By Monique Tooson, Intern
Office of Public and Employee Communications
When people think about life behind bars, they don’t generally think of hard hats and hammers. However, that’s exactly what’s happening at California State Prison, Solano (SOL), in the Inmate Ward Labor (IWL) program.
The program exists at many prisons across the state, but Lee Vang, Construction Supervisor I, is overseeing the large-scale project currently underway at SOL where dozens of inmates are working alongside union craft workers on a new medical clinic.
After graduating from California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Vang made the transition into working in construction. He had initially moved to Washington to work on a project, but then returned to Sacramento to work on the Folsom Dam project.
Later, he joined the SOL team as the lead construction supervisor, his first time working inside a prison.
“I didn’t expect so many free staff to be working inside the prison,” Vang said. “It’s almost like its own city but we’re learning to bring in our skills we learned from out there to infuse into IWL.”
Currently, Vang is managing a Health Care Facilities Improvement Program (HCFIP) project at SOL, a 13,000-square-foot medical clinic for inmates. Also working on the project are 18 trade union workers called “casuals,” seven California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) staff members and 88 inmates.
“The thing I love about construction is that it never gets boring,” Vang said when asked how he handles the various responsibilities. “Something always pops up and there’s always work to be done.”
During a typical day, Vang is responsible for a multitude of tasks such as ordering material, reviewing contracts, hiring inmates and trade union workers, communicating with architects and engineers regarding design issues, coordinating equipment deliveries from rental yards, arranging background checks for all free staff requiring access within the institution, and reviewing expenditures.
To keep things running smoothly, Vang says communication is critical.
“Near the end of the day, I gather up my casuals and free staff and we go over what we’re going to do for the next day,” he said. “That includes what we’re going to do for the clinic, the yard, and so on, so that when they get here the next day they’re not lost.”
When completed, the project will provide inmates better access to their daily medications as well as ensure more confidentiality while CDCR staff administer those medications.
Managing a construction project within a prison’s walls isn’t without its unique challenges compared to projects on the outside, Vang says.
He explained how the inmates are required to go through a thorough check-in every morning which takes up some productivity time. Also, the material-ordering process is time intensive due to state-issued rules and regulations that come into effect when working on a project inside a prison.
But when asked how he handles such difficulties, Vang said, “We have to get ahead of ourselves and anticipate the delays. You have to do that when working on the outside too, but even more so in here because of the extra lag time.”
To efficiently manage a project like this, Vang shows a lot of trust in the inmates to commit to doing an efficient job to the best of their abilities. He sees it as an opportunity to give them a chance to prove their work ethic.
“There are some really impressive inmates out here. They’ve got big personalities and they’re hard workers. We’ve been fortunate with that and it’s helped us a lot on the job,” Vang said.
However, Vang doesn’t underestimate the importance of taking as much precaution as needed to ensure inmates don’t use equipment or tools as weapons.
The tools and equipment inmates use on the job must all be checked out from a tool shed on grounds. Several checks are made throughout the day. If something goes missing, the whole project stops until it is recovered.
But even proper precaution can’t always help accidents. To avoid workplace injuries Vang takes a proactive approach to ensuring all of the workers remember safety first and are properly skilled in the tools they’re using.
“You have to make sure they’re properly taught on the equipment,” Vang said. “Every Monday morning we go over a safety topic which can be anything from housekeeping to working around heavy equipment and on top of that we have our expert free staff here that go over any topic with the inmate on handling tools that they may need to do their job.”
The finished building will better serve the general inmate population, but the project itself has a measurable impact on the inmates involved in constructing the building.
Inmate Armando Munoz, who works as a lead for the electrician unit on the project said, “It’s very encouraging not only just to give back but in a way it’s like being outside again.”
Vang explains that helping inmates gain real world experience and improve their chances of successful reentry to society upon release is fulfilling work.
“I get to work with guys who are experts in their fields on the outside and they get to show these inmates how to do the incredible things that they do,” he said. “So I learn that, the inmates learn that and at the end of the day you see stuff that materializes out of scraps transformed into beautiful buildings.”
SOL’s new medical facility is scheduled to open in the fall of next year but Vang eagerly added, “At that point they’ll transfer staff from the old health clinic and then we’ll go back and remodel that one. There’s still a ways to go but it excites me to have this opportunity to be a part of something so beneficial.”