Road to Reformation
By Caitlyn Burchett
The inmates at Taylor Correctional Institute (TCI) have dreams that reach far beyond the large coils of razor wire atop the fencing separating them from the outside world. More than 80 inmates are enrolled in the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) vocational programs offered at TCI, as they “broaden their horizons” and strive to be better stewards in the community when released.
A bold orange line painted on the pavement guides inmates from place to place within the prison, but once they enter the classroom, they are not just inmates – they are students, carpenters and plumbers in training.
In partnership with the Tallahassee Community College (TCC), the local prison currently offers carpentry and plumbing certifications to inmates who have a high school diploma or general education degree (GED) or who are working to obtain a GED.
The programs combine hands-on training with a classroom curriculum to prepare the inmates for successful re-entry into their communities.
“Inmates graduate from these programs with a competitive skill set and resume in hand, confident in their abilities to obtain gainful employment in these high-demand careers,” said Mark Inch, Secretary of the Florida DOC.
The buzz of power saws and motorized drills can be heard before entering the carpentry classroom as the students are hard at work. In the midst of flying sawdust and swinging hammers stands a mock-up of a house, built from the ground to the roof.
To the men who build the houses in the program, the house represents what they have to offer the outside world.
Vocational carpentry instructor Tim Lundy offers instruction and guidance to the 21 students currently enrolled in the industry-recognized program. “[The students] can take the certs they gain here and present them to potential employers, and it allows them to get credit for entry-level carpentry positions to get a job,” Lundy explained. According to inmate Alexander Jordan, a carpentry student, the program is “the best thing” for the inmates.
“It keeps our minds occupied and will give us better livelihoods outside,” Jordan said.
“The program teaches hand-eye coordination, of course, and a basic understanding of how things are built,” Jordan said.
Upon completing 600 hours in the program, the inmates receive a certificate, as well as OSHA training, a resume and mock interview experience.
“It takes a lot of discipline, especially on the books. A lot of people have different backgrounds. For me, I had trouble with the reading comprehension, so I was much better with the hands-on training. I have a 95 grade point average (GPA), and one B out of the whole thing,” Jordan beamed.
After completing the program himself, inmate James Andrews now serves as an inmate teaching assistant (ITA) for the carpentry program.
“Our goal is to help these men become better stewards in their communities. With the program, it is imperative to give these men what they need to move forward,” Andrews said. “I think it is important that we all receive the training necessary to re-enter the workforce and society as a whole.”
On the other side of TCI, 16 plumbing students solder copper pipe, install toilets and engineer drainage systems.
A skeleton of a house sits on a platform in the corner of the large classroom. The house is outfitted with PVC and copper pipes, sinks, a toilet, a bathtub, a shower, a dishwasher and a hot water heater.
“We designed this house as a real house operates. We included new technology, such as on-demand hot water systems, so they can have that knowledge. We mainly teach residential, but we get into some commercial,” TCC vocational plumbing instructor Colin Brock said.
Brock, who previously served as a TCI maintenance worker, said he was surprised by the “basic lack of knowledge” his student inmates had at the beginning of the program.
“These men were not afforded the opportunity that I was, the opportunity to work and learn,” Brock said.
The plumbing students currently begin the program learning through a two-part book.
“Then they move on to the hands-on part of it, it is really exciting when you see it click for them. They will say ‘Oh, hey I read this in the book.’ Then, they actually get to perform that task,” Brock said. “It is just amazing to see that.”
Inmate plumbing student Yuniet Lee is on the first part of the book.
“It is teaching me more than I ever thought. I thought I knew a lot about plumbing, but I really did not know anything, “Lee said, explaining that he had “a little” plumbing experience prior to being incarcerated.
Lee plans to pursue plumbing, as well as other trades, after he is released.
“I am glad that I am taking this class. Everybody needs plumbing. It is a job that people will always need someone to do,” Lee said.
Both the carpentry and the plumbing vocational programs teach resumes and cover letter building to the students to better equip them for the job application process.
Advanced plumbing student Steven Alexander Jr. assists his fellow plumbing peers with resume and cover letter building.
“A good resume sets you apart from others. People think that when you are in construction, for example, you might just show up and ask for a job. But employers will be blown away when someone from prison shows up with a professional resume,” Alexander said, explaining the importance of this section of the program.
“On cover letters, we sum up our skills that we have to offer. For references, it is a little bit different for us because we are in prison, but our teachers – like Mr. Brock – have said we can use them as a reference. So when we get out, we still have real references,” Alexander said.
While the TCI student inmates commended the DOC’s 94 vocational programs available at various institutions around the state, they are interested in pursuing more than the two programs offered at the local institution.
“I would like to see more management training so that we can set higher goals for ourselves instead of just entry-level spots. I thank that would be a really awesome endeavor,” Andrews said. “There are a lot of us with higher goals.”
Alexander was interested in wastewater management, so he is independently pursuing a state certification in waste-water, as well as partaking in the plumbing program.
“Once I get my state cert for wastewater, I will apply to work at a wastewater plant for a prison. I hope to parley that into the civilian world. If I can’t find a job with wastewater right away, I will be doing plumbing,” Alexander said.
Alexander agreed with fellow carpentry and plumbing students that the programs have only benefited them and prepared them for a future after prison.
“One thing it taught us is just the obvious – how to plumb, solder, take measurements, install fixtures. At the same time, we have grown a lot closer together. We are a very dynamic group. We have been able to pull together as a team to figure things out,” Alexander said.
Before finishing the morning’s allotted three hours of training, four students worked to install a functioning sink. Two carefully secured the white porcelain sink and one crawled underneath to tighten the PVC plumbing while the fourth served as a spotter.
The wall adjacent reads, “Good Peeples Plumbing. Be a fountain, noa drain. Established 2019.”
As Florida's largest state agency, and the third largest state prison system in the country, FDC employs 24,000 members, incarcerates 80,000 inmates and supervises nearly 145,000 offenders in the community.