By Dana Simas

OPEC Public Information Officer

With new home construction beginning to rebound in California, the sound of hammers pounding wooden studs into submission and the smell of fresh sawdust in the air are becoming common again in many California communities.

However, this jobsite is located on the grounds of California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville and the inmates are the craftsmen. The prisoners are learning carpentry, a career technical education program offered at the prison, with the hope that the trade skills they’re developing will be their lifeline to stay out of prison after their release.

(View the video created by CDCR staff videographer Jeff Baur. You may not be able to view it on a CDCR computer.)

The program’s instructor, Dan Smith, has been teaching carpentry to inmates for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the last five years.

“We go through all phases, we start at the foundation, work up to floor framing all the way up to the roof,” Smith said. “It’s a ground-up training program.”

Hands-on training

Men that otherwise may never speak to each other, work side by side to build both houses and life-changing communication skills.

“It’s about getting the hands on, working with other people and having good communication with each other,” inmate Frank Altamirano said.

Over the course of the approximately eight-month program, inmates learn basic carpentry including hours of math and hands-on experience. The curriculum is approved by The National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which issues nationally recognized certificates to inmates who successfully complete the program.

In order to receive the certificates, the inmates must past tests on 30 book chapters and successfully complete their building projects. The book work isn’t light reading. It’s full of mathematics and theory.

“Basically the most important thing about any trade is knowing your math,” inmate John Smith said.

There is a constant rotation of inmates in and out of the program since inmates can enroll at any time there’s a spot open. The prisoners learn to work in groups of three or four to build single- and two-story homes. It takes approximately three months to build the homes and then another couple of weeks to take them down.

All of the materials are recycled and anything that can be used over again for the next project is saved. Once the home-building portion has been completed, the inmates learn how to install wall board and roof shingles.

“This gives you a sense of hope”

“This gives you a sense of hope, gives you a confidence booster,” inmate Carlos Burton said.

To help inmates with their transition back into society, the program targets inmates with 48 months or less remaining in their sentence. After their release, many who have successfully completed the program and obtained their NCCER certificates have earned jobs that pay from $14 to $17 per hour and often include health benefits.

Their successes not only benefit the inmates, but also their families and state taxpayers, who foot the bill for state incarceration.

“(The inmates) have had a pattern of existing, of surviving, on the streets that’s led them to a negative place,” Smith said. “This is a turn inside that will change their direction in a positive way.”

Many of the graduates who have been released back into society have called or written letters back to Smith thanking him for giving them an opportunity to rehabilitate and stay out of the correctional system.

“I’d like to establish something in my own community by building houses, playgrounds, anything I could possibly do to help build back,” Altamirano said.

The signs of hope are clearly evident on many of the inmates’ faces.

To watch video of the carpentry program in action, CLICK HERE

CDCR has carpentry programs at:

• Calipatria State Prison (CAL), Calpatria, near El Centro, about 110 miles east of San Diego

• California Correctional Institution (CCI), Tehachapi, about 35 miles outside of Bakersfield

• Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), Chowchilla, about 130 miles south of Sacramento on Hwy 99

• California Institution for Men (CIM), has two programs, Chino, in Los Angeles area

• California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), Norco, LA is 50 miles away to the west, Riverside is less than 20 miles to the east

• Correctional Training Facility (CTF), Soledad, 60 miles south of Santa Cruz

• Folsom State Prison (FSP), Folsom

• Ironwood State Prison (ISP), Blythe

• Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), Coalinga, about 100 miles from Bakersfield

• Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD), San Diego area

• Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF), Corcoran, 70 miles from Bakersfield

• Sierra Conservation Center (SCC), Jamestown. Sacramento is about 100 miles to the northwest

• California State Prsion, Solano (SOL), near Fairfield