‘Changing The Mindset’: Female Inmates In Training For A Life After Prison

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The inside of one of the buildings at Washington Corrections Center for Women looks like a prep site for a construction project. It's full of cinder blocks, wheelbarrows, and large standing wood frames. About a dozen inmates wearing orange safety vests and hardhats are pounding nails into the frames.

Steve Petermann is the instructor keeping watch. "There's a method here," Petermann says. "They have to do so many nails in so many minutes and they have to [pound] those nails down, on the side, and overhead."

The inmates at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, Wash., are among more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States. For many who leave prison behind, recidivism is a problem.

One of the biggest obstacles they face on the outside is landing a legitimate job — especially one that pays more than minimum wage. WCCW aims to give its inmates a better chance by running Trades Related Apprentice Coaching (TRAC) inside the prison. It's a partnership between the prison and unions representing the construction trades — the Carpenters, Ironworkers, Laborers and Cement Masons unions.

Petermann, a retired carpenter, has managed the program for nearly six years. He says the program allows women to learn skills that can lead to a career they may never have envisioned.

"If they do well in here and complete their testing," he says. "What we can do is get them direct entry into a living wage job."

TRAC graduates have what Petermann calls "preferred entry" for union apprenticeships once they finish their prison terms. The starting wage, the first day on the job, is about $25 to $26 per hour. TRAC also partners with non-profit groups to help women get the appropriate work clothes and tools they may need.

They also help pay union dues and even rent for those starting out. That's important. Many of the women in the prison are single mothers with children.

'I need a career that gives me benefits'

That's the case with 35-year-old Crystal Lansdale, who has four children. No longer addicted to methamphetamine, she was near the end of her sentence for identity theft and drug offenses. Lansdale says she made bad decisions she doesn't want to repeat.

"I don't want to be a reoffender. I don't want to come back to prison and I want this to be my one and only trip," says Lansdale. "The construction trades is something like a way out of the box for me. I need a career that is going to give me retirement, that's going to give me benefits, that's going to give me an opportunity to take care of my kids."

To get into the program, participants have to be in good health, go through a screening process that includes an interview, testing for math skills and for physical agility. For 16 weeks, the women spend up to six hours a day learning about tools and building techniques. There's homework and physical work that requires plenty of stamina.

Desiree Jensen, 31, had just completed one exercise.

"I was doing the blocks. We have to [move] a set of 13 [30 lb. cinder blocks] back and forth, four times in under 11 minutes. I did 6:37," she says proudly. "I love it. It gives me a good workout."

Jensen was convicted of assault. She has two daughters. She also has a background in welding and likes math and detail. She's interested in becoming a millwright, a high precision craftsperson who works with machinery, and she's plenty motivated.

"This is my future. The way I've been living my life the last 30 years isn't working," she says. "So it's time I do something else because I'm never going to come back to this place."

In another area, women are shoveling gravel and dirt. Celeste, 49, is the oldest in the group. She is serving a sentence for 2nd degree murder. Prison regulations require the use of Celeste's first name only.

Celeste says she's remorseful and is paying the price for setting up a robbery that went bad. She says she likes hard work and kept requesting to be a part of TRAC. She says she strives to move forward for her sons and grandchildren. She's most proud of completing the task that required each woman to dig a ditch 6 feet long and 18 inches deep in under two hours.

Her best time so far is just over an hour and a half and she's looking forward to getting an apprenticeship with one of the trade unions.

"It just changes your life once you get out. You're not making minimum wage. Your family is going to have much respect and your kids will respect you too," she says. "Your mindset is changing, and you got to be willing to cut off people who are going to be a bad influence. You got to be focused just on TRAC because this is a lot of work."

Facing sexism in the workplace

These women get encouragement from others who know what they'll face on the outside. Lisa Marx , outreach worker for Northwest Carpenters Institute, was a guest speaker brought in to talk to the inmates in TRAC. Marx has worked building and tearing down scaffolding for oil rigs in Washington state and now acts as a mentor for many women working in the construction trades.

Marx tells the women the carpentry union offers eight different apprenticeships. She's also honest about what they'll face — from outright sexism to awkwardness that may come with being the new kid in a field dominated by men. Marx tells them it's a wide-open job market, though, with women more accepted on job sites.

"I'm not going to say everything is going to be peaches and cream and rosy, because it's not,"says Marx. "There's been a lot of times that I've been set up for failure and you may face that at times. And just know that you do not jeopardize your safety for anybody."

TRAC graduates are paid assistants

On the training floor, inmates continued exercises — getting timed as they shovel gravel and sand. Inmates wearing red hardhats are TRAC graduates who are paid assistants and help run the classes. Steve Petermann calls them the backbone of the program.

Chantal Trotter, 37, is a TRAC graduate. She has four children and wants to become an ironworker. Convicted on drug charges, she says her days as a drug dealer are over and she's looking forward to providing for her family with a well-paying, legal job.

Trotter says during her time in TRAC she's become more confident and respectful of the department of corrections, law enforcement and state officials. She says that's a new feeling for her and she wants to pass it along to the other women she's helping to train.

"I want them to get that same excitement about their future. [When you] walk in here, it's more than just digging ditches and shoveling gravel and carrying heavy things really quickly," she says. "It's more of getting to know who you are and where you want to be."

About 120 women have graduated from the TRAC program in the last six years. Petermann says the recidivism rate is about 3 to 5 percent with most of the women returning for technical work release violations. On the wall of the training room at WCCW, there's an asterisk by the names of the women who've become apprentices and journey women after being released from prison.

Petermann says not everyone who starts a trades union apprenticeship makes it all the way through. He has high hopes for three of the women who are now out of prison. Celeste successfully interviewed with a union and is enrolled in an apprenticeship. Desiree Jensen and Crystal Lansdale are expected to begin their apprenticeships soon.

Meantime, Washington state has expanded TRAC to its Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Wash., doubling the size of the pre-apprenticeship program and giving more women in prison a chance to learn about getting a job in the trades.

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