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Prison inmates submerge under pressure

Kenyatta Kalisana completed his training here this month, departing with a choice of three jobs and a possible six-figure annual salary.

Kalisana’s career options would be impressive simply because of the troubled national and California economies. More extraordinary is that the 40-year-old Los Angeles man, a twice-convicted drug dealer, left the California Institution for Men after three years with an international certification as a deep-sea diver, underwater welder and heavy construction rigger.

“It’s pretty good to have choices,” says Kalisana, whose new skills acquired in prison have secured him lucrative — but dangerous — employment repairing undersea fuel lines, inspecting bridges or cleaning the hulls of giant cargo ships. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Hundreds of prisoners have cycled through the weather-beaten Marine Technology Training Center, which reopened last year after budget cuts forced its closure five years ago. The school feeds a niche industry in which ex-offenders can earn $50,000 to $100,000 right out of prison — often more than the cops who busted them. The healthy salaries are a key reason why only about 6% of the dive school graduates return to prison in a system where nearly 70% of all prisoners are rearrested for new offenses.

The program is a welcome and unusual success story as state and federal lawmakers try to break a cycle of failure for ex-offenders. Nationally, two-thirds of the 650,000 inmates released each year are rearrested within three years, Justice Department statistics show.

The rearrest rates are prompting a gradual move toward job training and support programs after two decades in which harsh living conditions dominated national prison policy. Fred Johnson, the Chino program’s chief instructor, says his dive school could be a model for other job training programs, and California corrections officials are considering expanding it elsewhere as the idea of rehabilitation slowly gains momentum.

“This is an issue that we all have a stake in,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a national report in May aimed at bolstering re-entry programs on both sides of the prison gates. “We have to understand that people need our help. We should do it for compassionate reasons, but there’s also a great economic reason. … We’ve got to stop this turnstile justice.”

Graduates show promise

The Chino divers are landing jobs largely because of the school’s strong reputation and a steady need for highly skilled labor in heavy construction, shipping and the oil industry. Hurricane Katrina increased demand for Chino graduates, some of whom are repairing damage to oil platforms scattered throughout the Gulf.

Phil Newsum, executive director of the Association of Diving Contractors International, says Chino graduates are among the best in the industry. “It all comes down to one question: Can you do the job?” says Newsum, whose group has 500 member companies. “They have shown over and over that they can.”
Chino’s Johnson, 65, a plain-spoken former commercial diver, directs this unusual program and the current class of 17 in a training center housed in a former prison dairy barn. Founded nearly four decades ago, the program sputtered from lack of money, then restarted last year with new funding because of its past reputation and continuing promise.

Johnson and Jeff Powers, the only other instructor, oversee the training regimen, a mix of academic and physical work totaling 2,000 hours of instruction — more than twice that of some civilian dive schools.

Violent offenders generally are not eligible for admission to the program, which attracts about 20 to 40 applicants for the 12-month course. Of that group, about one-third drop out.

Not all graduates have been tracked, but of the 349 who have, Johnson says only about 6% return to prison. “I approach this thing like a business,” he says. “If they don’t make it, it all comes back on us.”

Debbie Mukamal, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says programs like Chino’s that provide advanced training and the potential for high-paying jobs are extremely rare.

Among the few others is a carpentry program launched last year at the California Institution for Women. That program — a partnership with the Northern California Carpenters Union Local 46 — provides graduates with tools and pays union dues for one year to help the former offenders move quickly into union jobs.

Bill Sessa, spokesman for the state’s Prison Industry Authority, which manages inmate programs, says the union association and dues payment make that program the first of its kind in the nation.

At Chino, Johnson says, the toughest hurdle for most recruits is not the physical regimen — including the 5-mile swim and occasional decompression sickness from extended periods in the school’s underwater training tanks. It’s convincing them the opportunity for success is real.

Chris Snow, 36, a convicted bank robber who left prison and the dive program last April, writes regularly to Kalisana and the 16 other trainees. His sunny dispatches from the outside may be the most-read documents beyond the program’s required physiology and physics homework.

Snow, who is employed as a welder and pile-driver near Chicago, says he has saved $20,000, bought a $30,000 truck and is eyeing a $240,000 four-bedroom, two-bath house in the suburbs. He was sentenced eight years ago as the get-away driver in a San Diego County robbery. Before that, he mostly waited tables for minimum-wage at a chain restaurant. Now he’s making $39.77 per hour and working 60 hours a week. At his current pace, he’ll make slightly more than $124,000 this year.

“It’s beautiful; life is too good,” Snow says.

Journey not for everyone

Fellow graduates Mark Tomsick, 42, and Tuan Pham 37, both recently hired by Muldoon Marine Services Inc., a Long Beach commercial diving company, also appear to be thriving.

Tomsick, a convicted methamphetamine dealer who has been in prison five times, has an apartment a few blocks from the beach. Pham, twice-convicted of dealing marijuana and ecstasy, cruises to work in a 2003 Lincoln Navigator.

Yet there have been disappointments as well. Eric Pawling, 45, had few doubts he would succeed when he was released Feb. 21 after serving two years for theft. Pawling also chose Muldoon’s, where he reported for work the night of his release. “I couldn’t have done this (training) on the outside,” he said then.

Within a month, problems began that led to his dismissal in May, says Craig “Moses” Williamson, a foreman at Muldoon’s.

Pawling says he left to care for his mother, who has cancer.

Williamson says the mother’s illness was a factor but that the diver also proved “a little unreliable,” losing a company cellphone and failing to maintain a company truck.

“It was a huge disappointment,” says Powers, the Chino instructor who recommended Pawling for the job and drove him there. Pawling did not respond to requests for comment following his departure from Muldoon’s.

News of Pawling’s experience has reached the diving class.

“It’s too bad,” Kalisana says, quickly changing the subject. “I think I’ll be all right.”

Kalisana accepted a job with a dive company in Louisiana, pending approval of a parole transfer.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says, adding that he knows there are no guarantees of success. Mostly, he’s looking forward to showing his family, including 5-year-old daughter, Gia, that “I can do something for myself.”

Williamson and Richard Barta, the president of Muldoon’s, say they are still willing to take a chance on a convict, despite the inherent risk.

“You have an expectation that some are going to make it; some are not,” Williamson says. “You don’t know what you have until they show up.”


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