Monday through Friday, I wake up about 4:30 a.m. I perform my usual routine of washing up, having my cup of coffee while I read my Bible and watching the morning news. I’m waiting for the weather forecast and to see if there are any alerts on the freeways. I am preparing myself mentally for the day’s work.
I have concrete set up for 7 a.m., but I need to be on the job site early to make sure the screed pins are set up, the elevation lines are snapped and that I have straight two-by-fours for the expansion joints and to screed with. I need to be ready, because when the concrete arrives, I have no time to spare. It’s showtime.
When the concrete arrives, I start backing the cement truck up to the slab. I put a couple of shoots on and tell the driver to run a little mud down, so that I can see if the concrete is too wet, too dry or mixed correctly. It looks a little dry, so I shout to the driver to add five gallons of water and mix it well. When done, I start to pour.
Huero and Toons are on the shovels, Sammy and Andres are rodding, Chris is vibrating the concrete and Mark is bull floating, or smoothing out the concrete.
I love this. The smell of the fresh morning air, the concrete and all of the guys working together. It feels like I’m on the streets again, but I look beyond the job site, and I can see the guard towers and the electric fences. The corrections officers are watching us work together.
As part of the Inmate Ward Labor (IWL) construction training program at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, we are retrofitting and adding additional buildings to the existing medical facilities. We have been setting forms and pouring concrete to get our prison in compliance with the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I have been finishing concrete for over 30 years, and I can’t believe I’m able to do what I love in prison. But it is not only this that I appreciate. IWL has provided me and my fellow inmates with hope, recovery and many other options besides our old criminal lifestyles.
When our correctional officer supervisor walks us out earlier than other IWL inmates, he sits us down to talk to us. He always does this, and it brings me back to when my Dad used to sit me down. The difference is that I enjoy it now that I’m older.
The speech usually goes something like this:
“I escorted you out of your cells because all of you know what you’re doing. We can depend on you. There are guys sitting in their cells right now, but not you, because we can trust you to take care of business.
“l don’t have to tell you guys we have the higher ups watching us. Take pride in your work. When you stand back and admire your work, if you see something wrong, fix it. Don’t wait for someone else to come by and fix it. This will only make you better at what you do.
“If you don’t know how to do something, ask somebody, we will show you. Most of you will be going home one day. You will be looking for work. What you learn here will be instrumental in you finding a quality, good paying job. These companies will pay you over $50 an hour if you know what you’re doing. This is your opportunity to learn.
“I know that sometimes it’s hard to get up in the morning. It’s like that. But there are jobs like this where every man is needed. Sometimes I don’t want to come in, but I know people are depending on me also.
“Look, if I decided not to come in, who would get you guys out for work? Who would get your Gatorade and ice, your material from the outside yard, your inventory, your time sheets, et cetera? The list goes on and on. There are budgets and time limits that we have to meet.
“We’re a team, guys, and it takes all of us to get the job accomplished. You guys need to understand, when I tell you something, it’s not to nag or pick on you, it’s to help you. I want you guys to make it. There is a line between a correctional officer and an inmate, but I sincerely want you guys to succeed.”
Even though I am already a journeyman concrete finisher and formsetter, I respect what this correctional officer (CO) tells us. He is lifting us up instead of putting us down. The majority of the time, people put us down and look at us like we’re a waste.
I have been working in the IWL program for almost six years now, and l have learned so much more than concrete. Many of my fellow workers here have never held a regular job. Many never had anyone who gave them advice or mentored them. When we hear our supervisor talk, they listen. I listen too. I sure wish we had COs in our housing units like this.
After work, when we return to our housing units, we are filthy, but are forced to return to our cells. Then after some time, we are permitted to shower one at a time. Work is an escape for all of us.
IWL has shown us how to work with different personalities, different trades and how to follow directions. This is rehabilitation at its best. Our supervisors and the free staff are changing lives; they are giving us hope.
I believe there is a movement brewing: a movement to help inmates, not mistreat them. We need leaders who are willing to give inmates who are seeking recovery a chance to better themselves. Rehabilitation doesn’t only have to start in self-help groups. Rehabilitation can begin at work, on our job sites.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.