Twenty-six Rhode Island Department of Corrections Minimum Security inmates are the first to graduate from a new construction technology program offered in partnership with the Community College of Rhode Island. The inmates completed 190 hours of hands-on training and received a certificate of completion and an OSHA card during a ceremony the Department of Corrections held on Monday. Classes began in June and met five nights a week from 5 to 9 p.m.
The RIDOC has a statutory requirement to provide vocational training for inmates, so it has earmarked departmental funds for this type of program. Because of its established partnership with CCRI, the Department presented its idea of practical training in construction to the college. Equipment was then purchased and a classroom and tool crib were set up in the basement at Minimum.
Suzanne D'Onofrio, director of Workforce Training at CCRI, recruited two instructors, Gene Dufault, a Coventry High School shop instructor with extensive experience teaching in the Connecticut prison system, and Norman Cook, CCRI's senior department head for Engineered Composite Building Technologies. Using D'Onofrio's curriculum, all of the inmates who were accepted into the program completed it.
"The guys really found learning fun," said D'Onofrio. "We included a work readiness component so the men would not only have the marketable skills, but the confidence they need to be successful upon release."
Will Jackson, CCRI coordinator at the Department of Corrections, agreed. "The instructors were phenomenal, and they've told me this was the best group of students they've ever had. The guys in the program are in heaven."
Mock interviewing and resume-building were included in the curriculum. D'Onofrio's goal is to develop relationships in the construction community to create a willingness to provide employment opportunities for the graduates upon their release. Two participants are already using the skills they learned in work release jobs.
The program, according to the RIDOC's long-time Assistant Director for Rehabilitative Services Roberta Richman during her address to the graduates, "is about years and years of watching smart, good people come through this system who, but for a shot at something decent, kept coming back." Speaking to the diverse group, many of whom have been at the ACI three or more times, she continued, "Everybody leaves saying, I've had it. This is it,' but you get out there, you hit the street, and nobody wants to give you a break. It's tough to find the opportunity to prove you've got what it takes - to convince an employer to take a chance on you. You need somebody to believe in you and give you that first foot in the door, and hopefully this class will give you that chance. The next time I speak to a group of people here, I hope you won't be in it."
The program was accomplished with the support of Richman and other Department of Corrections staff members, including Director Ashbel T. Wall II, Deputy Warden Cindy Drake, and Adult Counselor and Work Release Assistant Teresa Berube.
Wall is pleased with the program's initial success and sees it as an important piece of the Department's commitment to prisoner re-entry.
"One of the most critical factors in determining whether an ex-offender will be back in our custody is his or her success in finding gainful employment upon release," Wall said. "This program is one of the many ways we are striving to break the cycle of the revolving door. I'm proud of our staff and the CCRI folks who got the program up and running. I congratulate these 26 inaugural graduates of what I hope will continue to be a heavily sought-out program for our Minimum Security inmates, one that will set them on a path toward successful careers in their home communities."
The instructors' enthusiasm for their first experience teaching at the prison was palpable at the graduation. Instructor Norm Cook addressed the graduates, saying, "I teach successful people. It's not as much fun as teaching you. You have been success stories to us. Believe in yourselves, and don't give up!"
Gene Dufault echoed Norm's praise for the students and added, "You'll always be the first. Make everybody here proud to do this."
The students presented Deputy Drake with a wooden box they'd made in the shop as a token of gratitude for her shepherding of the program. They gave a standing ovation to counselor Teresa Berube, "the nuts and bolts" of the program, according to Drake.
One inmate, who prefers not to be identified, addressed the class. He said he has used every day of his sentence for breaking and entering to build himself up, but by far, the CCRI construction course has been the best experience he's had. "Each day I grow a little more in prison because of opportunities like this and because of someone believing in me."
Correctional Officer Robert Alves, himself a former general contractor, monitored the class and got to see first-hand its positive effect on the inmate students. "This class will definitely reduce recidivism," Alves noted. "You can take away a lot of things from a man, but one thing you can't take away is his hope. This class gives these guys hope. This is the real deal. It's money well spent."
The second class of inmates recently began its training and will graduate sometime in January. Classes for this new session are offered three times each week to accommodate the instructors' other teaching commitments during the academic year. Beyond this session, the future of the class will be determined by the availability of funding.