Building a Bridge

Wastewater treatment training programs are common in prisons. What happens to the trainees when they are released and look for work in the clean-water field?

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Imagine you’re in charge of hiring a new operator for your clean-water plant. Your choice comes down to two applicants. Both have the necessary licensing. They have similar schooling and the work experience you require. The only obvious difference is: One of them is fresh out of prison.

Which one would you hire? Maybe the answer is obvious — but should it be? Are former inmates a potential pool of talent for an industry that’s badly in need of new blood? I know, this sounds radical, but stay with me for a while.

Beyond the walls

TPO magazine finds its way into a number of prisons that have their own wastewater treatment plants and run training programs for operators. I know this because I get letters from inmates, more often than you imagine, thanking the magazine staff for the information we provide — because given their confinement, information is hard to get.

The prison-based training programs tend to be quite extensive and prepare the participants well for careers. I’ve had several letters from inmates saying their clean-water training has helped redirect their energies and motivate them toward productive lives. But they worry about whether they’ll be able to find work after serving their sentences. As in just about any profession you care to name, who hires an ex-con?

Suspicion of people who have been to prison for felonies is understandable, especially when there are always applicants who have not “done time.” But what about the concept that a person who committed a crime and then served out a sentence deserves a fair shake and a fresh start? I’ll let a recent inmate clean-water trainee make the case, because he did so better than I could.

Opening doors

“I know of multiple fellow inmates who have seized this opportunity to secure the prospects of the future in this industry,” wrote James Blackford, now at Martin County (Fla.) Correctional Institution. “This program opens doors for a vast array of industry that branches off the standard water and wastewater operations. From mechanical equipment maintenance to the repair of sophisticated electrical instruments, these avenues provide a variety of career choices for those who aspire to more than operations.

“I myself am about 100 hours away from becoming a licensed C wastewater operator, and I passed my C water exam in February. I am preparing for my release and have plans to pursue a career in wastewater and water operations. The transition will be a challenge, but challenge gives room for growth.

“I, like many other inmates, have made amends for past decisions and have chosen to be a responsible, productive member of society. But even though we have paid our debts to society, we are constantly haunted by the stigma of being felons.

Fresh start?

“That critical question on job applications that asks, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ produces a tremendous disadvantage for those of us who want to leave the past behind. I personally feel that question is a prejudice that needs to be addressed in order to give ex-offenders an equal opportunity in society. The question hinders growth for those who truly aspire to grow.”

How about you? Would you be willing to look beyond the answer to that question and give someone with a prison record, but with all other qualifications intact, a chance at least for an interview? Have you ever had to consider hiring a former inmate? Have you ever hired one? How did it work out?

Please share your opinions and your experiences along these lines if you have them. Send a note to I promise to respond, and we’ll publish comments on the topic in a future issue.


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