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State corrections system’s students do Habitat work

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — When a Baldwin County mother and her children move into a new Habitat for Humanity home this spring, they may not know the home’s key components were built at a state prison.

But Alabama Department of Corrections inmates, who also are students at J.F. Ingram State Technical College, are manufacturing portions of the home in rural Elmore County.

J.F. Ingram, 1,100-student college where all students are inmates, operates on-site campuses at Draper Correctional Facility near Elmore and Frank Lee Youth Center near Deatsville, about five miles away.

“This is often the first time they’ve had an opportunity to take time, assess where they are and work on not being criminals,” said J.F. Ingram Dean of Education James T. Merk.

Inmates working on the Habitat project use skills they learned in computer, drafting, construction and related classes.

When they complete the classes, they have the training they need to work on the outside at jobs with pay ranging from $10 to $15 per hour.

Merk said those skills make placement with employers easier and help reduce the chance former inmates will return to the state’s overcrowded prisons.

“They get a job, stay on the job and don’t commit crimes,” Merk said.

About 3 percent of inmates who go through the training classes are repeat offenders.

In the general prison population, the recidivism rate is about 30 percent, said corrections spokesman Brian Corbett.

Thursday, inmates were constructing components of the prison system’s Habitat house.

In April, the components will go by truck to Baldwin County, where female Habitat volunteers will build the structure.

Because women will build the house, students at the prison modified their computerized drafting plans and reduced the length of wall framing sections to make them easier for smaller people to handle.

Their drafting instructor, George Harris, said class work also included making presentations about the changes and experiencing the real-world need to make modifications when people in charge want them.

The house is the first in the joint corrections program with the Habitat for Humanity Prison Partnership project. There are about 75 other programs of its type in the country.

Their work includes building frames, trusses, walls with pre-wired electrical outlets, and cabinets for the 924-square-foot house.

“We are here because we want to be here working on this project,” said Steve Kirkpatrick, an inmate who earned an associate’s degree in drafting while in prison.

Kirkpatrick is a student assistant who helps Harris teach other inmates. He said that when he leaves prison, he will have computer training and the drafting degree to help him go to work.

State Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said education and job skills are the keys to helping inmates adjust to life on the outside.

As students in technical college classes, the inmates receive class credit for on-the-job training.

Harris, a J.F. Ingram drafting instructor, first pitched the Habitat program to corrections as a way for his students to receive first-hand job experience and help people in need at the same time.

There is no cost for the state to participate in the Habitat program.

J.F. Ingram also trains students in auto mechanics and bodywork, upholstery, furniture construction and refinishing, barbering and cosmetology, welding and electrical work, and horticulture.

Inmates from Elmore and Staton Correctional Facilities in Elmore and Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka also attend classes at J.F. Ingram.

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