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Stacey Phillips

Stacey Phillips photoStacey Phillips is a freelance writer for the automotive industry based in Southern California. She has 20 years of experience as an editor including writing in a number of businesses and fields.


She can be reached at sphillips.autobodynews@gmail.com. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017 21:22

Inmates Being Trained as Auto Body Technicians Across Nation

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With the growing need for skilled technicians across the nation, body shops are looking at new ways to hire employees.

In addition to reaching out to trade schools and similar industries, there is another alternative. From California to Massachusetts, auto body programs are being offered for inmates at correctional facilities throughout the United States. Autobody News spoke to five of these facilities to find out the benefits of the programs for both inmates and the collision repair industry.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California

More than 500 inmates are enrolled in the automotive programs offered through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Eighteen of the adult institutions in the state offer automotive programs; 14 of them in auto body repair and 15 in auto mechanics, and the majority offer both. This includes an auto body program at the Central California Women’s Facility.


Krissi Khokhobashvili, the public information officer II at CDCR, said there are multiple benefits to having these programs.

“Students are learning valuable skills and certifications that will help them find good jobs once they parole,” said Khokhobashvili. “This is a trade every community needs, so offenders will hopefully be able to find work throughout the rest of their lives no matter where they live.”

The program dates back to the 1960s when the California Correctional Center and Deuel Vocation Institution began offering automotive programs for inmates. Numerous classes have been available since the 1980s and 1990s.


The programs are offered through the Office of Correctional Education Career Technical Education (CTE) program. Generally, inmates attend class six and a half hours a day, five days a week and the curriculum includes textbook learning, lectures, videos and hands-on training. Mechanic classes focus on diagnosing and solving engine problems whereas auto body students work on repairing panels, doors, hoods, fenders, etc.


The cars used in the program are purchased by CDCR. Employees can also bring in vehicles for repair, but must supply their own parts. Local body shops often donate parts as well.


The inmates are taught by CTE instructors who are credentialed by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “Our automotive instructors are highly trained and take this work very seriously,” said Khokhobashvili. “Their mission is to train offenders to become excellent mechanics and technicians, and they hold their students to very high standards.”


Not only can these type of jobs be held with a felony conviction, Khokhobashvili said those who know how to repair cars will also save money by being able to service their own vehicles. She pointed to a recent RAND study that showed for every dollar invested in education during incarceration, taxpayers save five dollars in recidivism costs, (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend). Whether inmates are involved with traditional classroom learning or vocational courses, it has been found that those who pursue education while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison.


Although the department does not formally track where students eventually work, many have found jobs in the industry as painters, body workers and mechanics. “It’s a public safety issue,” said Khokhobashvili. “Most inmates will parole and they will return to your communities and become your neighbors. They are far more likely to be good neighbors if they spent their time in prison productively.”


Southern Desert Correctional Center, Indian Springs, Nevada


About 30 years ago, the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Nevada started a program for inmate workers to manufacturer limousines. It eventually evolved into an automotive restoration shop, where they do everything from minor repairs to complete “body-off-frame” jobs.


There are 27 inmates who currently work in the shop about six and a half to eight hours a day. They charge $55 an hour, compared to the going rate of $100 or more for similar work. Craig Korsgaard, the automotive restoration shop supervisor and the Southern Nevada marketing coordinator, said they charge customers a lower rate compared to other shops, but the work takes longer because the inmate workers are being trained.


“It’s on the job training,” said Korsgaard. “The better-skilled people help out the newer guys. I’m training everyone all the time.”


There is a year and a half waiting list due to the high quality of work and time it takes to work on each vehicle. Very little advertising is done. Instead, most of their business is through word of mouth or car shows.


They are currently working on 43 cars, including a Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, a 1935 Ford, a 1952 Studebaker and one of the original Pontiac Firebirds from the popular television series “The Rockford Files” with James Garner.


“Our mission is to provide inmate workers marketable skillsets so it is easier for them to find employment, which is one of the most difficult barriers ex-offenders run into upon their release,” said Brian Connett, deputy director, industries for the Nevada Department of Corrections. “There are a lot of benefits to working and getting this training that the industry provides.”


Korsgaard agreed. He said everyone benefits from the program. The inmate workers earn money they can send home to their families and 25 percent of their pay covers the cost for room and board.


The facility has set up some percentage funds that they contribute to, including a victims of crime fund that is given back to the community. There is also a fund that helps replace some of the broken tools.


When inmate workers are released from the institution, Connett said they are able to help with job placement if they go into transitional housing in the community.


Massachusetts Department of Correction, Massachusetts


Over the last six and a half years, the Massachusetts Department of Correction has offered a nine-month auto body program for inmates. The 10 students enrolled per class attend six hours a day, five times a week.


“The benefit of having this type of program is to lower the rate of recidivism by preparing inmates for being productive members of society,” Jan Hanratty, the vocational instructor from the Division of Inmate Training and Education. “It gives them the skills to be successful in the workplace and provides a sustainable wage.”


Hanratty received a bachelor of science and technology degree in industrial arts as well as vocational certifications in automotive and auto body technology.


In addition to hands-on experience, Hanratty said the students also spend time learning in a classroom setting. The cars used in the program are obtained from the city, state and municipal government as well as non-profit organizations. State-approved vendors provide the parts.


Some of the primary areas Hanratty has the students focus on include panel replacement, fabrication, painting, collision repair, frame pulling and measurement, computerized wheel alignment technology and antique restoration. After completing the class, students receive a vocational certification with the number of hours completed. Those who qualify have the option to continue for an additional nine-months of advanced training.


“The program was designed to develop and prepare entry-level technicians to enter into the collision industry,” said Hanratty. She said they often place students in body shops, dealerships and independent chain shops. One was hired full-time at a major automobile manufacturer after being released.


In addition to the auto body program, the Massachusetts Department of Correction also offers an automotive program for inmates. After previously being held in Plymouth, a new automotive shop was opened in Milford on August 15, 2016. There are 12 inmates in each 10-month class. The vocational instructor, Julio Perez, along with industrial instructors Dana Johnson and Dave Ferrier, help the students prepare for ASE G1 certification, mobile air conditioning license and OSHA 10.


St. Brides Correctional Center, Chesapeake, Virginia


In Chesapeake, Virginia, Joseph McDougald has instructed the auto body program at St. Brides Correctional Center for the past two years.


Currently there are two classes, one in the morning with 12 students and another in the evening with an additional 12. “They range in experience, with some who don’t know what a wrench is,” said McDougald, who manages both the classroom and body shop. “Then I have some who are very talented and I use them to help the other ones with body work.” In addition, he has four workers—also offenders—who spend six hours a day as aides.


During the 16-month course, McDougald uses a textbook to teach and covers auto body repair technology. He said it is similar to what is taught at a vocational school. “They really look forward to coming to class,” he said. “We push hard and try to teach them what we can.”


Prior to working at St. Brides, McDougald was employed at Ford Motor Company for 17 years in the body shop at the F-150 plant in Virginia. After the plant closed, he was hired at the United States Coast Guard for seven years. With a love and passion for the automotive industry, he decided to join St. Bridges as an auto body instructor when he found out the correctional center was hiring.


“We all learn something new every day,” said McDougald. “We’re trying to teach these offenders a skilled trade and hope that when they are released from prison they have a trade that they can fall back on and get a new start in life and try not to end up back in a place like this.”


After graduating from the program, students receive a certificate from the correctional facility. McDougald regularly contacts body shops to see if he can help place students in jobs when they are released.


In the meantime, they are restoring a variety of vehicles for state employees who are able have them worked on for a fee. These include a 1966 Pontiac Catalina convertible, a 1966 Mustang coupe and a 1994 Chevrolet 1500 4x4 truck.


McDougald is always looking for ways to strengthen the program. He hopes to add virtual reality simulators to the classroom so he can demonstrate different techniques to students. Another goal is to find a way to get the students certified through I-CAR so when they are released from prison, they leave as a pro level one I-CAR mechanic. “That would help them even more get a job.”


He said he enjoys teaching the students, especially when they are first getting started. “I like to see them get a second chance and start fresh,” said McDougald. There are always jobs in the auto body field.”


MacDougall Correctional Institution, South Carolina


In 1969, a body shop opened at MacDougall Correctional Institution, which is one of the 22 institutions that are part of South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDCI).


Classes are held at MacDougall Correctional Institution through the week. Approximately 30 inmate students attend the three-hour classes, half in the morning and the remainder in the evening. There are three levels of certification. Level 1 requires completion of 200 hours; level 2 requires 500; and Level 3 is for those who reach 1,000 plus hours.


“Our main focus is teaching students to repair small dents and paint vehicles,” said Bob Hill, who has been the facility’s auto body instructor since 1993. He recently retired on January 2, 2017.


He said most of the vehicles the students work on are from SCDC employees, as well as their friends and family members.


“The benefit of this program is to teach inmates a skill to carry with them upon their release to better increase their opportunities for employment,” said Hill. Although inmate students are not placed in body shops, many have gone on to work in collision repair and others have opened their own facilities.

In a letter written to the vocational director of Palmetto Unified School District, one of the participants of the program, Shawn Janowczyk, shared his thoughts on the auto body classes.


“I think it is important to share that outside of my relationship with Jesus Christ, being afforded the opportunity to take the auto body class has been a watershed of my life,” Janowczyk, who has been involved with the program for 10 years and is currently a teacher’s assistant. “For the first time ever, I have the confidence and skill to go out into society and not only make it (not come back to prison), but also be a productive member of society.”


After thanking his instructor, Mr. Hill, he added, “In closing, with Mr. Hill retiring, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think it would be a shame if the body shop was allowed to be shut down,” said Janowczyk. “I know what it has done for me and can only imagine what it could do for others.”

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