The tears started flowing early at the recent graduation ceremony at the Orange County Jail.
The inmates were smiling, wearing graduation gowns and waving to family members in the audience. For five weeks, the 20 inmates had measured and sawed, hammered and nailed their way through a construction skills training program.
And on May 19, before a crowd of family, employers and Orange County officials, they took to a small stage at the jail to receive their diplomas from Valencia College officials – but more important, they also received six construction industry certifications that prove to employers that they are ready to work as soon as they are released.
The tears came from family members, instructors and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who congratulated the inmates on taking the initiative to learn new skills and a trade, while they were in jail.
“I applaud you. I’m excited about the fact that you’ve decided to invest in yourself while you’re here,” Jacobs told the graduates. “The next step is going to be the hardest step. The sad thing is that people tend to stigmatize people who’ve spent time in jail. But I want to you to prove everybody wrong…. To go in with a great attitude and work harder than everybody else.”
In the year since Valencia College partnered with the Orange County jail to provide the training program, about 115 inmates have taken the five-week class and jail officials note that nearly all have landed jobs after leaving jail.
Only 10 percent of the inmates who have taken the course wind up back behind bars, jail officials say. For the rest of the jail population, the rate of return to jail is 56 percent.
And, with more than $9 billion of construction projects planned in Central Florida over the next few years, there are plenty of job opportunities for workers with construction skills.
For the Valencia College instructors, who also teach construction training programs in Orange and Osceola counties, it’s been inspiring to watch the inmates see that they can turn their lives around. “They know how proud I am of them,” said Valencia construction instructor Kristin Hughes. “I look forward to hearing all of their success stories.”
The inmates-turned-students – who have been jailed for non-violent offenses, ranging from DUIs to petty theft – said the course gave them a chance to change the direction of their lives.
“When I first signed up for this class, I had no idea it would be so interesting,” said Shatiya Spurling, one of only two female inmates in the course. “But this program gives you everyday situations to prepare you for when you leave here. And I also learned that there are people in this building who want you to succeed. This program gives you a second chance at life.”
Every morning, they had to put on steel-toed boots and report for class at 7:30 a.m. At night, they studied fractions and math skills needed on a construction site. While Valencia instructors taught the inmates math and construction skills, Goodwill Industries showed them how to write resumes and helped them practice for job interviews. And employers, including Quinco Electrical and Skanska-Granite-Lane, have snapped up the graduates.
“Years from now,” Spurling said, “I’m going to look back and say I made one of my best decisions in life while I was in jail. How ironic is that?”