By Christopher Zoukis
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) offers a number of vocational training and apprenticeship programs for inmates under their care. These programs are designed to teach inmates marketable skills which they can use upon release in an effort to gain sustainable employment. While program offerings differ from institution to institution, the BOP does offer a surprising variety of programs. A complete listing of such programs is available at www.bop.gov/inmate_programs/occ_train_pdf.
While some sources have reported that BOP programs tend to be operated by local community colleges or training centers, this is generally not the case. These programs, while certainly a step in the right direction, are usually instructed by BOP personnel who do not have a connection with outside entities. It has also been alleged that there are trade advisory bodies which help direct program offerings in an effort to ensure that inmates are receiving training in fields where jobs are needed; if so, then such activities have not been publicized. The author has not been able to confirm this.
Example: Remarkable Vocational Training Opportunities at FCI-Petersburg
As an example, FCI Petersburg — a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia — offers vocational training in carpentry, building trades, AutoCAD, HVAC, electrical maintenance, and landscaping. Some of these programs are more impressive than others. The electrical maintenance program seems to be one of the better ones since there is both an academic component to the training (via a textbook and workbook) as well as hands-on application of concepts learned. The inmates in the electrical maintenance training program are assigned to a work detail in the prison and fix electrical appliances and components when they fail. This is a very effective program of marketable training.
The carpentry training program is another bright spot. In this program, the inmate participants spend upwards of 9 months in hands-on training in the Vocational Training Department. Participants actually build a model house from the cellar to the roof, in an effort to learn everything they need to know about carpentry. This is a remarkable program which should be duplicated elsewhere.
The HVAC program allows inmates to study while working in the Heating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) repair shop, and to test for the actual industry certifications that are necessary for gainful employment in the field. The AutoCAD classes and other programs also offer limited certifications.
Sample Vocational/Apprenticeship Training Elsewhere in the BOP
To provide a broad idea of vocational and apprenticeship training opportunities in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the following samples are provided:
Federal Prison Camp Alderson (Alderson, WV)
Apprenticeship Training: Air Conditioning and Refrigeration; Cooking, Electrical; Plumbing; Powerhouse; Teaching Assistance; Cosmetology; Dog Training; Welding.
Vocational Training: None
Federal Correctional Institution Englewood (Littleton, CO)
Apprenticeship Training: HVAC; Electrician.
Vocational Training: Business Education; Drafting; Horticulture.
Federal Correctional Institution Allenwood (White Deer, PA)
Apprenticeship Training: Housekeeping; Cooking.
Vocational Training: Culinary Arts; Office Automation.
Federal Correctional Institution Bastrop (Bastrop, TX)
Apprenticeship Training: Building Maintenance; Baker; Cook; Carpenter; Dental Assistant; HVAC; Painter; Plumber; Quality Control Technician; Stationary Engineer; Welding.
Vocational Training: Building Trades; Landscape Management.
USP Atlanta (Atlanta, GA)
Apprenticeship Training: Cook; Electrician; Plumber.
Vocational Training: HVAC.
Apprenticeship Training: Cook; Teacher’s Aid.
Vocational Training: Office Automation; Culinary Arts; Janitorial.
Many Misleading Ideas of “Training” Do Exist
The misleading component of “training” comes into play with programs such as the landscaping training program. In this program inmates cut grass with push lawnmowers, with little instruction as to landscaping design or marketing. This is not to say that cutting grass around the prison is not a marketable skill, but that cutting grass is a far cry from landscaping training (where ideas of layout, plant selection and installation, land redesign, and higher-level concepts come to mind). This is the same as saying that a person who rolls spoons and napkins together in the Food Service Department or who hands cups to inmate diners is gaining valued hospitality training. So, grains of salt are required when reading the marketing materials produced by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and their sympathizers.
The Best Methods of Vocational Training: Not BOP-Sponsored
As is often the case with programming in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the best forms of vocational and academic training are obtained outside of the BOP. These include all sorts of correspondence educational programs. For someone who is interested in becoming a paralegal or mediator, there are a plethora of options (e.g., Blackstone Career Institute, Ohio University, Lakewood College, etc.). There are other training schools (i.e., Penn Foster Career School and Stratford Career Institute, for example) that offer a significant variety of correspondence educational programs which inmates can enroll in. These programs include dog training, writing, interior design, small business management, landscaping, private investigation, and many others. Many of these programs also offer convenient payment plans, but the inmate is required to shoulder the burden of all program costs.
The Best Option: Utilize Existing Resources and Innovative Solutions
Enterprising federal prisoners have realized that a middle ground can be found. This being utilizing free institutional programming (whether work details or educational/vocational) mixed with personally financed programming. For writers this could mean GED and ACE classes mixed with pleasure reading and writing. For those who desire to go into the legal field upon release (as a paralegal or legal assistant, for example), they could enroll in applicable legal-based Adult Continuing Education (ACE) courses (e.g., Legal Basics, Post-Conviction Remedies, etc.), work in the prison law library, and hang out their shingle as a legal assistant while incarcerated (legal assistants help fellow inmates with a wide variety of legal tasks). Thus, options are available. They just have to be leveraged together to make the best, custom program of study possible.