February 2014

Wastewater Training On The Inside

Greetings from the Department of Corrections in sunny Florida. I am a longtime TPO/WSO reader and subscriber who also operates water and wastewater facilities for the Department of Corrections. I’m also a prisoner (we prefer the term “freedom-impaired”) until 2017.

I (with all my fellow operators, trainees and our supervisors) read your piece about prisoners and water careers [“Building a Bridge,” TPO, October 2013] and was exceedingly happy to see someone addressing the issue. Thanks a million for having an open mind and not being afraid to use it. I would like to give you some inside information (no pun intended).

Obtaining training and rehabilitation in Florida’s Department of Corrections is nearly impossible. Contrary to popular belief, DOC does not want to see prisoners succeed. Sure, there are a few folks who are exceptions to the rule, but overall, it is an uphill battle for us. Luckily, most of us love to overcome great challenges and thrive on doing what others say can’t be done.

My coworkers and I paid for our own education (California State University, Sacramento), our testing (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) and our CEUs. DOC gave us nothing but grief. We’ve been transferred all over the state to get the hours needed to activate our licenses. Studying is a challenge in and of itself. Ultimately, we overcame it all, and now we are at a facility (Charlotte Correctional Institution) that has an abundance of staff who care and are supportive.

Our current environment (stabbing, gang wars and rapes aside) is very conducive to learning. We realize we’re the underdogs, so we train harder and set our standards higher. We hand-pick prisoners for our custom training and, with our supervisor’s approval, we begin creating uber-operators. Some of our predecessors have graced the pages of TPO/WSO and we’ve beaten out municipalities to win awards on a fraction of their budgets.

We would be very happy to host you and provide a firsthand look at the face of prison operations. Not to worry: Our plants are off the compound and staffed with minimum-custody prisoners. We sincerely appreciate your periodicals and your honest insight. In the future you will see more ex-prisoners entering the field and carrying the standard.

Of course, we understand that each new day presents new challenges, but that’s just business as usual for us. Thanks for taking the time to read this and for putting out such a high-quality periodical.

Sincerely,

William E. Siebert

Water/Wastewater Operator

Charlotte Correctional Institution

Punta Gorda, Fla.

Looking For A New Start

I am writing in response to the topic you wrote about concerning the employment of prisoners after their release. Thank you so much for addressing an issue that is very important to me.

I am 34 years old. I am incarcerated for a crime I committed when I was 16. I never had a job in society. I am taking the opportunity to learn as much as I can while I am in here about water treatment. I am about 300 hours away from activating my Class C wastewater treatment plant operator’s license. I have also completed all of the required course work and passed the state exam for the Florida Class C drinking water plant operator’s license.

I had to overcome a lot of hurdles in here to go as far as I have with my education. Unfortunately, I know I will have to endure a lot more to secure employment after my release in 15 months. I look forward to the challenge of starting life over. I am also looking forward to reading the responses to your article. It may give me some insight into where to seek employment.

I have already collected a lot of contact information from TPO on employers I plan on sending my resume to before my release. Once again, thank you for your article.

Jofre Miller

DeSoto Work Camp

Arcadia, Fla.

Decisions To Change

In response to your October column, we as Marion Correctional Institution environmental wastewater students appreciate your concerns about people like us. We are very fortunate to have a field like wastewater in which to start a career and upon release give most of us a new beginning.

Our wastewater vocational program is designed and furnished with the best licensed instructors, lab equipment and books approved by the Sacramento programs. We are trained biweekly at a 0.5 mgd extended aeration plant by a Class A licensed operator instructor to attain on-the-job training to activate our class C license.

We are excited about the environmental field and are aware of employers’ concerns about hiring ex-felons. We know that the results of tomorrow reflect on the choices you make today and only ask to be given another chance. We’ve all made past mistakes, and with the time lost away from society and our families, we’ve made a decision to change.

This program has given us the opportunity to better ourselves for the future and also the self-worth to give back to society through the environmental field to help create a better world to live in for us all. We hope prospective employers will give us an opportunity to contribute to the exciting water field.

William Wheat

Robert Stowell

Fritz St. Fleurant

Marion Correctional Institution, Ocala, Fla.

An Instructor’s Perspective

I teach a water treatment training program at a state prison in Florida. Successful completion of the program earns students a certificate that allows them to sit for the Florida state Department of Environmental Protection test while still in prison.

In order to become a C licensed operator, the student must accumulate one year of work experience, which may not be feasible during incarceration. In your editorial, inmate James Blackford focused upon the “stigma of being felons” and the “critical question” on job applications that asks: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Frankly, it does not matter if that question is on a job application or not. Little in the way of time or money is required to do a background check on a job applicant. The Internet allows easy access to information about our lives that, in times past, might have been considered private and confidential.

Answering the “critical question” honestly and stating that details will become available during the interview process is a reasonable approach. It is best to assume that the potential employer has a complete record of time spent in prison along with a listing of places worked in the past.

It is essential for applicants to provide honest (not necessarily in-depth) answers to all questions on an employment application. False statements may prevent receiving an invitation to interview, and, if discovered later, may result in loss of employment.

You asked: What happens to the trainees when they are released and look for work in the clean-water field? In my experience, most of them find and enjoy employment in this satisfying and important profession.

An important resource for job hunters is the perennial best seller, What Color is Your Parachute? The author, Richard N. Bolles, has great empathy for those seeking employment. With friendly humor and sage advice, he provides practical information. To answer a felon’s concern about possibly being rejected for employment, he states: “You are not looking for employers who will not hire felons; you are looking for employers who will hire felons.”

He emphasizes the need to put in a full 40-hour week to hunt for a job. Most job seekers find the process so stressful that they typically put in only a few hours of job hunting each day; certainly not 40 hours each week.

My experience as a certified vocational teacher and as a supervisor of treatment plant operations at five state prisons reveals that about half who enter a vocational program actually enter the workforce as a treatment plant operator. Those who show the initiative to learn the field read the textbooks for more than being able to answer the test questions, and they acquire the desire to know more about the occupation. Their attitude reflects that and will be evident in a job interview.

Last year a human resources representative in a distant state telephoned me in regard to a man formerly in my classroom who was seeking employment with her company. I asked, “Are you reluctant to hire a former inmate?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “The best-educated operators come from the prisons. I just want your opinion of his character.” Virtually all my students who completed the courses and developed appreciation for the vital nature of our work are now employed as operators.

One man in his 50s who spent several decades in prison and whose custody prevented him from even seeing a treatment plant went on to become the lead operator at a small municipal plant after his release.

Another who needed experience hours to activate his license left prison to live in a very small town. Told that “someone will have to die before we can hire you,” he worked as a volunteer for one year without pay to gain the needed hours, supporting himself by working the night shift at a pizzeria. He is now a dual licensed operator enjoying good pay and satisfying work.

A former inmate who was able to obtain his experience hours while in prison and activate both his wastewater and drinking water licenses had difficulty obtaining employment. Working for over a year in a yogurt shop and then at near minimum wage servicing lift stations did not dampen his spirits. Finally hired to run a lime softening plant, he used his spare time to visit similar treatment plants and ask for advice on running his own plant.

After a year he applied to a large county with a reputation of never hiring felons. When they called the plants he had visited on his free time, the operators told them, “You would be making a mistake if you didn’t hire him.” He was hired and is doing so well that he is now being groomed for supervision.

Lastly, I would like to say that the opinions expressed are mine alone and are not necessarily those of the Florida Department of Corrections or Marion Correctional Institution.

Thomas J. Willard

Marion Correctional Institution

Ocala, Fla.



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