Virginia’s Prison Apprenticeship Program Offers Second Chance

An apprenticeship program in the Virginia correctional system helps offenders earn wastewater licenses and prepare for productive careers.

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Many correctional facilities offer training in water and wastewater treatment to qualified inmates. The Virginia Department of Corrections takes it to the next level with a Wastewater Apprenticeship Program across several of its facilities statewide.

The program offers classroom and computer coursework sanctioned by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). Offenders also receive direct hands-on training and experience by working under the supervision of state-employed operators of prisons’ wastewater treatment plants.

As of the end of last year, 11 apprentices had completed the year-long program, and 10 had passed the state’s Class 4 (lowest) wastewater certification and received operator’s licenses. One has advanced and earned a Class 2 (second highest) certification. Two former offenders now work at municipal wastewater treatment facilities.

The apprenticeship program was the brainchild of Tim Newton, director in the department’s Environmental Services Unit, who saw it as a way to help ex-offenders enter a growing professional field and become contributing members of their communities.

The program is limited to offenders deemed low-security risks; violent and sexual offenders are not eligible. Apprenticeships are offered at 15 prison sites. Treatment Plant Operator talked about the program with Newton and Robbie Jones, treatment plant operator at the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, who directly oversees the training.

TPO: How did this apprenticeship program come into being?

Newton: When our director, Harold Clark, came to Virginia, he wanted to start a big re-entry program. About one-third of the offenders get out every year and go back to the community. We’re trying to give them skills so that they can compete for jobs when they are released. We met with the DPOR, which is the state licensing agency for water and wastewater, and partnered with them to start a re-entry program for us. It’s hard to find wastewater operators in Virginia now. When we have job openings, we have a hard time finding people qualified for them. We felt wastewater would be a good place to start. We launched the program in 2012.

TPO: What kinds of water and wastewater facilities do the Virginia prisons have?

Jones: The facility populations run from about 115 to 1,200 offenders. There are several types of systems. We have sequencing batch reactors, extended aeration systems, oxidation ditches and others. They discharge directly to the environment. Other facilities discharge to municipal sewer systems. Some facilities have their own water plants.

TPO: How many people are in the apprenticeship program?

Jones: At any given time, we have 14 to 18 stretched out across the state. We’re trying to expand. We’d like to have 25 to 28 in the program at all times, but it takes time to expand it to all the facilities.

TPO: Who can qualify for the program?

Jones: These are Level 1 offenders, who would be considered trustees. They’re allowed to go outside the fence and can work on several types of jobs throughout the department. It’s minimal supervision — we don’t have to have somebody constantly checking up on them. We also require them to have a GED or a high school diploma, because it’s a pretty intensive program. They need to have comprehension skills and the ability to do basic math.

TPO: Beyond those requirements, do candidates receive other screening?

Jones: I interview them to make sure their attitude is such that they’ll come in and do what they’re supposed to do. We have counselors who do background checks. We also check to make sure they don’t have any charges for misbehavior in at least six months. If they can’t stay out of trouble while they’re in the prison system, if they can’t get along with other offenders or the staff, we definitely don’t need them in our program. We do a thorough job of making sure we get guys who are willing to learn. 

TPO: Once candidates are accepted, what does the training consist of?

Jones: There is classroom instruction. John Hricko, from the Town of Crewe, is certified to teach the program and comes to the Nottoway facility to help us out. Other facilities have different instructors, and the operators, supervisors and managers pitch in. We help the trainees get the books they need. We use Volumes 1 and 2 of the Sacramento course — that’s what we try to model the program after. The trainees also have access to laptop computers that are not hooked to the Internet. They use programs we’ve acquired through Virginia Rural Water Association, the state Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Water Environment Federation. It’s a comprehensive program.

TPO: What basic steps do the offenders go through to complete the apprenticeship?

Newton: We try to make sure across the state that we treat them the same way we would treat someone we hired off the street and trained. They follow the same steps as any operator in training at any of our facilities.

Jones: From the get-go, we show them around the plant. We show them the processes from the influent to the effluent and explain some of the terminology. We get them acclimated to the system, how it works and what to do and not to do. Then we have them sit down and start studying so they get more familiar with the terminology and we can talk to them on the same level. Once they have enough experience to understand what we’re doing, we start showing them how to do some of the basic procedures. As they catch on, we take it further. One of the big issues is the math. We concentrate on that, making sure they understand how to use their formula sheet.

TPO: How do you manage to supervise trainees in scattered locations across the system?

Jones: It’s up to the individual operators and supervisors at each facility. It’s not really that difficult. Before we had this program, offenders worked in our treatment facilities. They just didn’t get any actual credit. Now they get credit for going through the apprenticeship and hopefully getting their licenses.

TPO: How long does it take them to complete the program and be ready for licensing?

Jones: It’s typically a year. They’re required to have a flat six months of hands-on experience, eight hours a day, before they sit for the exam. We go for the lower level license just to get them a professional license. Then if they’re going to be here with us awhile longer, we’ll help them pursue the next-level license.

TPO: As offenders, do they have to go through any extra steps to obtain licenses?

Jones: Once they meet the minimum requirement to be able to take the test, we submit their paperwork to the DPOR. They then conduct an informal fact-finding conference. They call and talk to the apprentice, along with me or whichever operator is in responsible charge of that person. Later the DPOR team will vote on whether to have the man sit for the license exam or not. So far, we haven’t had anybody denied.

Newton: So far, we’ve only had one apprentice who failed and had to retake the test.

TPO: What kind of help do the newly licensed operators receive in applying for and getting jobs in the field?

Jones: I help them, as do the other supervisors, the managers and Tim Newton. We go all over the state to different facilities, and we talk to operators and to mayors. If we hear about jobs coming open, we’ll try to let the offenders know. I have made several phone calls myself. We talk to the decision-makers and see if they will give our guys a break and interview them. We don’t just let them out and leave them to their own devices. We try to help them out even after they are released. When we accept these people for training, we’re essentially hiring them just like we would hire anyone applying for a job with us. So we have no hesitancy in giving them recommendations.

TPO: Are the hiring agencies still hesitant because of these apprentices’ criminal records?

Jones: They’re a bit reticent at times, but once we explain that we thoroughly vet them and that we’re willing to give them a reference, they are much more willing to take a chance. For the most part I’ve had nothing but good luck with people at least giving them an interview. I had one fellow who had been out for a year and wasn’t having a whole lot of luck. But he went to work at a shipyard and just kept plugging. I told him to keep putting in applications, and finally someone went ahead and hired him. Perseverance is the key.

TPO: What is the impact of this program on the offenders’ lives?

Jones: The guys I have experience with, you can see their attitude has changed. They have self-respect. It changes their attitude and outlook.

Newton: When they’re ready to get out, we no longer call these guys offenders. They’re returning citizens. We’re giving them a skill that can help them be productive citizens who won’t be back in corrections anymore. That’s our job. If we can get them a professional license, they’ve got a big leg up — it’s a lot easier for them to get a job. This program is also good for our operators because they see the change in these men. It’s really noticeable when you go and talk to them. They look at what they’re doing as a good thing, helping someone build a future. They give them a trade, and they feel good about that. We’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to, and we do it in more than water and wastewater.  


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