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'Changing The Mindset': Female Inmates In Training For A Life After Prison

Dec 25, 2018
Originally published on December 26, 2018 6:25 am

The inside of one of the buildings at Washington Corrections Center for Women looks like a prep site for a construction project. It's full of cinder blocks, wheelbarrows, and large standing wood frames. About a dozen inmates wearing orange safety vests and hardhats are pounding nails into the frames.

Steve Petermann is the instructor keeping watch. "There's a method here," Petermann says. "They have to do so many nails in so many minutes and they have to [pound] those nails down, on the side, and overhead."

The inmates at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, Wash., are among more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States. For many who leave prison behind, recidivism is a problem.

One of the biggest obstacles they face on the outside is landing a legitimate job — especially one that pays more than minimum wage. WCCW aims to give its inmates a better chance by running Trades Related Apprentice Coaching (TRAC) inside the prison. It's a partnership between the prison and unions representing the construction trades — the Carpenters, Ironworkers, Laborers and Cement Masons unions.

Petermann, a retired carpenter, has managed the program for nearly six years. He says the program allows women to learn skills that can lead to a career they may never have envisioned.

"If they do well in here and complete their testing," he says. "What we can do is get them direct entry into a living wage job."

TRAC graduates have what Petermann calls "preferred entry" for union apprenticeships once they finish their prison terms. The starting wage, the first day on the job, is about $25 to $26 per hour. TRAC also partners with non-profit groups to help women get the appropriate work clothes and tools they may need.

They also help pay union dues and even rent for those starting out. That's important. Many of the women in the prison are single mothers with children.

'I need a career that gives me benefits'

That's the case with 35-year-old Crystal Lansdale, who has four children. No longer addicted to methamphetamine, she was near the end of her sentence for identity theft and drug offenses. Lansdale says she made bad decisions she doesn't want to repeat.

"I don't want to be a reoffender. I don't want to come back to prison and I want this to be my one and only trip," says Lansdale. "The construction trades is something like a way out of the box for me. I need a career that is going to give me retirement, that's going to give me benefits, that's going to give me an opportunity to take care of my kids."

To get into the program, participants have to be in good health, go through a screening process that includes an interview, testing for math skills and for physical agility. For 16 weeks, the women spend up to six hours a day learning about tools and building techniques. There's homework and physical work that requires plenty of stamina.

Desiree Jensen, 31, had just completed one exercise.

"I was doing the blocks. We have to [move] a set of 13 [30 lb. cinder blocks] back and forth, four times in under 11 minutes. I did 6:37," she says proudly. "I love it. It gives me a good workout."

Jensen was convicted of assault. She has two daughters. She also has a background in welding and likes math and detail. She's interested in becoming a millwright, a high precision craftsperson who works with machinery, and she's plenty motivated.

"This is my future. The way I've been living my life the last 30 years isn't working," she says. "So it's time I do something else because I'm never going to come back to this place."

In another area, women are shoveling gravel and dirt. Celeste, 49, is the oldest in the group. She is serving a sentence for 2nd degree murder. Prison regulations require the use of Celeste's first name only.

Celeste says she's remorseful and is paying the price for setting up a robbery that went bad. She says she likes hard work and kept requesting to be a part of TRAC. She says she strives to move forward for her sons and grandchildren. She's most proud of completing the task that required each woman to dig a ditch 6 feet long and 18 inches deep in under two hours.

Her best time so far is just over an hour and a half and she's looking forward to getting an apprenticeship with one of the trade unions.

"It just changes your life once you get out. You're not making minimum wage. Your family is going to have much respect and your kids will respect you too," she says. "Your mindset is changing, and you got to be willing to cut off people who are going to be a bad influence. You got to be focused just on TRAC because this is a lot of work."

Facing sexism in the workplace

These women get encouragement from others who know what they'll face on the outside. Lisa Marx , outreach worker for Northwest Carpenters Institute, was a guest speaker brought in to talk to the inmates in TRAC. Marx has worked building and tearing down scaffolding for oil rigs in Washington state and now acts as a mentor for many women working in the construction trades.

Marx tells the women the carpentry union offers eight different apprenticeships. She's also honest about what they'll face — from outright sexism to awkwardness that may come with being the new kid in a field dominated by men. Marx tells them it's a wide-open job market, though, with women more accepted on job sites.

"I'm not going to say everything is going to be peaches and cream and rosy, because it's not,"says Marx. "There's been a lot of times that I've been set up for failure and you may face that at times. And just know that you do not jeopardize your safety for anybody."

TRAC graduates are paid assistants

On the training floor, inmates continued exercises — getting timed as they shovel gravel and sand. Inmates wearing red hardhats are TRAC graduates who are paid assistants and help run the classes. Steve Petermann calls them the backbone of the program.

Chantal Trotter, 37, is a TRAC graduate. She has four children and wants to become an ironworker. Convicted on drug charges, she says her days as a drug dealer are over and she's looking forward to providing for her family with a well-paying, legal job.

Trotter says during her time in TRAC she's become more confident and respectful of the department of corrections, law enforcement and state officials. She says that's a new feeling for her and she wants to pass it along to the other women she's helping to train.

"I want them to get that same excitement about their future. [When you] walk in here, it's more than just digging ditches and shoveling gravel and carrying heavy things really quickly," she says. "It's more of getting to know who you are and where you want to be."

About 120 women have graduated from the TRAC program in the last six years. Petermann says the recidivism rate is about 3 to 5 percent with most of the women returning for technical work release violations. On the wall of the training room at WCCW, there's an asterisk by the names of the women who've become apprentices and journey women after being released from prison.

Petermann says not everyone who starts a trades union apprenticeship makes it all the way through. He has high hopes for three of the women who are now out of prison. Celeste successfully interviewed with a union and is enrolled in an apprenticeship. Desiree Jensen and Crystal Lansdale are expected to begin their apprenticeships soon.

Meantime, Washington state has expanded TRAC to its Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Wash., doubling the size of the pre-apprenticeship program and giving more women in prison a chance to learn about getting a job in the trades.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and recidivism is a major concern. Finding a legitimate job is one of the biggest obstacles for people released from prison. The Washington Corrections Center for Women outside of Seattle aims to give its inmates a better chance by running a pre-apprenticeship program inside the prison for careers the women may never have envisioned. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Inside one of the buildings at Washington Corrections Center for Women, it looks like a prep site for construction. It's full of cement blocks, wheelbarrows and wooden frames. Instructor Steve Petermann watches as more than a dozen women wearing bright orange safety vests and hardhats pound nails into the frame.

STEVE PETERMANN: There's a method here. They got to do so many nails in so many minutes. And they have to do those nails down on the side and overhead.

CORLEY: Petermann is a retired carpenter. He's been managing the TRAC program, Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching, for about six years. Petermann says in a prison, female inmates may not think about the trades as an option when they leave.

PETERMANN: And if they do well in here and complete their testing, what they - what we can do is we can get them direct entry into a living-wage job.

CORLEY: When TRAC graduates finish their prison terms, they have what Petermann calls preferred entry or apprenticeships with four unions - the carpenters, ironworkers, laborers and cement masons. The starting wage first day on the job is about $25 to $26 per hour, and that's important. Many of the women here are single mothers with children. Thirty-five-year-old Crystal Lansdale has four children. On this day, she's near the end of her sentence for identity theft and drug offenses. No longer addicted to meth, Lansdale says she made bad decisions she doesn't want to repeat.

CRYSTAL LANSDALE: The construction trades is something, like, way out of the box for me. But I need a career that's going to give me retirement, that's going to give me benefits, that's going to give me an opportunity to take care of my kids.

CORLEY: To get into the program, the women have to be in good health. They go through screening. That includes testing for math skills and physical agility. For about 16 weeks, the women spend up to six hours a day learning about tools and techniques. There's homework and physical work that requires plenty of stamina. Desiree Jensen just completed one exercise.

DESIREE JENSEN: I was doing the blocks. We have to do a set of 13 blocks back and forth four times in under 11 minutes.

CORLEY: The cinderblocks weigh about 30 pounds apiece.

JENSEN: I did 6:37. I love it. It gives me a good workout.

CORLEY: Jensen was convicted of assault. She has two daughters. She also has a background in welding and likes math and detail. She's interested in becoming millwright, a high-precision craftsperson who works with machinery. She says she's plenty motivated.

JENSEN: This is my future. The way I've been living my life the last 30 years is - isn't working. So it's time I do something else because I'm never going to come back to this place.

CORLEY: Many former felons return to neighborhoods that offer few opportunities, so the women in TRAC get encouragement from others who know what they'll face on the outside.

LISA MARX: So I'll start by introducing myself. My name is Lisa Marx.

CORLEY: Lisa Marx is an outreach worker for Northwest Carpenters Institute. She worked building and taking down scaffolding for oil rigs in Washington state and acts as a mentor now for many women working in the construction trades.

MARX: Now when you guys think of carpentry, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Wood.

MARX: Wood.

CORLEY: Marx is here to tell the women the carpentry union offers eight different apprenticeships. She's also honest about what they'll face from outright sexism on the job to awkwardness that may come with being the new kid in a field dominated by men. She tells them the job market is more accepting of women and to stay determined.

MARX: I mean, I'm not going to say everything's going to be peaches and cream and rosy because it's not. There's been a lot of times that I've been set up for failure. And you may face that at times, you know? And just know that you do not jeopardize your safety for anybody.

(CROSSTALK)

CORLEY: Out on the training floor, inmates are getting timed as they shovel gravel and sand. The women wearing red hardhats are leaders who are paid and help run the classes. Thirty-seven-year-old Chantal Trotter, who wants to become an ironworker, has four children and was convicted on drug charges. Trotter says TRAC has made her confident, and she wants to pass along the excitement she has about the future to other women she's helped train.

CHANTAL TROTTER: And to be able to walk in here - it's more than just digging ditches and shoveling gravel and carrying heavy things really quickly. It's more of a - getting to know who you are, where you want to be...

CORLEY: And learning how to navigate the outside world successfully. In the last six years, there have been about 120 graduates of TRAC. Trainer Steve Petermann says there has been about a 3 to 5 percent recidivism rate with most women returning to prison for technical work release violations. Late this year, Washington state expanded the pre-apprenticeship to its other women's prison. Petermann says not everyone who starts a trade union apprenticeship makes it all the way through. He has high hopes, though, for Crystal Lansdale and Desiree Jensen who will start their union apprenticeship soon. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Gig Harbor, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.