Building a future after prison through vocational education

Wesley Nicoll builds a planter as part of the vocational education program at Wildwood Correctional Center in July 2017. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

In Alaska, two-thirds of people who leave prison end up going back within three years. But former inmates who can find decent jobs within a year of release are half as likely to re-offend, according to an Alaska Department of Labor report. So how does the Department of Corrections want to cut recidivism? By teaching the trades.

“So what we’re gonna do is take less than a 1/16th of an inch off the lip of this,” Wesley Nicoll explained as he picked up a thin slat of wood he was using to build a planter box. He and another worker slide it into a loud table saw, the change barely perceptible.

Nicoll worked in construction before but has never done such highly precise carpentry. It was just one of the many skills he was trying to learn as he neared the end of his sentence at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai.

Nicoll said it’s an important supplement to the substance abuse treatment he’s received while incarcerated. “To be able to come here and do the hands on woodwork, welding, to keep my hands busy — I feel ready to go on the out. To be productive when I get out,” he said. It’s a huge change from his last release three years ago. “Before I was just getting released and being relatively aimless.”

Nicoll has been in and out of prison for about 12 years, mostly for drug-related crimes. He developed an addiction to opioids after a couple of severe injuries. In the past, he was released without feeling like he developed any skills or support systems in prison.

“The last time I got out, looking for work and getting turned away multiple times, it got extremely frustrating,” he recalled. “And after so long, I just kind of gave up and went back to what I knew,” using and selling drugs.

Which is what Department of Corrections staff, like vocational instructor Tim Ward, are trying to prevent. Two years ago, Wildwood didn’t offer much to help prepare people for release.

Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai. (Photo courtesy of DOC.)

Ward walked through the vocational education center, which is still in a state of expansion. “This building used to be a storage area. So it was just full of racks with pallets of junk,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Now it has a new classroom, a small area for carpentry, and extensive metalworking tools. Ward has his students build practical items that can be used, like sheds and barbeque grills. They even built the booths they learn to weld in. Participants can earn national certifications, too.

“The whole hope is they can get out of prison, get a job, and not come back. And this is the tool for that,” he said.

Wildwood Superintendent Shannon McCloud said the vocational education program is just an example of ways corrections institutions across Alaska are trying to be more than just punitive warehouses for people. There’s a push for more programs in every state prison that help inmates develop the skills they need to reenter society and stay there.

“The whole idea of incarceration has changed,” said McCloud, who has worked in corrections for more than 27 years. “I think people realize that these people are going to get out of jail. So, what can we do to put out a better product than what we received? So let’s work with them. Let’s get them out. Let’s try to help them not come back. I mean, that’s our motto.”

She said the idea behind the vocational education classes was to give people viable skills to seek jobs, but the program is accomplishing a lot more.

The inmates are “different when they’re over there. I mean, they’re like men. They’re not like these punk kids, ‘cause they know that’s what they’re supposed to be over there. Grow up. Get a skill. Move on,” she said.

And moving on is exactly what Nicholl is doing. When we meet again – one month after I interviewed him in prison – it’s at a bustling coffee shop in south Anchorage. He released from Wildwood a week earlier. Through his family, he’s already received some job offers based on the certifications he earned at Wildwood, but he wants to find a job on his own.

The certifications help, he said. “It makes me a lot more confident while I’m job searching, that’s for sure.”

He also has a full ride to college starting in January thanks to the help of his native corporations.

Nicholl said it’s the first time in six years he’s released from prison prepared and sober – and he actually wants to stay that way.

“I spontaneously smile. I spontaneously catch myself laughing because it’s hard to believe it’s real sometimes,” he said, grinning.

He took a sip of his coffee, prepared to look for a job and move on with his life. He said he’s scared but ready.

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