As she listened to heartfelt speeches of a bright future, inspiring words one would expect at a graduation ceremony, April Adkins could hardly contain her bubbling excitement in the first row.
When her name was called, she leaped up, smiling widely and rapidly high-fiving fellow graduates. With a flip of her pink hard hat, she then saluted the crowd of teary family members gathered under a canopy blocking the sun-splashed morning.
Inside the barbed-wire fences of a state prison.
Adkins was part of the country’s first class of 12 female inmates to graduate from a carpenter’s apprenticeship at the California Institution for Women in Corona.
The flagship program is aimed at helping inmates contribute to society once they are released on parole. The overriding hope is that the lessons they learned in the program will lead to steady employment on the outside.
“We have a responsibility on our side to give you an opportunity when you leave this prison to be able to succeed,” Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary James Tilton said to cheers from the crowd.
“It is the equivalent of a college degree, and you have a huge upside to come out of here and get those jobs.”
The inmates are now eligible for construction jobs as part of a south Los Angeles apprentice program and will be given a full set of tools once they find employment.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city would target graduates for jobs.
“This is an opportunity for these inmates to develop skills that will enhance their ability to obtain employment upon parole,” he said in a prepared statement.
Michelle Bailey, a graduate incarcerated for drug possession, agreed.
“It is an overwhelming feeling to know as one door closes on my past, another door with a bright future has opened,” she said.
During the ceremony, a newly built training facility for inmates working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection loomed in the background.
The graduates constructed the building as the class’ main project, first tearing down two decrepit trailers that once stood there.
There were 20 class members last October.
The heat got to some. The flies, smell and long hours got to others. The frustration of learning advanced math skills took its toll.
“The math is like calculus,” Adkins said. “Whoo. There were days when I walked out of it, but I kept coming back because I didn’t want to quit.”
The class dwindled. Instructor Jim Schene, a professional contractor, pleaded with the others to stick it out. “You’ll see the benefits,” he said. “You can’t let one bad day get to you.”
Slowly the building took shape. With every frame and sheet of drywall, their new skills started to pay off and transform the 5,600-square-foot structure.
The graduates are now eager to expand their knowledge outside the prison walls.
“The first thing I’m going to do is fix my mom’s house up if she needs it and fix my dad’s house up if he needs it,” said Darlene Brazil.
Barbara Scott, her mother, laughed approvingly. She had flown in from Northern California for the ceremony.
“I’ve heard so much about the program, and then to see their faces and how excited they are is just amazing,” she said.
As she huddled with her parents, Adkins, imprisoned for attempted murder, proudly showed off her completion certificate.
“It’s an accomplishment, something that I can be proud of myself for,” Adkins said.
“She’s making her own start,” said a beaming Loletha Watkins, her mother. “If she can do it here, she can do it anywhere.”