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Jim Kenyon: The Arc of Justice

Published: 6/5/2016 12:13:26 AM
Modified: 6/6/2016 12:23:51 PM

Sam Ramsey is scheduled to be released from the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., early next year. Having earned his high school degree last summer, the 21-year-old Ramsey’s next challenge is preparing himself to find a decent-paying job when he gets out after three years behind bars.

Many former inmates, especially the 20-somethings without any particular job skills, have limited options. Washing dishes and stocking store shelves often are the best they can do.

Try paying the rent and buying groceries in the Upper Valley on $9 an hour.

Ramsey, a Windsor kid about whom I’ve been writing occasionally for the last couple of years, is determined to do better.

At the urging of a teacher with Community High School of Vermont — one of the best things going in the state’s corrections system — Ramsey enrolled a few months ago in a welding class the Newport prison has offered for nearly 20 years.

Welders can make good money and the job outlook is favorable. If the U.S. ever decides to fix its crumbling bridges and roads, welders will be in even greater demand.

“It’s a skill I can use almost anywhere,” Ramsey told me when I visited him last Sunday. “There’s a lot of room for advancement, too.”

Just one problem.

Last November, the Vermont Department of Corrections closed the prison’s welding shop. DOC officials told me it was a security precaution. (More on that later). Meanwhile, the prison’s welding equipment is collecting dust, while Ramsey and a half-dozen other inmates have been left to learn about voltages and working with metals by reading textbooks and watching videos.

That’s right.

Inmates are taking a class in welding, but they don’t actually do any welding.

How’s that going to fly with future employers? Like applying to be a truck driver without ever having been behind a wheel, I imagine.

Last Thursday, I stopped by High Country Aluminum Products in Hartford. The company specializes in building metal boat and swimming docks, which requires a fair amount of welding.

Doug McLam, the company’s owner, is a welder himself. “There’s an art to it,” he told me. “Welding is a feeling. You can feel it in your fingers and hands. You’re not going to get that feel out of a book or by watching a video.”

I also talked with Jerry Fortin, a certified welding instructor who has taught at the Newport prison for 10 years. He’s helped launch dozens of former inmates into productive careers over the years.

Getting through Fortin’s class, and earning the national certifications that mean something in the welding world, can take an inmate a year or more. Classroom work is important, but the piece that’s missing now is “getting them into the shop,” Fortin said. “It prepares them for the real world.”

The hands-on experience also gives inmates a chance to find out if a career in welding is for them, or if they’re any good at it.

I asked Fortin about Ramsey, who at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, appears to be built for construction work. “He has a high intellect and he’s very witty,” Fortin said. “He’s got a lot of potential, if someone gives him a chance.”

Kim Bushey, the DOC’s program services director, told me the state is looking at alternative ways to teach welding that don’t involve metal and fire-breathing torches.

A welding simulator (think video game machine) is a possibility. The virtual machines are pricey, though.

And the Community High School of Vermont, which works with inmates and former inmates, isn’t a big priority in Montpelier these days. After taking a $750,000 budget hit this year, the state’s contribution to the school has sunk to $3.2 million.

So I can’t imagine the state spending $50,000 for a piece of equipment that only prisoners would use. The money would probably have to come from a private grant.

Even if it does happen, it won’t be in time to help Ramsey, who spent most of his teen years in residential treatment facilities for troubled youths. At 16, he assaulted a female counselor at Woodside, the state’s only locked facility for juveniles, in Essex. After Ramsey turned 18, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in the assault, resulting in a three-year sentence.

His mother, Kerrie, makes the four-hour round-trip from Windsor nearly every Sunday. When he’s back home, Ramsey wants to take classes at Community College of Vermont and eventually earn his bachelor’s degree.

But first he’d like to give welding a try. He’ll just have to wait until he’s out on the street to get hands-on experience.

So what led to DOC locking up the shop?

“Any time you have materials that can be fashioned into a weapon, you have a concern,” said Mike Touchette, the DOC’s director of facility operations.

From talking with Touchette and other DOC administrators, it’s my understanding that the closing came after a piece of metal from the shop that could be used as a weapon was confiscated in the 420-bed prison.

Is that reason enough to suddenly shut down a vocational shop with a long track record of helping inmates secure gainful employment?

In Vermont, it is.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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