Story and video By Jeff Baur
OPEC TV Specialist
For inmates in the vocational Electronics program at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, they are holding the future in their hands. Students spend their days making fiber-optic cables and learning about copper cabling systems to fill the need for technicians once they are released from prison.
“Fiber optics is the wave of the future,” said one inmate. “The copper-based systems will get you a job…fiber optics will keep you employed.”
On one day, the inmate, a self-described “techno geek,” carefully handles the delicate wires as he assembles test wire after test wire, crafting the technological highway the world is rapidly embracing as the telecommunication standard.
“It amazes me,” he said. “One of these fibers, a fiber that’s a little bit wider than a human hair, can carry every telephone call that’s going on in the U.S. right now. A single fiber … They have not reached the limits of what this little piece of fiber can carry yet.”
The success of this program and other CDCR rehabilitation programs gives inmates skills to gets jobs once they are released, providing double benefits to the state in the form of a lower recidivism rate and inmates who contribute to society through taxes and services.
Instructor Wade Bouton heads the program that provides the inmates a foundation of entry level skills that they can use in a variety of telecommunication careers, which range from customer service to electronics technician. Jobs in this field can range from $15-$40/ hour.
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Instructor Bouton estimated it will take 10-15 years before California has a statewide fiber optic network.
“Guys that will be getting out in that 10-15 years have a really good opportunity to become employed in fiber optics,” he said.
There is also a need for qualified technicians to maintain the current copper cabling system throughout the state.
While the technical knowledge learned in the program builds up the inmates professionally, it also has an unintended benefit of building them up personally.
“Just the challenge itself and knowing that I’m able to face a challenge head on, instead of being discouraged and letting it rule… I can overcome that and I can ultimately accomplish my goals,” another inmate said.
The inmate, a nearly two-year veteran of the program, had no previous electronics experience but discovered new qualities about himself during the process.
“This program helped me to realize that change is possible. You know … if you put your mind to it, you can overcome, you can endure, you could progress. It helps me to be a better person.”
Inmates can earn certifications that recognize their proficiency at the multiple stages of the coursework. Students can carry those certifications beyond the prison walls and use them with potential employers.
Instructor Bouton said that he has former students that work for AT&T and Time Warner cable, in addition to another student that installs satellite dishes for an independent company.
“What this is all about is changing their life. Giving them the ability when they do parole, to stay out of prison,” Instructor Bouton said.