18 women graduate first-of-its-kind prison program

Story Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Photos by Alan Barrett, CALPIA Photographer

Monica Oliva may have spent the last 13 years in prison, but now, as she prepares to go home, she said those years were time well spent.

“Although it is prison, I try to look at it as, ‘You know what? I’m going to use this time as an investment into my future,’” Oliva said. “I didn’t sit around and mope. I took advantage. It has meant a lot to me, and I appreciate it.”

Oliva was one of 18 offenders at Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF) to graduate from the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) Autodesk Authorized Training Center Program. Through a partnership of CALPIA, Autodesk and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the women receive training in AutoCAD (Computer-Aided Design), Autodesk Revit (structural design) and Autodesk Inventor (mechanical design). While the failure rate for people working toward these certifications outside of prison is 50 percent, the women incarcerated in FWF have a cumulative pass rate of more than 90 percent.

“They’ve done some amazing projects – some real-life projects that they’ve seen all the way through to completion,” said Lynn Allen of Autodesk. “I think they have a heads-up when they go to get a job, because they get it – they totally get it.”

Chuck Pattillo, General Manager of CALPIA, said the significant  investment in the CAD program is easily offset by the fact that people who participate in rehabilitative and vocational programs while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison, thus saving taxpayers millions in the long run. CALPIA provides 6,000 productive work assignments at prisons throughout the state. Through the CDCR-supported Career Technical Education programs, inmates are earning real-world certifications in fields like carpentry, ironworking, deep-sea diving and computer coding.

“Our primary function is to increase the safety of prisons by offering opportunities so that people are not going to come back,” Pattillo said. “Give them the training so they never come back. Give them the services so they never come back. We are a business, but our service is rehabilitation, and our number one product is an offender who does not come back to prison.”

The women’s education goes beyond computer training. In response to the California drought, they were called upon to design a landscaping plan to replace grass and other  mositure-loving plants at the Green Valley Training Center, where classes are held. The women split into teams, working together for four months in a friendly competition that was judged by staff, management and executives. The winning design was unveiled at the graduation, and the women who created it will oversee the construction of the project by their fellow inmates in the CALPIA carpentry program at FWF.

Pattillo shared a letter from Jessica Dence, a former offender who went through the Autodesk program at FWF. Today, she is a successful designer for a land-surveying firm in upstate New York, where she has done design work on existing and new structures, homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, pools, churches and even ski resorts. She wrote that her CAD experience at FWF was what got her foot in the door to a great job.

“I think about you all often, and I’m excited for the other girls to have the opportunity to work in a professional setting, and to feel proud of all they have accomplished while incarcerated,” she wrote. “It’s a long journey and a tough road ahead, but it is rewarding nonetheless.”

Brenda Dubon said that while the Autodesk training is rigorous and difficult, in the end she is learning more than just computer software – she now realizes that she is capable of accomplishing things she never knew she could.

“When I put my mind to something, I can actually do it,” she said. “Usually I’m kind of like, ‘No, I can’t do that so I’m not going to try.’ But I have expanded my knowledge.”

Oliva, who will parole soon, shared Dubon’s sentiments.

“It has been a wonderful program, and I feel inspired by everything,” she beamed. “All of the people – I have been inspired by them. It means a better future for me and it has given me the confidence to know that I still have the ability to learn. I still have the ability to grow, and it is not over for me.”

The keynote speaker for the graduation was Robin Harrington, Chief Deputy Warden at CDCR’s Female Offender Programs and Services unit, and the former Associate Warden of FWF. The day was particularly moving for Harrington, as it was her last graduation as a CDCR employee. She is now retired after nearly 30 years of service. Harrington reflected on how she and the graduates are experiencing a milestone, and urged them to make the most of it.

“We all have little goals,” she said. “We have short-term goals, long-term goals, but a milestone is a type of goal that is significant. You can say, ‘I’ve done this, I’m not turning around, and this is forever in my pocket.’

“A milestone is when you no longer look at yourself as the person who you used to be, because of the skills, the knowledge, the ability that you know have. You have created a milestone in your life. I want you to build on that.”