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Iowa Prison Industries Provides Inmates An Education

Tagged under: News Iowa Criminal Justice Re-entry
By Expeal on March 14, 2016.

A picture of a Anamosa State Penitentiary.

In Iowa, citizens who have come across benches, desks, tables, and other items have come across items being made by inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. While there are some very real issues about how much inmates who work in similar programs are paid (some less than a dollar per hour, while the goods they make are sold at retail prices), there is no arguing the fact that those who pick up trades and knowledge come out better people.

Anamosa is home to nearly 1,000 Iowans. Nathan Curtis and Bobby Simmons are two of them. Curtis points out "Nobody is too old to learn and gain knowledge." Simmons says "It's free education [and] education is so key." Both Curtis and Simmons are participants in the new work program, having picked up knowledge and experience that will help them re-integrate and re-enter society, avoiding the revolving door that prison has become for so many.

Simmons previously worked as a welder, but never had the mentorship he feels he gained while behind bars. He shares some of his knowledge, explaining "you're getting spatter, blow out on your torches, things like that these books expand why it's doing that and I've learned a phenomenal amount of material." Curtis, on the other hand, hopes to use his new welding skills as a way to back on his feet. He says he doesn't "plan on welding for the rest of my life but I hope I can use it as a stair way to get somewhere better."

Curtis expands on the program further. He states that he "was given chances in the past but like I said, I was immature, I didn't know what to do with them, but this apprenticeship, it's actual hands on training and it's educational book work – a two part process – and given that chance and opportunity, I knew I couldn't blow it on this one."

The cost to hold an offender for one year, regardless of how they spend their time behind bars, is a big reason why this is so important. The Iowa Department of Corrections says it costs the state $34,168. The Apprenticeship Program's annual budget is $128,862 and that will provide help to certify 200 prisoners. That means only $644 is required to give these inmates a real chance at a future outside the facility.

Curtis also notes an important part of the program is that those who succeed at finding jobs, like welding, will become tax paying citizens. That $644 will be paid back in less than a year's worth of employment through all the different taxes that are paid by wage earners in their daily lives.

Tim Diesburg, one of the program's founders, is glad to see that this system is working. "Our program focuses on our mission of no more victims. What matters is what you do from here on out." The program in Anamosa started in 2014 and as of the end of 2015, began its implementation in all nine of Iowa's prisons, a process that should be completed by the end of this year. From the beginning of the program until the beginning of 2016, 29 inmates have completed apprenticeships.

Diesburg continued, stating that "We went to the U.S. Department of Labor, showed them our program, what it was today and how we'd built it up and they approved every bit of the program so we started to develop our standards of apprenticeship." He is very proud of the students in the program, making it a point to brag about the database used to keep track of a student's progress. It was actually created by a student going through the apprenticeship program.

Curtis continues the praise for this program, stating that "What people would have in a normal atmosphere in society, we're doing this apprenticeship and being positive, productive individuals. It's a lot better than how I used to do my time. I came into prison and there wasn't anything really for me. I had a 25-year prison sentence, so there wasn't anything for me to look forward to, to want to be positive."

There are sixteen different programs offered by the Iowa DOC, including apprenticeships to become a welder, electrician, or a cook. Each program has its own curriculum with a certain number of book hours and hands-on training. Simmons states that he is "nine books in and I have 18 for the metal fabrication. They go from welding, to blue prints, to schematics, to mathematics."

Diesburg expands on this idea, pointing out that "If you're an employer, you're hiring a person, not hiring a history. You're hiring a person who has taken the initiative who took a tough situation and turned it into something positive."

With high recidivism rates, Curtis believes the apprenticeship program will lower the rates of those returning to prison because it gives inmates the knowledge about something that will not only give them the ability to take care of themselves and their families, but it will also give them a sense of self-worth.

This attitude is expressed by both Curtis and Simmons. Curtis says "I want to show I've changed. I want to show I'm rehabilitated and I'm able to do that with the apprenticeship plus coming away with education and certification. I don't want to be a statistic." Simmons reflects, saying "I've really changed 100%, 150%. It's woke me up. It's time to start doing the right things. I've done it wrong long enough."

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