Behind Bars: Even if I don't use the skills, I'm thankful for college programs

Monday , July 10, 2017 - 5:15 AM

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

I just took the midterm exam for my final semester of Building Trades and can say, barring some unforeseen event, I will finish the program in about a month.

The class consists of many different subjects, and it would be impossible to delve very deeply into all of them. Because I went in knowing nothing about any of it, you could say I learned quite a bit, but mostly that this type of work is just not for me.

Like Culinary Arts, I hadn’t planned to use what I learned in a career. I simply thought it would be handy stuff to know. I had hoped I might learn how to do some repairs/finish work for an investment property, but that turned out to be somewhat unrealistic.

RELATED: Behind Bars: Utah parole board needs a better way to gauge prisoners' progress

The other prisoners in the class tease me about being afraid of the tools because of my reluctance to use them. I prefer to call my reluctance a healthy respect for tools.

I usually stay by the computers and read the text books, mostly because I retain what I read very well — oh and plus, I’m afraid of the tools.

I think it’s pretty safe to say every one of the other inmates in the class already knew most of what I’ve learned over the past year. I’m definitely the anomaly. Although I would have benefitted from a more structured classroom environment, the other students are thankful for the open setting in which it operates.

The other prisoners all seem to have varying backgrounds in construction or a related field and know what they want to learn. So starting everyone with the basics and testing on more than a broad understanding into any one subject would have been counter-productive.

RELATED: Behind Bars: It's not uncommon for similar crimes to get different sentences

The way it’s set up immersion into any one subject is really up to the inmate. There’s an extremely impressive wood shop, and prisoners are free to use it for their various projects.

Some inmate students build sheds while others make crafts for auction, using the laser or computer numeric control machine. I haven’t spent much time working with those last two — even though they’re more up my alley since they work with computers and aren’t as dangerous — because I don’t plan to work in that field or to own a $30,000 laser.

But for the prisoners who have chosen to focus their time with a specific tool or trade, they’ve had the opportunity to learn valuable skills.

I’m told the starting wage for a CNC operator is somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 per hour. Building Trades is helping prisoners leave with income-earning skills in areas like cabinetry and framing.

The construction industry is considered “felon-friendly,” meaning having a felony won’t automatically eliminate someone from consideration. It makes sense for the prison to adopt programs in vocational training for that reason.

RELATED: Behind Bars: The universe righted itself during time in Davis County drug court

I’ve spent the majority of my incarceration as a student, and I’m thankful for that opportunity. I wish I could say I earned an MBA during my time here, but that was really never an option.

As far as college goes, Snow College’s Culinary Arts and Building Trades programs are the only two accredited college programs offered in Gunnison, so they were what I chose to take. I say chose because prisoners are required to pay for tuition and I still had to weigh whether taking them was the best use of my time.

These programs are a good start, but there needs to be more like them. There are only seats available for 35-40 students between the two courses.

Programs like these are great for prisoners and for society. Education is said to be the most effective weapon in the fight against recidivism, which is when a former prisoner is sent back to prison.

Even if my participation in Building Trades and Culinary Arts is only used as a positive statistic for corrections programs — because I’m confident I’ll be a success story — I’m thankful the programs are available. 

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×