For soon-released inmates, hope of a union construction career

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

It was a most unusual graduation. In the medium security wing of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, 16 female inmates were honored March 14 as the first group to finish an experimental building trades pre-apprenticeship training program.

To cheers and hoots from their classmates, one by one the women were called forward in front of an audience of prison officials, volunteer trainers, and visiting officials from local building trades unions. After receiving a certificate and hearing an appraisal from vocational instructor Jen Netherwood, each student got a chance to say a few unscripted words.

“So many times, I’ve been told I can’t do anything,” said Danelle Klein.  “This class gave me an opportunity to do something with my life, and to support my kids when I get out.” Klein is scheduled for an October release.

To be candidates for the program, inmates had to be nearing their release date, and have a high school diploma or GED. They also had to be considered higher risk for recidivism, but  have had six months of clear conduct.

Divided into two groups of eight students each, the inmates met four days a week, four hours a day, for four months.

The program was the brainchild of Mark Warne, Oregon AFL-CIO workforce liaison. Warne had put together a similar program in Colorado, and argued to Oregon union apprenticeship coordinators and Oregon Corrections Enterprises officials that the benefits of such a program make the investment worthwhile. Unions get a chance to add younger women to the ranks of an aging and overwhelmingly male profession. And the Department of Corrections gets a chance to make a dent in recidivism: Paroled inmates are less likely to re-offend if they have a path to a rewarding career.

Inside, the star is Netherwood, a former professional soccer coach who’s now a member of Carpenters Local 156. After seven years working as a journeyman carpenter at residential contractor Neil Kelly, Netherwood was teaching classes at Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a program that prepares women for building trades careers. Then she had a phone conversation with Warne.

“He asked two questions,” Netherwood recalls: “Can you pass a background check, and have you ever thought about working in a correctional facility?”

Netherwood never imagined such a job, but now that she’s there, says she doesn’t want to leave.

“I had a desire to do something that fed my soul,” Netherwood tells the Labor Press. “I love carpentry, but it’s not as soul-feeding to remodel somebody’s $190,000 kitchen as it is for me to be here in a teaching role.”

Netherwood began each class with calisthenics, from 10 minutes of sit-ups to 45-minute workouts. Then they’d dive into applied math  — algebra and geometry, the math of measurement.

Netherwood had help from Shelly McGinnis, an inmate teacher’s aide, and from Billings the “safety dog” — a participant in Coffee Creek’s program training service dogs.

Students were also taught by visiting subject matter experts from union apprenticeship programs — carpenters, electrical workers, laborers, roofers, painters, and interior finishers.

“For some of the students, it looked like their first time using a power tool,” said Miguel Montaño, a trainer at the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Apprenticeship program.

SAWDUST AND BARBED WIRE: Valayshea Shaffer operates a power saw in a fenced-in area set up for an experimental inmate building trades pre-apprenticeship program. (Photo by Dave Conway, courtesy of Oregon Corrections Enterprises)

Montaño, addressed affectionately by students as “Mr. M” before the ceremony, said the class faced other obstacles. Some kinds of tools were deemed too hazardous to allow into a secure facility, like a 6-inch drywall jab saw, which looks too much like a  hand-held knife. And they couldn’t cut wood inside, because dust particulates could trigger the sprinkler system. Instead, the program set up a work station in a fenced area outdoors.

Team-building, Netherwood said, took time.

“Being in here is competitive,” Netherwood said. “You have to watch out for yourself. There’s a lot of drama, and not a lot of opportunities to work as a team.”

But Netherwood set an expectation that regardless of what happened outside the class, inside, they were expected to act professionally, and to work as a team, as they would on a construction site. Over the course of the program, three students were dropped for infractions that took place outside the class, but none for anything that happened inside. No tools went missing. No one failed the class. And by the end, they’d worked as a team to construct two small dwellings, which will be reassembled at the Salem headquarters of Oregon Corrections Enterprises.

TEAMWORK PLUS TOOLS: Women inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility fill the partially completed hut they constructed under the direction of vocational instructor Jen Netherwood (front and center). Standing on a ladder at the back is Monica Heusel. Standing, from left, are Charity Henshaw, Gloria Friedrich, Bell Andersen, Molly Lewis, Danelle Klein, and Valayshea Shaffer. Kneeling is Kelly Kissell. Sitting are Tami Johnson, Netherwood, and Shelly McGinnis. (Photo by Dave Conway, general manager, Oregon Corrections Enterprises)

At graduation, many of the students choked up.

“Thank you for not shaming us for the way that we talk, or the way we are,” said inmate Jami Mims, addressing Netherwood.

Netherwood replied with her own thanks — for students’ honesty and loyalty, and for patiently indulging “two-hour rants about the beauty of an 18-gauge finish nail.”

“I’m glad I didn’t judge them up front,” Netherwood told the Labor Press, “because I got to know a person that’s more than you see on the outside.”

Harmonie Vandewarker, given the nickname “Helmet” by her peers, said she gained confidence with every two-by-four, which, she added, “is actually 1-1/2” by 3-1/2.”

The confidence is theirs for keeps. Students will also keep their standard OSHA-approved hard hats, decorated with stickers from each participating union trade.

And the huts they built, in the future, may end up being used as temporary shelters for homeless people in the Eugene area.

Charity Henshaw

A week after the graduation, the program had its first success story. Charity Henshaw, who wants to be a finish carpenter, was called into the correctional facility’s office and told she’d have an opportunity upon release for direct entry into the Carpenters’ Exterior/Interior Systems program. Montaño had remembered her, and put her name forward as a candidate.

She’s due for release May 16. Her first plan out of the gate is to attend the May 19 Women In Trades Fair in Portland.

9 Responses to For soon-released inmates, hope of a union construction career

  1. Very nice article, Don. What a pleasure to read about a Union Thug bashing our young people with calisthenics, math-solving, and team-work.

    Kudos to Mark (Warne)for bringing a valuable educational and career-building program to the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

    Union-modeled programs such as this are desperately needed, not only as career options tools for Oregon inmates, but also for our K-12 educational system.

    Thank you for featuring this wonderful endeavor.

    Verle Steele

    ps: would you also consider adding me to your email list for future article……..I would really appreciate it.

  2. dennis conway

    Dear Mr Warne, Congratulations to you and Netherwood in bringing this program to fruition at Coffee Creek. Congrats also to the courageous students who are trying to make new starts in their lives.As a retired Vocational-Rehab counselor in the New York area I know that this kind of training is so undervalued and yet is so effective in its application.Keep up the good work

  3. Congratulations to Jen and Warne and all the graduates. These skills are literally life changing on so many levels and I am happy to hear the pilot was such a success (though not surprised because I know how great Jen is!).

  4. Congratulations to all these ladies! These careers offer so many life-changing options, and a way to support an individual or family in a way that is successful and fulfulling. All this hard work is very admirable!

  5. Steven Flowers

    I am so grateful for this program, You can’t imaging what an answer to prayer this is, from my perspective.
    I see what this opportunity has done already for Charity, who has often been at the top of my prayer list. This truly is redemption, for her. I commend you for your patience for these woman, and especially thank you for what you have done for Charity Henshaw.

  6. denies Robertson

    I think that this was a fantastic idea!!!! What a great way to get the women involved!!! Crime is a choice and i know this first hand! To have a program inside those walls makes for a brighter future!!! Thanks to everyone that made it possible!

  7. Way to go girls!!!! Thank you to Mr Warne and Ms Netherwood for helping the Coffee Creek girls gain some respect for themselves. We appreciate all that you do!!!

  8. Way to go ladies, I am so proud of all of you. You have proven with help and a reason, people can and want to change for the better. You have all proved it can be done (change)
    Great job once again ladies.

  9. I too had the oppurtunity to be a part of and complete the Columbia Gorge Electricians Apprenticeship while incarcerated. I dont have the vocabulary to describe the affect having earned a journeymans license while in prison has had on the transition from prison to the community outside. I did 26 yrs and this has been a difficult transition. But I had many positive role models and mentors who taught me the value of hard work and who helped me to develop the skills, ambition and self esteem to leave prison behind and be a success. Without them and this program I have no idea where Id be today. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all who made this possible.

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