Auto body training in Va. prison
It's greasy, hot and cramped — no surprise given it's an auto body shop.
The paint fumes are strong, the oversized fans don't help much and the humidity makes the place feel like a sweatshop. And it's only 9 a.m.
Guys mill around ready to learn and listen, one clue that something is different about this body shop.
For one, it's a classroom. Instructor Dan Williams has taught auto body repair here since 1989.
For another, “here” is prison. Specifically, it's St. Brides Correctional Center, a medium-security facility on 180 acres not far from Northwest River Park that houses 1,167 men.
Williams' students are inmates. It has all the makings of an intimidating environment — Williams admits he's been threatened a time or two — but he insists it's not.
“You got a poor attitude, you're outta this class,” said Tyron Dillard, who has completed about half of a five-year sentence. “It sucks to be in prison, but you're learning a trade here. I'm in class. Doing this makes me feel like I'm not incarcerated.”
“Basically we have really sharp people in here,” said Williams, a former Marine who recalls just a few minor skirmishes over the past 21 years. “They just got caught doing what they did.”
The idea behind the Virginia Department of Correctional Education program is to equip inmates with training that will help them find employment once their time is up.
“You are here because of your past. We are here because of your future,” reads a sticker on the wall.
The St. Brides program is the lone master-certified shop in a prison system in the United States. Certification falls under the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.
Terrell Rogers is working toward a detailing certificate. He has another 14 months to serve for a grand larceny conviction.
“You've got to want to be in here,” Rogers said of the program. “It's a cordial environment more than anything else. We all get along for the sake of getting to the finish line.”
Auto body is one option — others include plumbing, sheet metal, electronics, computer-aided drafting and woodworking — but it is a popular one. It's not unusual for an auto body technician to make $60,000 a year.
“I make 45 cents an hour,” said Robert Robinson, here for nine years with two to go because of a robbery conviction that he called “one of my bad decisions.” Like most of the guys here, Jessie Jaurequi tinkered with cars on the weekends before going to prison 8-1/2 years ago for robbery. He credits the program with changing his life and is hopeful he will be able to make a career of it when he is released in two years.
“I didn't have all the discipline all those years ago that I have now,” he said. “You wouldn't believe the person I used to be. This experience is exactly what I needed.” All of the vehicles the inmates work on are owned by the state.
Since January 2008, they have been restoring a dilapidated Marine Corps Liberty bus from 1936. Initially, the roof was collapsed, the windows and lights were bashed, the upholstery was shoddy and the frame of the bus lay in disrepair.
Painted Tarheel blue now and sitting in the center of the shop, the nearly completed project is the jewel of the class. Once all the work is done, it will be permanently housed at Camp LeJeune's Memorial Museum.
Tomas Escobar shows off the electrical work he finished inside the bus, noting, “When I got in here, I had no idea how to do anything related to electronics. Now I'm pretty confident I can find some kind of electrical work.”
Williams' class also is refurbishing a 1942 Packard Clipper for the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond. Floorboards have been replaced; the car has new glass and new seals, restored doors and fenders and is awaiting painting.
The car will be a basic Army green with stars on the doors, a star on the roof and a siren and gun mount just like the traditional Packard, which transported higher-ranking U.S. officers.
Dillard has visions of showing off his accomplishments. He sanded and buffed the Packard and will be part of the paint crew, too.
“This is something to be proud of,” he said. “I've got to take my family and friends and show them up close what I did.”
-- The Virginian-Pilot
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