Prisoners Turned Welders: How Prisons Are Training Future Manufacturing Workers

barbed wire outside of a prisonIn prison, there’s not much to do. With limited time allowed for exercise, television, and other activities, prisons aren’t necessarily known for a wide variety of recreational and educational opportunities. Recently, however, waves of prison reform have spurred activity in the direction of advanced education and preparing the incarcerated for careers as welders, machinists, and other manufacturing jobs in their communities.

For example, take welding. In the field, there’s an extraordinary demand for trained hands and skilled workers willing to wield blowtorches for the public good. So, as NPR reports, Georgia’s Walker State Prison has given inmates access to heavy tools so that they may receive welding certificates and pay back their communities by filling jobs that desperately need trained workers.

Christopher Peeples, a 26-year old at the end of his mandatory 10-year prison sentence, says, “If it’s an opportunity for me to dive into welding and they say I have a job here, I’m going to say, ‘that’s me.’” Especially when they find out that jobs for welders are not only in large supply, but pay an average of $50,000/year, the prisoners have leaped at the opportunities available to them. The system also says that although their employers are aware of the new employees’ prison records, it hasn’t been a source of discrimination.

In Waterbury, Connecticut, a local education foundation has also gotten involved in teaching inmates manufacturing skills, like reading blueprints and running lathing machines. After 15 weeks of training, the inmates aren’t necessarily guaranteed jobs upon release, but manufacturers say that they need trained entry-level employees, and the prisoners work with the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment board to help land jobs. Alik Williamson, who was convicted of first-degree assault, says that “when I first got here, I knew nothing about nothing, but now I’m ready to work. For the first time in my life, I feel like I just might succeed.”

This sense of empowerment isn’t specific to Williamson, but seems to be a common byproduct of working with their hands, learning a marketable skill, and feeling supported by the prison system and the local economy. This education is also a far cry from the exploitation scandals earlier this year, when the South Carolina Department of Corrections was accused of using inmate labor to fuel “service programs” that allowed companies to use cheaper-than-average labor.

King of Carts, a golf cart company, had been paying inmates $1.50 per hour to help refurbish golf carts. While certainly teaching a skill, in a way, this sort of arrangement is mostly a lucrative advantage to the company. On the other hand, educational programs that teach manufacturing skills are designed less for the benefit of a specific manufacturer, and more for the benefit of the prisoner, teaching them a vocation that will be in high demand upon their release.

With conjecture about veterans, the long-term unemployed, and other often disenfranchised groups as a means by which to fill the skills gap and give manufacturers the welders they’ve been looking for, it seems as if manufacturing education in prisons could be another win-win situation: Lifelong skills, certificates, and certifications can help rehabilitate the incarcerated into productive and fulfilled members of society.

photo credit: In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. Eldridge Cleaver via photopin (license)