Handcuffs to Hardhats


WILSONVILLE —  For a long time, Rachel Smith worried about how she’ll be able to get a job and support herself after she finishes her prison sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Then in May, she enrolled in a new building trades pre-apprenticeship program at the prison that she says brightened her future. She plans to join Ironworkers Local 29 when she’s released next spring.

“I’ve been here almost a year and a half, and this is the best opportunity I’ve seen as a way out,” Smith said. “This program has been an absolute life changer.”

Smith, 45, was one of the first five women to graduate from Union Pre-Apprenticeship Construction Training (U-PACT) Oregon, a grant-funded program run by Local 29, Bricklayers Local 1, and Cement Masons Local 555 at Oregon’s only women’s prison. U-PACT Oregon’s goal is to provide a path to a stable career with living wages once graduates are released from prison. It’s also a way to draw more women to three unions that have historically low rates of female workers. Union leaders, Department of Corrections staff, and the prisoners themselves said the first run-through was a success, and they want to continue the program as long as possible.

‘These women need a career’

Local 29 journeyman Anna Martin serves as the U-PACT Oregon lead. In her role as a Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee board member, she helped start the program, which is based on the Trades Related Apprentice Coaching (TRAC) model used in Washington state’s women’s prison system. (More than 300 women have graduated from that program, and their reoffend rate is less than 5%, compared to close to 50% for other formerly incarcerated women in the state, according to the Washington Department of Corrections).

Martin helped get two Future Ready Oregon grants to fund the program: $10,000 to develop it and about $265,000 to fund the first two cohorts of pre-apprentices. She worked with her union to bring in the other locals, so women in custody could explore multiple union career paths.

The program is limited to ironwork, cement masonry, and brick laying, in part to give those unions a recruitment pool that doesn’t overlap with other building trades unions that have an easier time signing female workers.

“Women tend to gravitate toward some of the not so physically demanding jobs, so we need women,” said Martin, the program’s ironwork instructor. “And these women need a career when they leave here.”

The grant money paid for equipment and instructor wages to provide hands-on training at Coffee Creek. The pre-apprenticeship program runs for about six hours a day for 10 weeks at the facility’s physical plant, an area outside the main prison grounds. For six weeks, pre-apprentices take safety training and ironwork courses with Martin. Then they get two weeks each with bricklayers and cement masons. Martin said instructors want to extend the program in the future, so bricklayers and cement masons each have an extra week. That’s also something the first graduates suggested as an improvement.

To enroll in the program, the women must be within 12 to 18 months of their release date, with no serious infraction in the last year. They complete an application, write a one paragraph essay about why they want to join the program, and interview with the union instructors.

Scott Fromm, the instructor for Bricklayers Local 1, said the Coffee Creek women were some of the most motivated pre-apprentices he’s ever trained.

“I was leery at first because it’s a prison, but it was a great experience,” Fromm said. “I really enjoyed putting trowels in the hands of these ladies…. They were really great learners. They listened. They were not afraid to ask questions.”

The pre-apprenticeship program is registered through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), so each graduate gets the same training and credentials as someone outside the prison, including fall-protection, flagging, fire watch, aerial and scissor lift operation, anti-harassment, and first aid.

During a July 6 demonstration for labor leaders, Department of Corrections officials, and state Representative Courtney Neron, Martin timed the U-PACT Oregon graduates as they packed an 80-pound rebar, tied a reinforcing mat, tied a rebar cage, used an oxygen acetylene torch to cut iron, and rigged an iron beam. The women explained what they were doing and why — and completed the course in under eight minutes. They also showed off a brick wall they built at the end of their training with Local 1, and demonstrated how to set the form for a concrete slab.

“I don’t think any instructor here wouldn’t sign any one of these ladies up today,” said Cement Masons Local 555 instructor Noah Jones.

A ticket out

All of the women in the first cohort said they plan to join one of the three unions after they are released. One U-PACT Oregon participant who was released partway through her pre-apprenticeship training has already signed with the ironworkers.

Lyric Farmer, 25, has her eyes set on Local 29. She said she is trying to change her behavior and character, so she doesn’t fall into “old habits” from before she entered Coffee Creek. In prison, she took classes through Portland State University, worked with a gardening group, and served on a crew fighting seasonal wildfires. But she says U-PACT Oregon is the first program that’s offered long-term certainty of a better life once she’s released in about a year.

“I definitely feel like I have a second chance outside the facility,” Farmer said. “When I come out here (to the training), I don’t feel like an inmate. I feel like a future trades worker.”

Studies confirm what common sense suggests: If a formerly incarcerated person finds a job, they are less likely to return to prison. However, a 2021 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that of 51,500 people released from prison in 2010, one-third did not find a job within four years. Those who did find employment usually jumped from job to job and made less money, on average, than the general working population.

U-PACT Oregon removes some obstacles to employment by providing certifications to enter directly into a union job that pays living wages and benefits. During the July 6 showcase, Brandy Sandoval told visitors this is not her first sentence at Coffee Creek, but she expects it will be her last because she now has a ticket into a steady job that can keep her financially stable as she rebuilds her life — and that’s something she didn’t have last time.

The program also covers the initial costs of joining a union for graduates: tool belts, a boot voucher, a hard hat, initiation fees and first months’ union dues. Those costs would otherwise be a barrier, because people often leave the prison with little money.

“Our hope is to never see these women again,” said Tracy Hightower, education and training administrator at the Oregon Department of Corrections. “This is the type of program that helps make that happen.”

A second cohort of 12 to 15 women will start training July 31. Some women from the first group will return as program assistants so they can keep their skills sharp.

Martin said the unions are looking for ways to continue funding the program after that, including donations from union contractors or additional grants. The effort is supported by Representative Neron, whose district includes the Wilsonville prison.

“The women in this program have asked for it to continue, and to expand,” Neron said. “They are hungry for more skills, and this program has the potential to reduce or eliminate recidivism for those who complete it.”

LEVELING UP Rachel Smith (green hard hat), checks to make sure a concrete slab form is level as Delisa Guerrero (blue hat) drives a stake to set a form. Both are in custody at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility but plan to join a building trades union after they are released. | PHOTO BY CHERYL JUETTEN


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