 to 14 inmates receive electrical instruction each day at the all-male, medium-security prisons in the cities of Forest and Mercer, Pa. The prisons awarded 38 electricity level certificates in 2006, and students completed 332 modules in the school year, says Richard Lepley, acting division chief for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The 72.5-hour core curriculum includes the following modules: basic safety, introduction to construction math, introduction to hand tools, introduction to blueprints, basic reading, basic communication skills, and basic employability skills. When students move on to the electrical program, they can pursue three different levels. It takes 180 hours to complete Level 1, which includes electrical safety, bending, fasteners and anchors, electrical theory 1, electrical theory 2, and introduction to the National Electrical Code. The second level covers raceways, boxes, fittings, conductors, introduction to electrical blueprints, wiring, commercial, and industrial. The final level focuses on residential wiring.

When inmates successfully complete the modules, their names are placed into a national registry by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, and they can use the credits upon release or build upon what they started while they're inside prison, Lepley says.

“Through the program, the students can become apprentice electricians,” he says. “We're trying to target inmates who are within three years of being released.”

Sidebar: Fast Facts on Arizona Work-Based Programs

  • Seven community colleges in Arizona offer work-based education programs, such as construction technology, to inmates in 10 different correctional facilities.
  • The state's construction training program costs $1.1 million a year. About $108,000 comes from the general fund, and the remainder comes from profits generated by various inmate industries and funds in the inmate commissary.
  • To educate a prisoner for a year, it costs about $2,100, which is equivalent to the cost of confining a prisoner for 38 days.

Source: Arizona Department of Corrections

Sidebar: Breaking the Cycle

Work-based programs within prisons not only train men and women for an electrical career when they are released from prison, but they also help to reduce the cycle of recidivism, or re-entry into jail. American state and federal prisons released more than 650,000 prisoners in 2006, and more than two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years of release, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Florida Department of Corrections found that inmates who earn a vocational certificate are 14.6% less likely to return to prison than those who don't complete a vocational program.

“There is empirical evidence to show that inmates who are educated during incarceration are less likely to return to prison following their release,” says Jo Jorgenson, associate dean at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz.

About the Author

Amy Florence Fischbach

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