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Corrections/vo-tech partnership offers maximum training benefits.

Like many states, Oklahoma has worked to expand its vocational training efforts in recent years. The state now offers 54 programs at vocational skills centers in 13 state prisons. About 570 inmates are currently enrolled in vocational classes.

However, Oklahoma differs from most states in one important way: All training is administered by the Oklahoma Department of Vocational and Technical Education - not the Department of Corrections. All instructors and administrators are members of the state vo-tech staff.

An Historic Meeting

This arrangement grew out of a meeting in 1970 called by James Hamilton, a state senator interested in corrections issues. Hamilton called together the directors of Oklahoma's vo-tech department, corrections department and Employment Security Commission to discuss the idea of converting a vacant job corps center in Southeastern Oklahoma into a specialized vocational training facility exclusively for inmates.

A year later, the center reopened as the Hodgen Inmate Training Center. Corrections staff administered the facility and vo-tech staff ran three vocational programs and a learning lab to teach inmates math and reading skills. Initially, only vo-tech student-inmates were placed at the facility, but within a few years the center expanded to become a full-fledged minimum security prison. In the 1980s, it was renamed the Ouachita Vo-Tech Skills Center, after the surrounding Ouachita National Forest.

With the success at Hodgen, additional skills centers were opened at Oklahoma prisons in the '70s and '80s. The corrections/vo-tech partnership has proved beneficial to both departments. The management teams of the agencies meet regularly to ensure they are meeting mutually agreed upon objectives and to discuss problems that arise.

Program Benefits

Having the vo-tech department administer the program has several benefits. Most significantly, this arrangement ensures that the program's focus is on education. Programs operated by corrections officials often tend to be measured in terms of their ability to address inmate idleness, security issues and the institution's maintenance needs.

Second, a prison school operated by vo-tech specialists is more likely to have an environment where student-teacher bonding can take place. Recent interviews with Oklahoma inmates illustrate this point. One inmate said he became so involved when studying the material that he forgot he was in prison. Another said, "It is kind of a haven for me. I am very protective of vo-tech, and try to stop anything that might hurt it."

Other inmates have said they were treated as students rather than inmates while in the vo-tech center. And several years ago, when rioting inmates set fire to several buildings at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown, a number of inmates surrounded the vo-tech center to make sure it was not damaged.

A final advantage to Oklahoma's system is that it gives the prison's training centers access to the vo-tech department's state-of-the-art equipment. With legislators often reluctant to fund corrections budgets, a corrections system can benefit by having the vo-tech department provide equipment.

The vo-tech department believes there is no reason a prison vocational program cannot match the quality of education found in the finest vo-tech schools. Ironically, many barriers to learning found in the real world do not exist in the correctional setting. For example, prison vocational programs do not close because of weather or extended vacations. Inmates are not faced with the domestic distractions often found in the home. And finally, costs associated with tuition, child care and transportation are not factors for inmates. Because inmate-students live in a tightly controlled environment, they can focus on their studies.

Administering the Programs

Oklahoma's programs include auto body work, carpentry, construction trades, custodial services, data processing, electrical work, equine management, food service, heavy equipment mechanics and operation, horticulture, landscaping, industrial electronics, masonry, plumbing, power products technology, welding and repair work related to computers, air conditioning, heating, refrigeration, farm equipment, machine tools and major appliances.

Enrollment is voluntary and restricted to minimum and medium security inmates. Enrollment begins at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, where corrections and vo-tech staff work together to determine inmates' educational needs before assigning them to a facility. A vo-tech employee is responsible for ensuring that offenders enroll in an appropriate program based on their interests and aptitude and their crime and length of sentence.

Each inmate who enrolls in the vocational program receives an occupational plan. This plan is updated regularly to incorporate events such as misconduct reports and changes in parole status that may affect an offender's ability to find a job. The offender is directly involved in developing and revising the plan.

The programs range in length from 18 to 32 weeks, with inmates receiving three to six hours of instruction a day. The programs usually are at 100 percent capacity. Vacancies in any one program seldom occur for more than two or three weeks at a time before they are filled.

Job development specialists employed by the vo-tech department help minimum security inmates who complete the program find jobs when they are released from prison. These staff work closely with DOC reintegration specialists in preparing offenders to make the transition to society.

About 70 percent of minimum security inmates who complete the program find jobs within 90 days of release. Nearly all medium security inmates who complete the program are placed in jobs at DOC institutions.

Some of the larger skills centers conduct graduation ceremonies where students are publicly awarded certificates at center stage. After receiving a certificate, each inmate has an opportunity to address the assembly of family members, close friends, fellow students, and vo-tech and prison staff. For many, it is the first opportunity they have ever had to speak in front of a large audience; the testimonials they offer are a compelling argument for the value of correctional education.

To ensure that training is relevant to the real world jobs that inmates will seek upon release, each program has a voluntary advisory committee composed of business and industry representatives who meet regularly to review the curriculum and make recommendations concerning facilities and equipment. Committee members also may be used as potential employers for program completers.

A recent review found that inmates enrolled in the state's vocational programs in prison perform at a level comparable to adults enrolled in similar types of programs in public vo-tech schools. Additional studies in Maryland, Illinois and Oklahoma have shown that inmates who complete occupational programs recidivate at lower rates than other inmates.

A Worthy Investment

How much longer can Americans invest in prisons that only temporarily take offenders off its streets? More important, how much longer can we afford to waste vital human resources who are lying dormant in our correctional institutions - human resources who are consuming an increasing share of the gross national product? It is a simple matter of economics. When we turn tax users into taxpayers, everybody wins and communities become safer.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Friedemann, Tom
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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