Construction Training for NJ Inmates Makes Difference

Wed October 08, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Pam Hunter

Robert Kovacs, 30, has a hard time finding work. Although he hoped to enter the construction industry, he had no training or experience, and found himself unable to get a job as a craftworker. He said he would wait in employment line, hoping to find work, but prospective employers typically “wanted people who already had training.”

He took a path few would recommend — and ended up at South Woods state prison in Bridgeton, NJ. But he is receiving an unexpected benefit at the prison: training that could enable him to have a better chance of finding a job as a mason upon release.

“I have a lot of confidence that it’s going to make a difference this time,” Kovacs said. “My regret is this is the second time I have been incarcerated. Maybe if I had had the training that I am getting [at South Woods], I wouldn’t be here now.”

The New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) comprises 14 major institutions — including 10 male correction facilities, three youth facilities and a facility for women — that collectively house approximately 23,000 inmates in minimum, medium and maximum security levels. The NJDOC is one of the nation’s leaders in training inmates to enter the construction industry work force upon their release from prison.

South Woods is one such state facility taking advantage of this unique opportunity.

A Standardized Training Program

Inmates participating in the NJDOC program receive training in one of nine crafts — carpentry, electrical, concrete finishing, HVAC, masonry, painting, plumbing, building maintenance and welding. Beginning in 1999, the NJDOC began offering the National Center for Construction Education and Research’s (NCCER) standardized Contren craft curricula at seven of its prisons. A total of 776 inmates have received NCCER certificates of completion since 2000, said Hugh DeHaven, vocational coordinator for the NJDOC.

According to DeHaven, the NJDOC had offered training in construction for years, but realized toward the end of the 1990s that it needed a standardized curriculum. “It started as a realization of a need to use the same training materials in all facilities,” he said.

The NJDOC contacted construction organizations for help, including the New Jersey Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (NJ ABC), which referred the prison system to the NCCER training curriculum. ABC chapters throughout the nation provide training using NCCER and have found great success.

The NJDOC was receptive to the idea, and began the process of certifying all 20 of the program’s instructors with the NCCER.

As a result, NJDOC now has a standardized curriculum that provides trainees with a certificate and the chance to find a job or continue training upon release from prison.

“What we are getting … are guys coming out of the program with a portable, nationally recognized certification,” DeHaven said. He added that the program provides a continuity that the prisoners previously lacked. “A young man who begins in one facility can continue his training when he moves to a new facility.”

Inmates receive 200 hours of classroom instruction as well as a variable amount of hands-on practical experience in one of the prison’s shops. In two of the facilities, instructors use the Contren core curriculum as a prerequisite to participate in further training in one of the crafts.

In other facilities, administrators use different qualifiers to determine whether the inmate has potential for a successful career in the construction industry. Typically, inmates who demonstrate good behavior in prison and can function at the ninth-grade level or above can participate, DeHaven said.

A Chance to Make a Living

Al Thompson teaches two classes in masonry a day, five days a week, with approximately 20 inmates in each class. The students work hard to excel, Thompson said.

“We don’t have problems with any attitudes. they want to be here. They want to be able to find a job and make a living after they get out.”

Thompson, who worked for years as a mason and also taught the craft to apprentices outside of the prison system, said the Contren craft curriculum are effective in preparing inmates for more training or careers once they leave prison. “[Contren] is the best curriculum that I have ever seen. The inmates receive a certificate that never leaves them, and they can go out and get a job.”

He noted that the core and masonry curricula are easy for the inmates to understand and have made it easier for him to reach effectively.

Thompson finds his job rewarding because he sees inmates start to turn their lives around before his eyes. He said the training process begins to help inmates develop self-esteem and the attitudes necessary for success outside the prison system.

“When people come in, sometimes they don’t know how to do something, and when you see them finally get it, a light goes on in their eyes that no one can ever take away from them,” he said.

Kovacs is one of Thompson’s students. He has been participating in the training program for more than one year and is hopeful about his prospects after he leaves the prison system in a few years.

“Now I will have the certification. I am confident that I will find a job this time,” he said.

(Pam Hunter is a contributing writer.

This article appears courtesy of “Construction” magazine.)