Wyoming Inmates Prepare For Life On The Outside

Sep 5, 2014

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Inmates at Wyoming’s Medium Security Correctional Institution will need more than classroom instruction to succeed after they’re released—and there are a number of programs inside Torrington that try and prepare prisoners for the world outside the prison’s walls.

Tim Well’s prerelease course at Torrington looks more like a high school classroom than a prison. An inspirational quote is written on the blackboard, along with a checklist--3 cover letters, 2 job applications, and a resume--all to be completed before graduation. Today’s lesson is about money and parenting.

“Have any of you ever gone to Walmart on a Saturday with your kids and went shopping?,” Wells asks the class to vigorous nods.

Wells then asks whether anyone had bought their kid a candy bar or a toy to pacify them during one of these shopping trips. More nods, and one inmate yells out, “bribery.”

“Exactly!” Wells yells. “What did we just do? We put a currency on our love!”

This sort of life lesson is Tim Well’s domain here at Torrington. His eight week course is mandatory for every inmate set to be released.  Wells covers everything from basic hygiene to the location of food banks in the state to how to talk about time in prison with a perspective employer. Basically, all the little things you need to make it in the real world.

“I mean some guys haven’t even seen an automatic door that somebody is not opening from control room,” says Wells. “So, you know, they walk up to Walmart and they go and holler ‘clear.’”

"I was struggling financially. And this gives me the opportunity that maybe I don't have to turn to crime."

Wells says he doesn’t have too much trouble getting the inmates to come to class: they’re paid .60 cents an hour to be there, the same amount they would be making  at a prison job. The real challenge is trying to explain stuff like Facebook or the iPhone. For many inmates, getting out is like going into the future--it can be scary. Raymond Santiago is one of Wells’ students. He has been in the system here for over a decade.

“When I came a phone looked like a brick! Now you got a phone that does everything, you gotta go to school to use a phone.”

Santiago is getting out in January, and he says this class has prepared him to find the help he needs on the outside.

“I didn’t know the programs existed out there. If you need, if you need counseling, if you need transportation. If you need food. If you need clothing. If you just need somebody to talk to--all that exists!”

Fred Wilson’s classroom at Torrington is this shop floor. Wilson teaches a welding course for inmates nearing their release date. His students are the cream of the crop: only about ten percent of Torrington gets into a vocational program. They get college credit and a good shot of getting a well-paying job when they get out. Wilson says his inmates know what they’re getting.

“I didn’t come to you,” he says in talking about his students. “This isn’t like high school where you were told to  be in all these particular classes. You had the desire the ambition to write me to be in the class. So right there they have ownership in their education.”

Wilson does a lot, but he could be doing more. Reentry programs have a dedicated budget of zero dollars. The welding program borrows its equipment from a local community college. Wilson says he gets dozens of applicants for each one he picks.

“Are there more guys in the facility that need welding? Sure there are. But we have to try and pick the 7 to 10 most suitable guys at any given point.”

James Jordan was lucky enough to be one of those guys. He’s 24, and has been inside for two years on a burglary rap.

“My past employment, I couldn’t really barely support myself. And I have a little daughter out there.”

Jordan’s getting out soon, and he says his new job skills will keep him from coming back.

“I was struggling financially. And this gives me the opportunity that maybe I don’t have to turn to crime.”

Scott Allison is 29, and a drug trafficking conviction has kept him here since he was a teenager. He says the welding program helped find something that can be in short supply inside prison-confidence.

“Honestly I was stressing. I was stressing being released....by taking this program it has given me a trade. I can apply it to hopefully be successful.”

With Wyoming’s current need for construction labor Jordan and Allison have a good chance of finding a welding job when they’re released. A consistent, well-paying job will help keep them from reoffending. That’s good for them, and for everyone else too.