Terrance Jones didn’t have any automotive experience when he entered Washington State Penitentiary, let alone a skill or trade.
He learned about the educational programs offered by Walla Walla Community College at a minimum-security unit of the correctional facility and decided to enroll in auto body repair.
During the one-year certificate program held on the facility grounds, he learned how to disassemble and reassemble vehicles, do bodywork and paint vehicles for the local community who brought in their cars for repair.
“I loved it,” said Jones. “A lot of these guys, including myself, when we go in, don’t have any experience in any type of field let alone being able to hold down a decent job. The fact that when I got out I was going to have a trade skill under my belt and I could get a decent job when I first got out was really exciting.”
Once Jones earned his auto body certificate from the college, he became a teaching assistant (TA) for the next year and a half before being released from prison in 2016.
As part of Washington Department of Corrections’ work release program, Jones was placed at a Maaco facility where he worked for a short time before being hired at H & I Automotive in downtown Seattle. He said the skills he learned in the community college in-prison program from his instructor, Lee Brickey, have been crucial to his success.
“He is that guy who actually cares about what happens to the gentlemen who come through this program,” said Jones.
As a result, he has been able to move up the ranks quickly at H & I Automotive.
“I’m one of their lead technicians and ‘go to’ guy, which feels good,” he added.
Jones said the experiences students have in the auto body program give them hope that they can work rather than return to their previous lives.
“I know countless guys who I knew when I was inside prison who have gone back already and there’s only a handful of us who are still out and doing well,” said Jones. “It was really based on the skills and trades we learned while in prison.”
He encourages body shops to be patient with new technicians who might have gone through a similar program and “not to give up on these guys.”
“You might have to sift through a few bad apples before you find a good one but don’t give up because we are out there,” said Jones.
Studies have repeatedly shown that increasing education initiatives in prison lead to lower recidivism rates.
“Most of the men and women entering correctional facilities lack the literacy and employment skills needed to succeed in our communities upon release,” according to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “Offenders who are provided opportunities to gain job skills are much more likely to be successful in the community upon release and educated offenders are statistically less likely to commit additional crimes.”
To help reverse this trend, in-prison educational programs are offered by community and technical colleges around the country. The goal is to educate incarcerated individuals so they can re-enter society and be able to work and contribute.
Walla Walla Community College in Walla Walla, WA, is one of these. The college has established an in-prison auto body and diesel mechanic program at Washington State Penitentiary and an automotive mechanics program at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.
Washington State Penitentiary
Hired through Walla Walla Community College, Brickey has worked as the auto body instructor for Washington State Penitentiary for the last decade. Prior to that, he instructed at Columbia Basin College for five years and has worked in collision repair facilities for more than 20 years.
On a typical day, Brickey’s students spend about six hours a day, five days a week, at the body shop, which was set up at the minimum-security unit of the facility by the college and Department of Corrections. Teaching up to 18 students at a time, Brickey teaches them how to repair vehicles for the surrounding community following the same curriculum that is taught on the college campus.
Students have the option of participating in a nine-month program or working toward an associates degree. Upon graduating, they receive a certificate from the community college.
If they have done well in the class and haven’t been released from the correctional facility yet, they are invited to work as TAs and are paid for helping with grades and student questions.
“For anyone who has completed one of the programs, we’ve found that the rates of reoffending go way down,” he said.
Brickey recalls one of his students who was 21 years old and had a challenging time working with others. The collision repair instructor gave him a project to focus on—painting a bright red sports car. When the vehicle was unmasked and pushed out of the paint booth, Brickey said it looked impressive.
“Everyone was standing around and said it looked really nice,” he recalled. “I talked to him later and he said it was the first time in his whole life that anybody gave him a compliment about anything he had accomplished.”
Personal experiences like these are gratifying for Brickey who always had an interest in the automotive trade. When Walla Walla Community College approached him about teaching, he decided it would be a good fit.
“I like making a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s amazing sometimes and it’s frustrating sometimes because you find out these guys get into trouble and it’s not going to turn out perfect for all of them, but there are ones that it does.”
With baby boomers retiring and not enough workers to fill their positions, Brickey said vocational training in state correctional facilities will help address the gap.
“It’s amazing the shortage of skilled people we have,” he said.
His advice to body shops looking for employees is to give inmates a chance.
Coyote Ridge Correction Center
Over the past two years, Douglas Leclair has taught an automotive services program at Coyote Ridge. Similar to the Washington State Penitentiary program, a full-service auto repair shop was established by Walla Walla Community College about a decade ago on the prison grounds where students work on vehicles throughout the week.
He currently has 18 students and six teaching assistants (TAs) who take part in the program. At Coyote Ridge, the main focus is on mechanical repair.
“Many cars require major assembly removal in order to do the repairs,” said Leclair, who has worked in the automotive field since 1992. “We’re finding in the body shop industry the big body shops will have a mechanic; they have to.”
Leclair helps them learn to think critically to diagnose problems and work on soft skills, which he has found to be essential to prepare them to work when they are released from prison.
“What made Southwest Airlines so successful is that they don’t hire people with the skillset, they hire people with the right attitude and teach them the necessary skills,” he observed. “We call it ‘men teaching men.’ In the prison system, it’s really hard for an inmate to tell another inmate what to do, but I think we’ve overcome that in our little area of the world. My TAs are well-respected by the other guys.”
By state law, most inmates receive $40 and a bus pass when they are released. Leclair hopes that by teaching them a trade, they can make a living wage when they are released.
“A lot of these guys have been incarcerated at a young age and don’t have a skillset or a trade,” said Leclair. “If they leave here with a trade, then they don’t have to resort to activities that are less than desirable. If we give them a skill, they make great employees.”
An advisory committee is set up where the automotive instructors regularly meet with the industry as part of the curriculum development to find out what types of positions they are searching for.
Last year, one of the inmates who took part in the automotive program was released from prison and hired as a foreman at a Ford dealership in Arizona. Another, who had served 17 years, was hired to work as a mechanic in Yakima, WA.
“He took the skills he learned in the program and within three weeks, he was promoted to be the main mechanic in the facility,” said Leclair.
For those questioning whether or not to hire a former inmate, Leclair said if they are given a skill, studies have shown they make great employees.
“I had a teacher in high school who took a chance on me,” he recalled. “The guys in here, on average, are good, solid people and they made a mistake.”
He also recommends paying new technicians fairly, even those with little to no experience. Through his experience managing a car dealership, Leclair found that offering a competitive wage up front and training individuals from the onset most often led to success; he encourages body shops to do the same.
Clayton Long recently completed the automotive mechanics' program at Coyote Ridge.
“I had no prior automotive experience outside of knowing how to drive a vehicle,” said Long. “With that in mind, I knew I had an uphill battle on my hands.”
He said the course curriculum was a system-by-system approach, which made understanding the material much easier.
“I soon realized that we weren’t expected to know everything, as this field is constantly evolving,” said Long. “I had to learn that learning never stops; I have to adapt to technology constantly changing and I have to work hard and remain dedicated in order to be successful in my trade.”
When Long is released, he said his educational certificate will help get him through the door and into the interview process.
“The personal growth that I have achieved is what will get me the job I want,” said Long. “Once I get through the door, I want to do everything—especially the work that nobody wants to do.”
Samuel Laur was also one of Leclair’s students at Coyote Ridge who completed the automotive program.
“The program has given me hope that I’ll be able to get out and get a good job with a wage that will allow me to support myself and not come back to prison,” said Laur.