By Krissi Khokhobashvili
CDCR Public Information Officer
On a recent sunny spring morning in Corona, 33 women donned hardhats and proudly accepted certificates in trades typically dominated by men. Their accomplishments are even more remarkable because they are female offenders serving time in the California Institution for Women.
Chuck Pattillo, General Manager of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), thanked the women for their dedication and wished them success as they move forward.
“This is one of the most in-demand jobs for females in the United States,” Pattillo said. “There’s nobody in this room who doesn’t want you to succeed. We all want you to succeed. You have done the hard work, and we want you to be good citizens.”
Danielle Webster earned her Pre-Apprentice Construction Laborer certificate, and said she’s excited to join the construction industry when she paroles this year.
“It was invigorating,” she said of the program. “It made me feel like I can not only work in construction, but I can be a part of society. I can actually live the right way.”
In CALPIA’s Pre-Apprentice Carpentry and Construction Laborer programs, inmates learn multiple skills, from pouring concrete and operating a jackhammer to in-depth classroom training in personal safety and precise measurements. Their hard work pays off not only in pride, but also in the knowledge that once they parole, CALPIA will pay their first year of union dues and provide them with a set of tools.
Webster, who paroles in four months, said she plans on joining the union immediately upon release and looking for work in the field, working her way up from directing traffic at construction sites to mixing cement and even bigger jobs.
She said joining the program was out of her comfort zone, but she knew it was time to make a change and start learning a trade.
“Most women think you have to be hardcore” to be in construction, she laughed. “But I’m as girly as girly can be!”
CALPIA is known for its innovative programming, operating vocational and Career Technical Educations programs in prisons throughout the state. Programs include the Marine Technology Training Center commercial diving program at California Institution for Men, Autodesk Computer-Aided Design at Folsom Women’s Facility, and a partnership with The Last Mile for a computer-coding course at San Quentin State Prison. CALPIA operates more than 100 manufacturing, service and consumable operations in CDCR institutions, providing offenders with meaningful jobs and the opportunity to earn wages in prison, while also teaching skills that will help them find good jobs once they go home.
CIW Warden Kimberly Hughes recognized the women for their dedication, and also their family members, several of whom were able to attend the graduation. She thanked CALPIA for providing vocational programs not only at CIW, but throughout California.
“Thank you for coming here and giving of yourselves and training these women to be self-sufficient,” she said. “Because they are great, and they have great potential in them. I always tell them, everything that is great was birthed out of a woman!”
Representatives from the Southern California Carpenters and Laborers Unions attended the graduation to show their support and speak with the offenders about their futures.
Robert Yanez, field superintendent for Southern California Laborers Training School, said what the women learn in CALPIA’s program prepares them well for the apprenticeship program on the outside. Beginners in the field start off making around $17 an hour, he said, but that can quickly increase to $30 or more. Also, he has seen numerous former offenders find success in the trades.
“We have a graduation ceremony every year at our school, and we have countless people come up and tell their story,” Yanez said. “People who came from prison having no job are now making $150,000 to $200,000 a year.”
Keren Blake graduated alongside her daughter, Teresa Gollihugh. She said while their past bad choices landed them in prison, it is the good decisions, such as applying to train with CALPIA, that will help them stay out once they go home.
“This is going to help us change our lives out there,” Blake said. “That’s why this program was really important to both of us – so when we do go out there we can do something different.”
The work isn’t easy. Daniel Sierra, in-prison instructor for Southern California Laborers Training School, described the graduates as a hardworking group of smart women “who can move dirt like I’ve never seen anybody move dirt.” He said they have been working on beautification projects throughout the prison, including pouring concrete for the chapel and improving drainage near the culinary area.
In addition to the classroom work and hands-on projects, Sierra and Yanez share the philosophy that learning a trade is also an effective way to start to change your outlook.
“We want them to have life skills,” Sierra said. “We want to give them those life skills so they can not only build walls, but tear the walls down of their mindsets so they don’t re-offend.”
That was also the message shared by Terri McDonald, former Assistant Sheriff-Custody Operations for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who also had a long career with CDCR. She advised the women to keep moving forward, and in doing so to transcend the negativity of their pasts.
“Here is my challenge to you: You’ve got to let that life and that drama go,” she said. “You’ve got to let the people who bring that drama to your doorstep go. You’ve got to realize that it’s OK to have a little bit of peace and serenity in your life.”
McDonald pointed out that graduation was held during National Re-Entry Week, which highlights the work being done to prepare offenders for success after incarceration. By leaving prison with the right tools – both literal and figurative – to find good jobs and succeed, these women are already heading in the right direction.
“I believe there is nothing more dangerous in America than hopelessness,” McDonald said. “It is events and opportunities like these that begin to restore hope and begin to restore self-esteem.”