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Job Training for Harris County Jail Inmates

December 1, 2011

Houston Community College is working with 205 inmates now, teaching trades and encouraging them to enroll in classes after they are released. We are glad to hear of any classes or training made available to county jail inmates – but we have to ask: are their classes geared to women inmates as well? Females in our jails usually receive fewer opportunities like this.

Topics:   inmate programs


Nicholas Bumpers hoisted the chunk of polished steel, pointing out a row of smooth, nearly faultless welds he used to join what was once two pieces of metal.

Bumpers, 22, is fulfilling a longtime ambition of becoming a welder, but he is not enrolled in an expensive trade school. Instead, he is one of 205 nonviolent inmates at theHarris County Jail who have elected to learn a trade while serving time behind bars.

“I knew nothing about welding until I came to class,” said Bumpers, adding he didn’t have money for private vocational training. “I’m hoping to get a job as a welder as soon as I get released out of this place.”

In a metal building on Houston’s east side, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Community College have expanded a long-standing program – supported by four sheriffs since its inception in 1975 – that offers vocational training to county inmates.

A team of 28 full- and part-time HCC instructors gives inmates a range of training from food preparation or leather crafts including shoe repair, to computer repair, cabinet-making and carpentry.

In the auto repair complex, instructor Gustavo Gomez watches over a half-dozen inmates who during an eight-week course have learned to smooth out dents, apply filler and wet sand the surface of wrecked cars. He’s taught them how to match paint and spray-paint the repaired metal.

Gomez said when an inmate has only a few weeks left on a sentence, he’ll teach them simpler skills like refurbishing the lens on headlights, applying pin stripes or doing auto-detailing. When they’re released, they can buy the materials inexpensively and earn money at used car lots or at corner stands.

‘Not come back’

An indicator of the program’s success are the number of inmates who continue their education at HCC after release from the lockup, said Robert Simms, HCC’s director of correctional instruction. In the past two years, 532 of the 2,400 inmates who received certificates later enrolled in classes at HCC, he said.

Simms said he frequently encounters former students, usually at local malls or stores.

“They come up to me and everyone has said ‘Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity,’ ” Simms said.

Ella Duncan, director of inmate education at the Sheriff’s Office, said the majority of inmates who attend vocational classes are dedicated students.

“Our students have been really good at this – there have been very few that we’ve had to remove,” Duncan said. “The students know how important this is to them. One of the things I stress is I want them to go home. They have families, and they need to go home and not come back.”

Last month, Sheriff Adrian Garcia told graduating inmates if they’re fed up with being scorned by society and disappointing their families, they could build on the vocational training and work for a better life. But he said they had to be ready “to work harder than you ever had in your life.”

“As you’re sitting in your cell, waiting to be released, I hope you’ll listen to yourself as to how good this ceremony feels, and the respect and acknowledgement you’re receiving today. … Don’t let go of that,” Garcia said. “Because there’s more to follow. But if that’s too hard, we’ll be waiting for you.”

16-week session

Welders are trained by Lynn Hickman and Sammy Sutton, who both spent years working in private industry before joining the HCC staff.

“These are not hardened criminals. To me, they’re just a student in a class,” said Hickman, who gives inmates 16 weeks of instruction. “When they come out they’ve learned a lot of basic stuff. They can go to work at a welding shop or start their own. They can buy a welding machine and they can make burglar bars, small trailers, barbecue pits, anything like that.”

One of the 25 students is Damon Nobles, a lanky 25-year-old from East Texas who said he always wanted to learn welding but “was too busy chasing the girls.”

Nobles said he has several cousins who have become accomplished welders, and he hopes one day to open his own business.

“Really, when I get out I want to work for somebody, and then start my own company,” Nobles said. “I’ve got to learn to do something. I don’t want to come back here.”

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