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Inmates in Community College of Rhode Island Construction Technology Program Build Stage and Puppet Theatre for the Impossible Dream

About 25 inmates in Minimum Security at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston have been hard at work building a puppet theatre and stage for children who will visit The Impossible Dream’s outdoor playground in Warwick to enjoy. The inmates are students in the fourth construction technology class offered in partnership with the Community College of Rhode Island. They will present their project to Diane Penza, Director of The Impossible Dream, on Tuesday, July 14th, at 5:30 p.m. in the construction technology classroom located in Minimum Security.

The design for the theatre was originally conceived by Gentry Akens, a Rhode Islander who does set design work for Disney and Universal Studios and Hasbro and has helped instructors Norman Cook, CCRI’s senior department head for Engineered Composite Building Technologies and Gene Dufault, a Coventry High School shop instructor with extensive experience teaching in the Connecticut prison system, with the project. Puppeteer and Pell Award winner Dan Butterworth is also affiliated with the project and is working with the Impossible Dream to put together a performance program that will be put in place after the project has been completed and installed. Simultaneous to the stage and theatre design by the inmates, Coventry High School students in Dufault’s work working classes designed puppets and marionettes to be used in the theatre. This has been accomplished with two grants through the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Dufault has been working on set design for Westerly’s Shakespeare in the Park series so is no stranger to this type of work. The original plan was for the theatre to be made of wood, but when he realized how mammoth and heavy it would be, Cook suggested the class design molds and make the parts out of composites. “The class embraced the concept and really got into it,” Cook notes. “When the first part was done they were literally jubilant at the results.”

Rather than painting the parts, which will be subjected to the elements in the outdoor park, Cook had the idea of finding someone in the fabric industry to design slipcovers that could be placed on the parts and removed. He has found that person and the slipcovers are in the process of being made. The completed project will be delivered to and installed at the Impossible Dream sometime in the next month.

Another critical element of the project is that is has been done in an entirely “green fashion.” The parts will require little or no maintenance and are being covered with a fiberglass resin to protect them from the elements and make them highly durable.

The inmates who have graduated from the highly practical CCRI class, now numbering near 100, must complete 150 hours of hands-on training. They receive a certificate of completion and an OSHA card. Classes normally meet three nights a week from 5 to 9 p.m.

The RIDOC has a statutory requirement (RIGL 42-56-10) to provide vocational training for inmates and 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 back in 2007. Equipment was then purchased and a classroom and tool crib was set up in the basement at Minimum.

Suzanne D’Onofrio, director of Workforce Training at CCRI, recruited the two instructors. Using her curriculum, all of the inmates who were accepted into the first class completed it. It has been so popular that there has been a waiting list for every session since. “The guys really find this kind of practical learning fun,” says D’Onofrio. “We include 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, agrees. “The instructors are phenomenal, and they’ve told me these have been the best students they’ve ever had.”

Mock interviewing and resume-building are included in the curriculum. D’Onofrio, with Cook’s and Dufault’s help, has worked to develop relationships in the construction community to create a willingness to provide employment opportunities for the graduates upon their release. Many participants are already using the skills they learned in work release or post-release jobs.

The program, according to the RIDOC’s long-time Assistant Director for Rehabilitative Services Roberta Richman, “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.” In her remarks to the first graduating class, she noted, “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, Warden James Vierra and Deputy Warden Cindy Drake, and Adult Counselor and former Work Release Assistant Teresa Berube.

Wall is pleased with the program’s success to date 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 says. “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 the many graduates of what I hope will continue to be a heavily sought-out program for our Minimum Security inmates, one that sets them on a path toward successful careers in their home communities.”

The instructors’ enthusiasm for their experience teaching at the prison is palpable. Instructor Norm Cook says, “I teach successful people. It’s not as much fun as teaching the inmates we’ve had in this class. They have been success stories to us. I tell them ‘Believe in yourselves, and don’t give up!’” Beyond this session, the future of the class will be determined by the availability of funding.

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