SCI Forest Seeks Reform for Inmates Through Education, Vocational Training

FOREST CO., Pa. (EYT) – Reform and reduction of recidivism are major goals for inmates at SCI Forest.

(Photos by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography)

Of SCI’s current total population of 2,159 inmates, 311 are serving life sentences; the remaining 1,848 will be returning to the outside world at some point in the future, according to SCI Forest Superintendent Derek Oberlander

“We have to make them better than they entered,” Oberlander told exploreClarion.com.

That over-arching goal is part of what has led the institution to develop educational and vocational programs which offer a wide range of classes to help inmates make steps forward for a better future once they are released.

Heading into the educational area of the prison offers a view most wouldn’t expect.

The walls are brightly decorated with various murals, all of which were created by inmates – several painted by one particular prisoner who had never before touched a paintbrush prior to his incarceration, according to Oberlander.

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The programs, under the direction of Principal Sharon Dombroski, offer everything from basic educational courses for inmates to graduate high school or earn a GED up through vocational programs that offer real-world certifications that can better an inmate’s chance of gainful employment following their release.

There is also an incentive for those choosing to take part in the programs available.

Participating inmates are paid 25 cents an hour. Although this may seem odd, Oberlander explained that before inmates were paid for their participation, many would forgo the educational programs in order to be able to work for programs that offered payment so they could afford basics from the commissary.

According to Principal Dombroski, the available programs are credible classes. Inmates interested in furthering their education need to apply and be accepted to the programs, and they have to maintain acceptable grades and show that they are dedicated in order to remain in the program.

“It’s up to us to want to progress,” stated inmate Anthony.

“I just got my high school diploma here last year, and I’m proud of myself, and my family is proud.

“This is helping me to become someone.”

One of the programs, Barbershop Management under the direction of Melissa Himes, offers students a chance to earn a licensure which they can maintain and renew until their release. The barbershop area also highlights the skills developed in other programs, as a large portion of the shop was designed and built by inmates in the other vocational programs.

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Another class, the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) Program under the direction of Kenneth Lyons, offers a beginner’s overview of HVAC and National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) certification, as well as EPA certification in refrigerant handling. The year-long program gives participants a solid basis for future employment in the field.

“It will at least help them get their foot in the door,” explained Lyons.

Inmate Ulysses, who earned the HVAC and EPA certifications, said that outside of prison, he probably never would have had a chance to get the training he was offered at SCI Forest.

“I’m really grateful for that,” noted Ulysses. “They try to help us better ourselves and step out of here as better men.”

Former Corrections Officer Steve Best is in charge of the Building Trades Program, which began as a basic framing course but has developed further from that point.

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“We start working on basics, knowing the tools and reading measurements. I let the good ones build more, though,” said Best.

Best also noted that one of the major challenges for many participants is mastering the basics – specifically, learning to properly read a tape measure.

“But, the more tool time they get, the better they get.”

The Electricity Program which is managed by Richard Zimmerman is run in a specially designed, multi-purpose shop and classroom that was also built by inmates.

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Zimmerman was the first to help design and begin teaching an electricity-focused program at a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute when the program began in May of 2005. The classroom has mock electrical panels and wire setups, where inmates learn how to correctly wire various components of residences and other buildings. The program is primarily focused on residential wiring and electrical issues and teaches participants the basics of electrical know-how, as well as related codes, rules, and regulations.

Two additional courses are taught at SCI by Zimmerman: one for the construction of “green” environmentally friendly residences and another seminar on flagging in construction zones which offers a certification, as well.

Another area of focus at SCI is the Business Education Program which is under the direction of Monica Morgan. Students are taught basic typing skills and then progress into Microsoft Office products. Once the inmates in the program learn the basics, there are two tracts that can choose from to continue their education. One program moves into more advanced Microsoft Office products, such as Publisher, and the other one focuses on skills for running a small business. The program also offers the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) certification.

The Automotive Technology Program, directed by Robert Burkett, is another area in which the inmates thrive.

Inmate Darren said the program changed his life.

“The best job is one you love, and I would have never learned how much I like this outside of here,” noted Darren.

Darren said he plans to open his own business with the skills he has learned following his release.

Along with the automotive program, Burkett is also in charge of the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Program.

This program offers inmates a unique opportunity.

The CDL Program utilizes a CLD simulator, officially called a Doron 550, which is a $100,000.00 driving simulator that allows inmates in the program to experience driving a wide range of commercial vehicles without the risks.

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The simulator has over 80 different scenarios and over 30 different commercial vehicles. It can also simulate everything from varied weather, road conditions, and day or night conditions to mechanical malfunctions, such as a blown tire or an engine issue, and obstacles, such as a deer in the road.

“They can’t break anything here,” noted Burkett. “And, it also teaches about defensive driving.”

With the training inmates can receive at the prison, all they will need for CDL licensure once they are released is to take the actual road test, giving them a solid opportunity for future employment, according to Burkett.

For a smoother transition, the administration is working with the state to have CDL on-site permit testing.

While the educational program has been developed to offer inmates a chance at a better future, SCI is also teaching inmates “working skills.”

A new focus at SCI Forest is a correctional industry program. The program is still under construction; however, it has one aspect already operating. Inmates are currently working on the restoration of corroded wheels for a range of PennDOT vehicles and equipment.

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The process begins with the removal of any corrosion on the wheel, then the wheels are powder coated and heat-treated, utilizing skills that program supervisor Tim McKinney explained could provide career opportunities for inmates after their release.

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The program will eventually be expanded to provide sandblasting and other restoration and repair of heavy equipment, primarily for PennDOT vehicles and equipment – which will save the state money.

“This is the start of something big, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said McKinney.

(This is the third article of a series of articles on SCI Forest.)


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