By Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer
Video by CDCR Television Specialist Jeff Baur
The sounds of air compressors blasting and engines revving takes you from inside prison walls into a place of learning and success in the warehouse buildings at Valley State Prison (VSP) in Chowchilla.
This is the vocational small engine repair program where for the last 14 months instructor Jim Lee has already helped dozens of inmates change their lives.
The small engine repair program is one of VSP’s newest vocational programs and already has the potential to grow even bigger. The class focuses on two- and four-stroke engines.
Inmates have the potential to earn $15 to $80 per hour immediately after their release. The potential benefit also is huge for California taxpayers, considering it costs an average of more than $62,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate.
(You may not be able to watch this video on a CDCR computer. Here is a Windows Media version.)
The current curriculum focuses on small engines such as weed eaters, generators, chainsaws, and vacuums. The community has even stepped in to donate small engines for the inmates to work on, including 40 engines donated by Stihl, a major manufacturer of outdoor power equipment.
Inmates in the course have even stepped in to help with VSP’s needs; including repairing riding lawn mowers and institutional golf carts.
Lee has been petitioning CDCR Headquarters to expand the program to include power sport engines such as motorcycles, ATVs, personal watercraft, and dirt bikes. Inmates’ hopes are high that they’ll get the opportunity to expand their education even further.
“Power sports in America is huge,” one of the leading students in the class said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry; the upcoming curriculum is going to be phenomenal.”
Inmates who are successful in the course can earn nationally-recognized certificates through the Equipment and Engine Training Council. The certificates provide more than just validation that the inmate knows the material. Inmates know – some for the first time in their lives – the feel of accomplishing something they can be proud of.
“It builds character, it builds self-confidence. I know it’s going to help me be a productive citizen out (in society),” one inmate said.
“Learning these skills is a great confidence builder,” another inmate said as well as “making yourself presentable and marketable to a prospective employer.”
The current class curriculum and certification requirements take approximately nine months to complete. Instruction includes a blend of classroom and hands-on learning for approximately 35 hours a week, Monday through Friday.
“The certificates for this course come with a badge and rocker for each (certificate) they get,” Lee said. “These guys are really proud of those things.”
When VSP advertised for a Small Engine Repair program instructor, Jim Lee, who already worked at VSP’s garage and a mechanic for 40 years, jumped at the opportunity.
He built the curriculum from scratch, including getting the course hands-on training ready. Lee used his extensive experience in the mechanical field to set up the inmates for successful learning with proper equipment.
Lee is confident that expanding the small engine repair program to include power sports will significantly increase the marketable skills the students will take with them upon their release.
“Let’s face it, they’re going out there with two strikes against them whereas, the guy who’s walking off the street and hasn’t been to prison has no strikes,” Lee said. “These guys have to be that much sharper. I’m trying to give them life skills, what they have to do when they get out of here to get that job.”
There is a waiting list for the 27-person class, and spots fill up quickly.
The inmates learn to help each other and critique each other’s work while building each other up and learning to work independently to practice self-motivation.
“There are guys who started off not knowing the difference between a screwdriver and a crescent wrench,” Lee said. “By the end, they’re fully certified.”
Here are some previous articles on some of CDCR’s rehablilitation efforts: