Video and Article by Jeff Baur, OPEC
“I know it’s going to work for me when I get out,” one inmate said confidently, standing in the middle of a busy Vocational Electrician classroom inside the walls of Folsom State Prison (FSP). He is one of 27 prisoners in the class learning valuable skills and earning certifications, putting each one of them in prime position to capitalize on well-paying construction jobs once they are released.
The two-year program follows industry standard curriculum and allows inmates to pursue a future career path as a journeyman electrician.
The success of this program and other CDCR rehabilitation programs gives inmates skills to get jobs once they are released, providing double benefits to the state in the form of a lower recidivism rate and inmates who contribute to society through taxes and services.
The class operates at a frenetic pace. One group of inmates drill into the wall installing metal conduit as another group replaces the classroom’s light fixtures. A separate group of prisoners practice wiring circuit breakers on trainer control panels.
All of this action is happening in the shadow of a mock house, spanning floor to ceiling. In the middle of the room, another group of men run wire for a ceiling fan and outlets inside the house.
It’s the kind of educational environment, engaging and rich in hands-on experience, that instructor Spencer Wong envisioned when he started the program from scratch in May of 2013.
The students regularly make improvements to their classroom, in addition to taking on electrical projects in other parts of the institution.
“We’re going to take on all we can,” Instructor Wong said. “It’s going to expand. There’s no limit…the main thing is to create more training for hands-on.” Since the summer of 2013, inmates have installed exit signs, emergency lights, fans and new lights to make their work area more user-friendly. I do my best to motivate them.”
And the inmates respond. Morale is high and attitudes remain positive as they work toward goals beyond prison life. One inmate said, “Maybe with a couple thousand dollars, you could start a business if your work is good enough.”
A couple of inmates operate as mentors to the newer students, making themselves available for questions or offering guidance on practice projects.
An inmate distributes tools from the tool room as well as bouncing between two guys wiring trainer control panels. He too, sees a new future using his well-honed electrician training.
“This is a marketable skill,” he said. “This is a good trade to learn until whatever time that is I might become released back into society.”
One inmate said he looks forward to a day very soon when he’ll be able to use his electrician skills to work on his mother’s house or wire a music studio to pursue his love of music.
“The more training you get right here, the better you’ll be in the future when I get out there,” he said.
As Wong makes his way from student to student distributing his 13-plus years of teaching experience, one thing is clear. He’s committed to re-wiring the future for these inmates.
“If they go out and don’t come back then I’ve done my mission, you know. If I can do that, I’m happy,” he said.
Here are some previous articles on some of CDCR’s rehablilitation efforts: