Prison labor. That phrase can't help but conjure up images mostly from old movies that range from chain gangs to inmates stamping out license plates on antiquated equipment. But a recent visit to a woodworking program inside a maximum security prison in California tells a different tale. In fact, it might even get some shop owners thinking seriously about hiring released convicts.

Of course, not all prison woodworking programs are alike, and some probably do suffer from outdated equipment and lack of strong skills training. But officials at California State Prison Corcoran, a maximum security institution north of Bakersfield, are trying to buck that stereotype with an intensive program combining strong academics, state-of-the-art tools, real world projects, and active partnerships with industry.

Leadership and tutoring

Dave Hukill, who runs the cabinet shop at Corcoran, says the key to success is providing inmates with leadership and tutoring. "We train them so when they go back into society, they have viable and employable skills to have a viable income," he says. "If they have skills over introductory levels, that helps them get their foot in the door for a job."

For the two dozen inmates in Hukill's program, that skills training begins with solid academics. The program uses current texts from the National Center for Construction Education and Research. The certified program covers both carpentry and cabinetmaking specifically.

But just as is the case outside the prison walls, book learning only goes so far. Hukill says success really requires first an attitude adjustment. "The biggest challenge is getting them interested," he says. "We have to shift them from focusing on their immediate needs to future goals."

Inmates in the program range from 21 to 62 years old, although most are between 30 and 45, he says. Many have been in and out of incarceration for a significant part of their lives. "Lots of them have institutional mentality," says Hukill. "They are so scheduled. We need to get them to be independent thinkers. That brings a big turnaround in their confidence level." He describes the best of his participants as "highly employable."

Well-equipped shop

Beyond the academics, inmates in the program are quickly introduced to machines in the shop, maybe starting with basics like a bandsaw or portable sanders. But the opportunities in the Corcoran shop are wide ranging. Thanks to partnerships with Laguna Tools and other vendors, the Corcoran prison cabinet shop has current equipment that would be at home in any well-equipped professional shop.

The two biggest machines in the shop are a Laguna Tools TSS-9 sliding table saw and an AXYZ CNC router. There is also a Laguna Tools Explorer 1100 widebelt sander, a Bandit H2 edgebander, a 24-inch bandsaw and a BM23E-2 boring machine. A recent addition is a Laguna Tools copy lathe for production turning.

Smaller equipment includes miter saws, hand-held and table-mounted routers, orbital sanders and electric drill-drivers.

Starting with a plan

Hukill emphasizes systematic processes and planning. "A lot of the guys want to build out of their heads," he says. But instead he requires they develop plans for every project and return to those plans any time a question arises. Reading a tape measure and polishing basic math skills are lessons taught early in the program and repeated constantly. But planning may extend all the way to computer drawings and programming for the CNC machine.

A big part of the program is also getting inmates to work together as a team. Hukill will typically put two to four inmates together to work on a particular project. The most experienced member of the team takes on a leadership role. Hukill says, "We teach them to be teachers."

He says that is crucial to building self confidence in the men. "Most of them have a background of broken homes and not good fathering," he says. "We try to instill a sense of self-respect and care."

Building to pro standards

Preparing inmates to be productive outside the prison walls, the program emphasizes building projects to professional standards of quality, fit and finish. Hukill attends industry shows to keep up to date with trends, and he includes people like Catherine Helshoj from Laguna Tools on his 25-member teacher advisory council.

But Hukill, who has owned and operated professional cabinet shops and now has more than a decade of experience at the Corcoran shop, is quick to admit there are big contrasts between a prison shop and a pro shop outside the walls. "There is a giant difference," he says. "It takes a lot more patience here."

But inmates in the program seem to universally understand the potential benefit. One inmate noted he had spent more than 25 years behind bars. Looking forward to being released soon, he commented, "I know in order to be competitive in society, I need a trade and as much education as I possibly can get." He points to the NCCER certification and skills learned in the Corcoran shop to help a potential employer have confidence that he can be a productive part of a professional shop.

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