By Dana Simas
OPEC Public Information Officer
Sparks fly and the smell of fireworks is definite as you walk into the warehouse buildings at the back of Folsom State Prison (FSP).
This is the vocational welding program where for the last 22 years instructor Emmanuel “Ezy” Ezenwa has helped hundreds of inmates change their lives.
Ezenwa’s welding program is one of Folsom State Prison’s most successful vocational programs. Inmates have the potential to earn $30 to $40 per hour immediately after their release.
Video by CDCR staff videographer Jeff Baur
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Many of the graduates have called or written Ezenwa letters, thanking him for giving them an opportunity to rehabilitate and become taxpaying contributors to society. He has binder after binder packed with letters from former inmates.
“All of these letters are from former students; they just keep coming and coming,” Ezenwa said while tears of happiness and pride welled up in his eyes. “This letter shows (a former inmate) is now making $34 per hour.”
As Ezenwa interacts with inmates, it’s clear he has a gift not just for teaching, but for connecting with his students.
The program takes approximately two years to complete during which inmates learn algebra, trigonometry, and conduct hours of hands-on training. The course is taught Monday through Friday with approximately 40 hours of book and hands-on instruction.
An intensive one-year course is also available to inmates who qualify.
“Right now we’re learning trigonometry,” another inmate said. “A couple weeks ago we learned metallurgy. (Ezenwa) wants us to not only have the skills to weld but to understand what’s going on.”
To best meet each inmate’s individual learning style, Ezenwa tailors some of the course material for each student. He is always sure to make time for question and answer sessions and review.
The program’s curriculum is approved by the American Welder’s Society which issues globally-recognized certificates to inmates who successfully complete the program.
In order to receive the certificates, the inmates must demonstrate comprehensive welding knowledge from theory to practical application. The inmates work on smaller projects laid out in the curriculum but also help in welding projects that may be needed around FSP.
“You give a man a skill set like this and he’ll have a decent paycheck,” another instructor said. “He won’t want to return to where he was at.”
There is a high demand and available spots in Ezenwa’s class fill quickly.
The inmates learn to help each other and critique each other’s work while building each other up and they learn to work independently and to practice self-motivation.
“Anywhere I go I’ll be able to find work and that gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I’m going to have a better life for myself when I get out,” an inmate said.
To help inmates with their transition back into society, the program targets inmates with 48 months or less remaining in their sentence. As they are released, those who have successfully completed the program and obtained their AWS certificates have earned jobs that pay from $30 to $50 per hour and many also include health benefits.
At this time the American Welders Society is predicting that in the next few years the United States will have a large shortage of welders and will have no choice but to import welders from overseas.
All of the materials are recycled and anything that can be used over again for the next project is saved. Inventory of materials and tools is taken at least three times a day.
“I see lots of changes and good results in (the inmates),” Ezenwa said. “I see them stay out of prison, make honest money, it’s very rewarding.”