THE BLOG
05/21/2014 09:36 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

California's Best Answer to Prison Overcrowding

CHINO, Calif. - On a hot day in Southern California, William Jones dives to the bottom of a deep-water tank. Clad in a heavy helmet and scuba gear, he spends several minutes at the bottom, removing bolts from large metal pipes, and communicating his progress through a radio to a dive tender on the surface.

It's not just any surface; Jones emerges from the tank to rejoin his teammates inside the California Institution for Men, a state prison in Chino. As he explains in the above Bravery Tapes episode, it's a much different scenario than a decade ago, when Jones made his living through armed robbery. He was caught when he intercepted a small business owner about to make a bank deposit, charged with a felony and sent to this prison. "I wanted to conquer the world one robbery at a time," said Jones, 30, who is from Los Angeles' Crenshaw District. "My priorities were all mixed up. I had no plan for myself, for my family, and didn't care about anything."

Now, Jones is a student at the Marine Technology Training Center, a state-run program inside the Chino prison that helps felons become divers, welders, riggers, construction supervisors and mechanics. The center has succeeded in doing something the state's department of rehabilitation as a whole has failed at: consistently rehabilitating criminals. The state's recidivism rate -- the percentage of individuals released from prison who are incarcerated again within three years -- was 61 percent last year.

The diving center achieves its success by offering felons a skill set that leads to a more lucrative career path than many were capable of before they were convicted. Inmates usually have little knowledge of diving or the program itself when they apply, but they're attracted to the school because they want a way to build a better life once they're released. Average pay in the industry is around $15 an hour at entry level, and annual salaries can climb to $100,000 within four years. That drastically reduces temptations to return to a criminal life.

Perhaps more importantly, the program's physical training and camaraderie gives criminals a chance to build character, discipline and a sense of self-worth that helps them turn away from their former, illegal pursuits. "When I get out of prison, I'll be going on 11 years. I missed a lot," Jones says. "I know I can't make up for everything, but when I get out there I want to try. I want to just live life to the fullest. My motivation is to be the best I can be, to be a good person.

That brand of motivation is invaluable to employers, and has proven more important than any uneasiness they might have about hiring ex-felons. Indeed, Chino graduates are known throughout the commercial diving industry for producing quality work. "The individual that I have working for me is hands down one of the best, most highly motivated guys I have on board," said Bryan Nicholls, president of U.S. Underwater Services, a commercial diving company in Texas. Richard Barta, the owner of Muldoon Marine Services in Long Beach, California, agrees. "If a person comes to you and he's turned his life around and he really wants to make something of himself, you have to look at all the positives," Barta said.

The benefits of such a program to society are numerous. First, it saves the state money. The average prison inmate costs around $47,000 a year to incarcerate, and that's an expense the state can avoid by investing in true rehabilitation that keeps people out of prisons. Second, it boosts the economy by churning out more skilled workers who produce value. Increased oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is spurring more demand for divers who can access platforms and pipelines, said Nicholls, whose company services offshore wells in the Gulf.

Finally, there's the enormous social advantage of having fewer criminals on the streets. "It helps you with your morals. You have a certain pride in what you do and respect for yourself," Jones said. "I'm a different person now. There's no reason for me to go out there and start doing the things I was doing."

Those benefits in Chino are even more pronounced given the pervasiveness of prison overcrowding throughout the nation. In a bid to help federal prisons that are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, Attorney General Eric Holder has stepped in to ease harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses. In California, overcrowding is so bad that federal judges have ordered the state to remove thousands of inmates from its prisons. In February, federal judges granted Gov. Jerry Brown two years to reduce prison crowding through mental health and drug treatment programs aimed at lowering recidivism. The state can take advantage of this opportunity by investing more in rehabilitation programs that have a good track record.

In addition to the diving school, some 7,000 inmates work in factories on prison grounds to produce clothing, office furniture, license plates, juice, shoes, signs, gloves, eyewear and other goods sold predominately to state entities. Participants in these programs are 26 percent less likely to reoffend and go back to prison than the average prison inmate in California. A report released by the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board said all these programs had "proven to be effective at reducing recidivism" and recommended that the correctional department work to make them more accessible. The dive center is even more effective than these programs because it helps inmates build a valuable career.

Yet, such efforts haven't been very accessible. Historically, the Career Technical Education program, which operates the dive school, has received no funding from Sacramento; it was financed solely by the profits of the products that inmates produce in factories. "We're on a dicey edge all the time on our funding," said Fred Johnson, the marine center's instructor.

That's a shame because Johnson and his team have figured out how to address the cause of California's correctional problem. True, inmates have to want to change in order to be rehabilitated. The physical training is so intense that 80 percent of those who sign up for the dive school drop out in the first week. Of the 200 inmates who sign up per year, only around 20 graduate. Participants are commonly sent on 10-mile runs; workouts include a seemingly implausible number of squats, pull-ups, push-ups and dips; and the training culminates in a dreaded five-mile swim.

But instructors say all inmates who pass the first week's physical tests go on to graduate, and in so doing achieve something they thought was impossible. "The secret is we change the inmate's way of thinking," Johnson said. "We teach them they're not losers; that they can be winners."

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