Getting inmates ready for the road

“When I look across the entire agency and the spectrum of technical and vocational training that we do, this is one area where the need for men and women with commercial drivers’ licenses is so great that it just begs the question: why are we only doing it at one location?” he told Fleet Owner.

Inch, who spent 35 years working in military corrections, is relatively new to his current job, joining in January 2019. “It takes no thought that we should be working towards resourcing strategies to expand this program at other facilities. We are at one facility now, and it should be at four by next year.”

The secretary takes issue with a common notion that someone who has been incarcerated for years might chafe against spending hours alone in a truck cab after their release. Making a comparison to his own experience being in a rigid, by-the-book military environment, he feels comfortable now working in a state bureaucracy.

“Maybe this is my bias coming out of the military, but I lived in an institutional environment for 35 years, and when I got out and had an opportunity to do private  consulting and the freedoms that came with it, I was actually rather uncomfortable. I find myself very comfortable being back in state employment now, [because of the] predictability,” he said.

Inch added that released inmates tend to be loyal to their first job, which might be beneficial to an industry struggling with retention.

“For many inmates, to be valued within an employment sector such as [trucking] would build a loyalty that maybe is not the same as somebody just kind of saying, ‘Okay, I’m done with high school, I’m going to try this,’ or, ‘I’m looking for a second career, I’m going to try that.’ I could give you hundreds of anecdotes over the years about the first job an inmate had and how they developed a great loyalty to the organization that gave them their first opportunity,” he said.

Inch said that he not only would like to expand the program to other facilities but build relationships with carriers. “My real desire is that we build the capability in which businesses are in contact with our inmates while they’re still inmates, while they’re still doing the training. I’m open to discussions about actual corporate sponsorship of training.”

This connection could be critical to an inmate’s success once released. “Employment needs to come pretty quickly after release or we’re putting our returning citizens at risk, frankly, of re-offending because they fall back into previous habits and patterns because of a lack of opportunity.”

Other states have CDL programs, too, and the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) has a clever way of making the transition from inmate to driver more seamless. Once they’ve received their CDL, former inmates can work for the department itself hauling equipment and supplies to facilities within the system.

“Initially, the programs were spearheaded by TDC, and a lot of the reason was to provide drivers for their fleet,” Donna Zuniga, dean of the Huntsville Center at Lee College, told Fleet Owner.

Unlike Santa Rosa, which uses simulators, the inmates at the Wynne Unit prison receive road practice under strict supervision. The students must be at the upper echelon of being a trustee and almost ready for release. “Part of our criteria in selecting students is to pick those who are the closest to getting out of TDC so they can go to work,” Zuniga said.

Currently, the program has 36 students, and as many as 80 complete the course each year.

“A lot of times the student pays, but the state also provides some seed money for tuition. If inmates use this money, if they’re eligible for it, they do have to pay it back once they are on parole; they pay back the tuition to their parole officer,” she said.

Two instructors, Bruce Corbell and Melvin Coleman, have a combined 60 years working in freight transportation for TDC.

“To transition into teaching within the prison system, it was helpful for both of us to have past experience with offenders and with offender drivers. And we are familiar with the agency’s transportation division, which consists of approximately 120 tractors, probably 250 drive vans, probably 150 reefers. And one thing unique to the department’s fleet is they have just about every type of trailer that you can imagine, which gives these offender drivers the possibility to pull many different types of trailers,” said Corbell.

He added that while working for TDC, drivers can rack up recordable hours that they can present to another employer if they want to change jobs. “TDC also will give them a letter of recommendation based on their logged hours, free of any accidents and things like that. That’s a big plus,” noted Zuniga.

Training inmates presents unique challenges, said Coleman. “Sometimes I have to work with them, teach them how to dress, how to talk, how to meet the public. Our classes go out in the public for the driver’s skill test and the written test. We have to watch our P’s and Q’s because one person can screw up the whole program. It’s zero tolerance when we go to outside.”

Zuniga touts the program’s extensive training compared to outside schools. “You see some of schools; they’re six or eight weeks long. We’re running ours about twice as long because we need to just to ensure the inmates get plenty of practice and that we produce the best drivers possible.”

All totaled, inmates have about 1,000 contact hours, including classroom and on-the-road instruction. This extra training is critical for the program’s success. “As you can imagine, [the program] is a pretty political thing. If we have a wreck or anything like that, it could really put the program in danger,” she said.

Watch a video of the Santa Rosa CDL program with comments from inmates.

This article was originally posted by American Trucker.