The Electrical Worker online
January 2018

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A Different Kind of Prison Pipeline

K.C. Matthews says she hopes to be an electrician someday and it's thanks in large part to Bob Thomas and the Inmate/Ward Labor Program at the Central California Women's Facility.

Thomas, a member of Fresno, Calif., Local 100, works with Matthews and other inmates in the program on projects including construction of two new 2,400 square-foot health care facilities. The majority of the construction work — from bending conduit to installing closed circuits and boxes for alarms and data — is performed by the inmates, he said.

"I'm training them, but they're doing the work," Thomas said. "And they're good at it. They're very hardworking."

The I/WL Program manages the pre-apprenticeship for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in coordination with the California State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Inmate/Ward Labor contacts the local when work is available. Local 100 Business Manager Ronny Jungk said participating members, drawn from a list maintained at the union hall, undergo a background check before training the inmates.

Four of the eight women working as electrician helpers have expressed an interest in becoming electricians and only have about a year of their sentences left, Thomas said.

"I've encouraged them to get into an apprenticeship program wherever they end up," Thomas said. "And I've given them all the information I have to help them do it."

Thomas said Matthews has the skill level of a second-year apprentice.

"K.C. really picked it up," Thomas said. "I would recommend her for an apprenticeship. I think she'd be an asset to our trade."

Matthews, who has been a part of the program for four years, wrote to the IBEW to commend Thomas as a mentor and father figure.

"Bob is very patient and loves to teach the trade to me," Matthews said. "He's really making a good name for the IBEW."

Thomas, a Vietnam veteran, said he's always loved teaching and will probably continue to do so in retirement.

"I want my students to win," he said. "You have to be patient, and if someone doesn't get it, you have to figure out how to teach it to them."

Two prisoners were able to apply their hours worked toward an apprenticeship once they were released, Jungk said.

"They were fantastic apprentices, and even better journeymen," Jungk said.

Thomas says he would like see the IBEW get more involved in prison-based pre-apprenticeship programs.

"It would benefit everybody," he said. "These programs cost a fraction of what incarcerating a person does. And helping someone transition to a good-paying job is an effective way to reduce recidivism."

Considering the need for more construction workers, programs like these can also play a crucial role in growing the workforce, Thomas said.

"Our industry is suffering from a lack of trained, qualified electricians," Thomas said. "Thousands of baby boomers will retire in the next 10 years. We need to expand our horizons."


Fresno, Calif., Local 100 member Bob Thomas, left, works on a new pharmacy building alongside one of the inmates he trains at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Due to prison regulations, inmates cannot be identifiable in photographs.

Photo credit: California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation