Ironworkers help men prep for life outside of Goose Creek Correctional Center

A group of men at Goose Creek Correctional Center graduate from a welding training class. (Hillman/Alaska Public)

When you’re incarcerated, it can be hard to get real-world work experience and training. At Goose Creek Correctional Center near Wasilla, inmates can learn the basic concepts of welding using simulators, but until recently they haven’t been allowed access to real welding machines.

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The Ironworkers Union is trying to solve that problem — and prepare people for release — by bringing the real world experience inside the prison. For two weeks, trainers from the union parked a mobile welding trailer at Goose Creek and taught inmates some basic skills.

Mike Phillips set up a test plate, secured it above his head, and ran some beads of metal along a joint.

“Basically, I was doing a weave – an up-down side-to-side motion as I’m going forward,” Phillips explained, showing off a piece of metal. “And it’s basically to connect two different pieces of metal in a 90-degree angle.”

Phillips did a little bit of welding when he was young, but recently his only experience was on a virtual welder inside the prison. With the simulator, people hold models of the tools and watch a screen but don’t get the full experience.

“It’s different,” Phillips said. “It’s cleaner on the virtual welder compared to the actual thing. You don’t get the heat. You don’t get the slag. And you don’t get the stick sticking. You don’t get the headache.”

Now that he has more real-life, hands-on skills, Phillips said he’s more prepared for release in about two years.

“When I go back out on the street – my field is hydraulics and pneumatics, so I do a lot of machine work in the shop. So not only will I be able to do the work itself, welding, but I’ll be able to identify a positive weld or a negative weld, where there’s cracks, defects, that kind of thing,” Phillips said.

Phillips said earning a trade like welding is important for the inmates because it will help him get a job.

“It’s one of the fields where having a criminal record isn’t a negative,” Philips said. “They don’t really care as long as you get the work done.”

Phillip Burnell poses with his certificate after completing a welding class at Goose Creek. (Photo courtesy of Dept. of Corrections)

Phillip Burnell had never tried welding before learning basic skills on the simulator. The two-week class in the mobile training unit was his first time experiencing the heat and working with real materials.

“I was excited when I heard I was going to be doing the welding for the first time,” Burnell said. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to come here and try this before I get out.”

Burnell is already planning on using the skills to find a job when he returns to Utqiaġvik.

“Now I can actually go there and say I had some experience,” Burnell said.

The trainers were pleased with the outcome of the class. “Really good group of guys,” trainer Colleene LaRue said. “They were really eager to learn. Definitely one of the better classes I’ve taught.”