Leaving better than they entered - Titusville Herald: News

Leaving better than they entered

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2019 5:00 am

Editor’s note: Per a request made the Forest State Correctional Institution, inmates are referred to only by their first name in this article.

MARIENVILLE, Forest County — Wednesday marked the second ever annual career re-entry job fair at the Forest State Correctional Institution, which allowed inmates to speak with a variety of potential employers, community support organizations and other possible resources.

Participating organizations ranged from CareerLink, Salvation Army of Pittsburgh, Flagger Force and more. Each attending group met face-to-face with the inmates of the state prison, giving advice on seeking careers and, in a few cases, even setting up job interviews post-release.

The career fair is just one of many programs Forest SCI undertakes to prepare those imprisoned at the facility for the working world upon release. According to Forest SCI Superintendent Derek Oberlander, of the prison’s 2,159 inmates, only 311 of them are serving life sentences. The average age for an inmate is 37, while the average minimum and maximum sentence of those inmates is 11 and 25 years, respectively.

“That tells you 86% of them are leaving,” Oberlander said. “And we have to make them better than they entered.”

The prison’s approach to reforming its inmates is a multifaceted one. Forest SCI enjoys a full staff of educators, equipped to teach both academic and vocational classes; an upcoming industrial plant that will give prisoners experience performing maintenance on Pennsylvania Department of Transportation vehicles; and several specialized programs to help them bounce back on their feet once they leave the world of steel bars, barbed wire fences and almost constant surveillance behind.

“Inmates are coming out and they’re ready to work — they’re willing to work,” Oberlander said.

Back to school

Amidst the various holding facilities and administration offices that make up Forest SCI’s 202 acres of land is a building that has more in common with a high school than the usual structure expected of a prison.

The education canter is overseen by Principal Sharon Dombroski. There, inmates can take basic education courses, learn the requirements for electrical work and even experience what it’s like to drive a semi-truck using an advanced simulation.

There is even an incentive for the inmates to take part in these courses. Those who participate are paid 25 cents an hour for as long as they’re taking the classes.

However, this doesn’t mean the inmates have it easy. Dombroski said those in the classes are held to high standards, and have to make passing grades and show dedication to stay in the educational program. To even get into the classes, inmates must send in an application to the prison’s guidance counselor. Space is limited, with preference given to those with a lower minimum sentence.

Those that make it have access to six academic courses, seven vocational classes and a barber school.

“This gives the guys an opportunity to walk out of here with a high school diploma,” Dombroski said.

While General Education Development and and Commonwealth Secondary diplomas can be earned by inmates, they can go past basic education and focus on specific career fields.

One such course is a heating, ventilation and air conditioning, better known as HVAC, program taught by Kal Lyons, a maintenance worker at the prison. Lyons said his class focuses on the basics of HVAC, giving students everything they need to branch out into other areas.

“This is what you need to get your foot in the door, which is what we’re trying to get,” Lyons said.

Everything from HVAC theory to even soldering is covered, from which inmates could pursue careers as HVAC salesmen, technicians or maintenance workers.

Steve Best is another maintenance employee at the prison who teaches a class. His area of expertise is on framing, and his students learn how to build the interiors of houses, floors and roofs. He also likes to give particularly invested inmates the chance try out other related fields.

“If they’re interested in carpentry and wood working, I let them get into it,” Best said.

One of the hardest challenges for many inmates, according to Best, is learning how to read a measuring tape. He said several of his students initially have difficulty figuring out how to measure fractions of an inch, though they usually learn quickly and set to work building a multitude of things.

Indeed, there are many pieces of furniture around the prison that have been built by an inmate. A bookcase in Dombroski’s office is one such example, as well as counters in the electrical classroom.

An electricity class taught by Richard Zimmerman at the prison was the first of its kind for correctional institutes when it was made in 2005. The classroom has mock electrical panels and wire set ups, where inmates learn how to correctly wire various components of residences and other buildings.

Zimmerman wears many hats at the educational center, also teaching a course on constructing environmentally friendly homes and flagging seminars.

Not all of the work is of the hands-on variety. Monica Morgan, a business education teacher, mostly focuses on proper typing techniques and learning how to use Microsoft Office programs in her class. From this foundation, students can then chose one of two tracts to continue their business education. One focuses on managing a small business, useful for those planning to open up their own store, while another has more advanced education for the Microsoft Office products, such as using Excel.

SCI Forest also is not afraid of getting advanced pieces of equipment for its classes. A machine meant to simulate driving commercial vehicles cost the prison around $100,000, according to instructor Robert Burkett. This device, known as a Doron 550, allows students to experience what it’s like to drive a variety of commercial vehicles, such as semi-trucks, all in a safe environment.

“We have a lot of students who have never driven a stick before and I tell them ‘This is a golden opportunity,’ because they can’t break anything here,” Burkett said.

The machine is able to simulate driving in the rain, snow or late at night. Various malfunctions can also be triggered on command by instructors, such as a tire suddenly popping or breaks failing. Through the simulator, students can work toward earning a commercial driver’s license.

While not through an official class, the education center also allows inmates to foster their artistic talents. The walls of the buildings are adorned with a variety of murals, many of them painted by a prisoner who never touched a brush in their life before their incarceration, according to Oberlander. These range from medical diagrams of the human body to portraits of historical figures, as well as many sports team logos and jerseys.

Gaining experience

behind bars

Beyond just the classes, prisoners also have the chance to gain hands-on experience for specialty fields. A big exemplar of this is a correctional industry building that is currently under construction, wherein inmates will work on restoring a variety of state-owned vehicles.

A portion of the facility is currently up and running. Participating inmates work to restore corroded wheels for PennDOT vehicles. The inmates remove the corrosion, heat treat the wheels and provide a fresh coat of paint, among other services. According to Tim McKinney, the supervisor for the correctional industries plant, many of the skills the inmates learn through the program are relatively rare, and provide career opportunities upon their release.

“It gives them an opportunity for a premiere job once they leave the facility,” McKinney said.

The wheel restoration program began earlier this year. As more of the plant is constructed, the prison plans to take on more projects, such as fixing up PennDOT snow plows and repairing truck frames.

Another recent addition to the programs offered at the prison is Pups Are Worth Saving, better known as PAWS. Prisoners enrolled in PAWS serve as dog trainers, taking animals from area shelters and teaching them how to serve as emotional support or medical response dogs. Started up four years ago, PAWS is overseen by Unit Manager Yvette Perrin, who sees the program as saving the lives of dogs while also giving the inmates a chance.

Similar to the educational courses, inmates must apply to participate in PAWS, and are subject to a comprehensive vetting process that includes an interview with both Perrin and the other inmates involved. Even once a prisoner is approved to join on, they must go through a probationary period where they are not paid for their participation, ensuring only those serious about caring for dogs will take part.

Currently, five dogs are being cared for by 11 inmates through the PAWS program. The prisoners are with the dogs almost constantly, teaching them to obey a variety of commands.

One such example is Nala, a 2 1/2-year-old dog trained by inmates Michael and Cecil. Nala will be given to a woman suffering from muscular dystrophy, meaning she needs a mobile source of support in case of a fall, or even just to sit down. Nala is trained to rush over to her owner’s side and then stand still, allowing the woman to use her as leverage while moving.

Cecil recalled how, when he first join the PAWS program, he had to deal with a very difficult dog after another inmate dropped out.

“I was thrust into the spotlight before I was ready,” he said.

Working with PAWS requires a lot of research, according to Cecil, including reading up on psychology and animal behavior. Perrin said this kind of education can help inmates better understand people once they leave.

One major aspect of the PAWS program is teamwork. Inmates will frequently ask each other for assistance, and also can receive advice from a professional dog trainer who visits every week.

“We always have someone to help,” Jared, an inmate currently training his first dog, said.

David, another inmate, helped establish PAWS in its current form. While there was a previous dog training program at the prison, it was rife with various issues, according to David. Since PAWS was made, David has trained around 30 dogs and seen many success stories from his fellow inmates.

“This program has blossomed,” he said.

In their own words

For the inmates who take part in Forest SCI’s educational programs, they have nothing but positive things to say.

“They do it for us,” Victor, an inmate, said. “They are there to help us.”

A major moment in Victor’s life came during his incarceration, when he earned his high school diploma.

“I was proud of myself,” he said. “My family was proud of (me).”

Now, he is working with Forest SCI staff to set up educational programs for inmates who only speak Spanish, allowing them a chance to learn English and join in with the other courses.

Anthony gave high praise for the prison’s money smart course, which teaches participants how to manage their money, save funds and get the most when their bank account is running low.

“We know how to cherish a dollar,” he said.

Darren, who said he has been in the prison system before, was amazed at the difference his experience with Forest SCI has been.

“At one time, it was like you come in, you do your time, you go home,” he said. “My last number, I didn’t get none of this.”

He now plans to open up a detailing business when he gets out, a practice he learned the skills for while imprisoned at the SCI.

The career re-entry fair saw particular praise. Inmate Jay attended the fair both this year and in 2018, which has allowed him develop a rapport with several employers, with opportunities already lined up for his eventual release.

Chester, an inmate who participates in both PAWS and the CDI course, was particularly happy he was able to learn about the various services CareerLink offers while at the fair.

“I thought it was just a job search,” he said.

Lawerence sees the prison’s programs as focusing on the individual prisoners, highlighting the drug and alcohol rehab programs. However, he also sees the various work services as fostering a team-based mentality.

“Even in the dietary department, you work as a team,” he said. “It’s no big I’s and little you’s.”

Inmate Ulysses expressed a kind of gratitude about his time in Forest SCI, as he thinks he never would have had all the opportunities that have now opened up to him in his previous life.

“Here, you got all the time in the world, and you get paid to do it,” he said. “That’s killing two birds with one stone.”

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Noahs Bark posted at 10:56 pm on Thu, Jul 25, 2019.

    Noahs Bark Posts: 118

    Wait... the taxpayers paid $100,000 for a driving simulator? I got an X-Box 360 I’ll sell the state for half that and I’ll throw in Grand Theft Auto 2019 “Diamond Street Edition”. These inmates will love it!

  • SSDD posted at 8:28 pm on Thu, Jul 25, 2019.

    SSDD Posts: 40

    Trolling just to troll, is how a certain individual that starts with a J and ends in an A rolls. Just saying. Obvious troll is obvious.

  • Jahoba posted at 7:33 am on Thu, Jul 25, 2019.

    Jahoba Posts: 240

    Does anyone really want any of these people in their homes working on HVAC units with their criminal history? This is the problem with all of the snowflakes in this country thinking everyone can be rehabilitated. We need bigger prisons, more police, and more executions.


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