By Dana Simas
Dust in the air, hundreds of bags of concrete and mortar stacked from floor to ceiling and the sound of metal hammering concrete blocks into place fill the vocational building at California State Prison, Solano (SOL).
A group of men in blue work together to build a solid wall, offering help and guidance to each other to make sure it’s all done right. The men are inmates and they’re learning a trade many hope will be their lifeline to stay out of prison after their release.
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The program is vocational masonry taught by Jack Patton, a two-year veteran at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The program is one of the institution’s most promising vocational programs where inmates have the potential to earn $30 to $40 per hour immediately after their release.
For every inmate who is released and gets a job, the savings to the state taxpayers is huge. The benefit of helping a person become a productive member of society is incalculable.
“I enjoy just coming out here and learning something new,” an inmate said. “Before prison I had no skills.”
The program takes approximately two years to complete during which inmates learn algebra and other trade-related math as well as hours of hands-on learning. The inmates learn how to properly build walls, read prints/layouts, and correctly mix sand, lime, and mortar.
Inmates must score 100 percent on their safety tests before using any of the tools.
For practice projects, the inmates build patios, bridges, benches, and any other structure they can make with the materials they’re given.
“This trade can take you a long way,” another inmate said. “I can take something that I love and use it to my advantage…they teach you to be a professional.”
Patton tailors some of the course material for each. The program is open-entry, meaning inmates enter the program on a continuous basis as spots open up.
Patton said despite the staggered beginnings the inmates help each other and he always makes time for question-and-answer sessions and review.
The program’s curriculum is approved by the National Center for Construction Education and Research which issues globally recognized certificates to inmates who successfully complete the program. To receive the certificates the inmates must demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of masonry from theory to practical application.
“I want to make this a future for myself,” an inmate said. “This trade has taught me to lose my pride, how to be a real man, and how to deal with people and listen to authority.”
Materials that can be salvaged are recycled and used over again for the next project and inventory of the materials and tools is taken at least three times a day.
“You can learn more by tearing it down than you do building it up,” 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.
Many of the graduates who have been released have called or written letters to Patton, thanking him for giving them an opportunity to rehabilitate and stay out of the correctional system.
“It’s kind of like a little family, if a guy gets paroled and gets a job they always call back to let us know how they’re doing,” Patton said. “I even have a guy who made foreman for a large contractor after only his second year out of prison.”
Most of the inmates plan on using the masonry program as a stepping stone for improving not only their lives after prison but also the lives of their loved ones.
“I’m in college right now earning college credits and I plan on majoring in business,” an inmate said. “I’m hoping that I can take both of these, put them together, and maybe be a contractor. That’s what I look forward to after this is over with.”