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.
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.
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.
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.