Thaddeus Lewis turns to his boss, Lee Berzanske, while drilling holes in an Enstar Natural Gas Co. truck during their work day Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at Lee’s Heavy Equipment Repair on Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, Alaska. Lewis, an inmate at Wildwood Correctional Complex, was the first offender admitted into the facility’s new Vocational Work Release Program. (Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion)

Thaddeus Lewis turns to his boss, Lee Berzanske, while drilling holes in an Enstar Natural Gas Co. truck during their work day Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at Lee’s Heavy Equipment Repair on Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, Alaska. Lewis, an inmate at Wildwood Correctional Complex, was the first offender admitted into the facility’s new Vocational Work Release Program. (Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion)

Wildwood programs offer better chance at employment after imprisonment

Thaddeus Lewis has figured out the best way to serve his time at the Wildwood Correctional Complex: by hardly being there at all.

Lewis, 55, is one of five inmates from the Kenai facility enrolled in the Vocational Work Release Program that debuted in fall 2016. He was the first to be placed in a local business, where he is paid for his time and is driven back and forth every day.

Lewis has been a heavy equipment mechanic in training at Lee’s Heavy Equipment Repair on Kalifornsky Beach Road since October 2016. It’s been going well — so well, in fact, that he and owner Lee Berzanske don’t want to go their separate ways when Lewis finishes his time at Wildwood. Though he’s from Anchorage, Lewis is planning to stay on with Lee’s full time after he is released. He is up for parole in May.

“I love it. It’s going good. Best way to do time,” said Lewis, who has been in Wildwood for two and a half years. “… I feel like I’m doing my time on the evenings and weekends program.”

The Vocational Work Release Program is the first of its kind in the state of Alaska, and program coordinators hope it will grow to admit between 10 and 12 offenders, said Wildwood Superintendant Shannon McCloud. However, it’s only one of several vocational and educational-oriented programs Wildwood offers offenders to better prepare them for life on the outside.

The new program was born at the request of Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams, who McCloud said wanted Timothy Ward, a vocational teacher at Wildwood, to get out into the area to determine interest from the business community. It had been a goal to have something like the program in place since Wildwood’s Transitional Program was created, but it wasn’t possible at the time, said Lynnie Einerson, an adult probation officer with DOC. Creating the new opportunity was a bit easier this time around because Wildwood has already had a Work Release Program running since 2012 in cooperation with local fish processing companies.

“They needed help at the canneries,” Einerson said. “They didn’t have enough workers.”

Wildwood offenders who pass a strict screening process work 12-14 hour shifts at the processors, making minimum wage plus overtime. McCloud said some of the processors were nervous when the work release program was first starting up, but that they quickly realized the benefit of having employees from Wildwood.

“Once they got out there and they (the employers) realized what hard workers they are — polite, work hard, they’re sober, they’re on time,” Einerson said.

The work release program started out with about 20 participants and has grown to 48 this year, McCloud said.

Outside the work release programs, Wildwood has also offered a community service opportunity since about 2010. Offenders have done everything from clean trash from the sides of the highway after breakup and work on the Peninsula Oilers Baseball Field to building and donating picnic tables.

The standards for admission into either work release program or the community service program are high. Sexual offenders are not eligible, nor are inmates who have committed local domestic violence crimes. To enter the vocational program, offenders must first complete at least one vocational class taught at the facility, Ward said. To get into those classes, offenders have to be free of disciplinary actions against them for at least six months, he said.

While on the job in the vocational or work release program, offenders cannot use the phone or computer, can’t leave the area they’re working in and can’t have family visitors. A few participants did violate these rules and lose their jobs early on in the work release program with the fish processors, Einerson said, but there haven’t been issues since.

For those who are not able to participate in the programs that involve leaving Wildwood, there are opportunities for advancement in both education and vocation inside. Ward teaches a number of vocational classes, including welding and basic construction. A course on asbestos work this week was completely filled by inmates despite being offered on short notice, Einerson said.

Outside the realm of vocation, Wildwood has provided a program that allows inmates to work with dogs for about five years. Wildwood staff coordinate with the local animal shelter and bring in dogs that are not likely to be adopted for the offenders to spend time with and rehabilitate. Inmates pay for things like food and to have the animals spayed and neutered out of their own pocket, and train the dogs to give them a better chance for adoption, McCloud and Einerson said.

The dogs stay with the offenders in their rooms at Wildwood, and are often so improved after working with them that several staff members have gone on to adopt them themselves, McCloud said. The inmates have helped between 25 and 30 dogs through the program so far, she said.

As for Lewis, immersion in the vocational programs at Wildwood was a no-brainer. He had done some work with heavy equipment before going to prison, so he began taking classes from Ward and was then given outside privileges to become a maintenance worker for the facility.

“I’m the kind of person that when I’m trying to find something to do, work is one thing that … I like doing, and those people, they’re seeing that in me,” Lewis said.

Getting involved in these opportunities and now working at Lee’s not only gives him a leg up once he’s released, but has also changed life for him at Wildwood, he said.

“The guards over there, once you start doing something like this, their attitude completely changes,” Lewis said. “You know, you’re not just another number to them. They’re treating me with respect, and they’ll actually communicate with me instead of talking at me like they do most of the people over there.”

Having Lewis as an employee has paid off for Berzanske, too. He hopes to bring on another offender or two come summer for his busy season, he said.

“We were a little unsure at first how it was going to work dealing with the staff at the prison,” he said. “I can say that it’s all been really good — no problems at all. They’ve been courteous and have adapted to basically fit our needs.”

Once Lewis completes his six months of on-the-job training, he’ll have a certificate that will help him get a job in the heavy equipment field even if he doesn’t end up staying at Lee’s.

Since the vocational work program is also done in conjunction with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, businesses who take part are eligible for tax credits between $2,500 and $9,500, Ward said.

Staff at Wildwood and in DOC want to expand the new vocational release program, but are sticking with the five participants they have for now.

“We do want to grow it,” Ward said. “We’re kind of held back because of other things going on inside. We’re short-handed, basically. We’re doing all this work in addition to our normal jobs.”

Wildwood also can’t provide transportation at the moment, so it’s up to participating employers to pick up and drop off their workers.

There are around 250 sentenced men serving their time at Wildwood, McCloud and Einerson said. A study done in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts for the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission in 2015 found Alaska’s imprisoned population grew by 27 percent over the last decade, almost three times faster than the resident population. Pew also reported that almost two-thirds of released offenders return to prison within three years in the state.

While the programs that involve working outside the facility are limited to a smaller number of people, the vocational training offered inside functions with those programs to give inmates a better chance at employment once they get out. This makes it more likely that they will break the habit of behavior that brings them to prison, McCloud said.

“We just try to put out a better product than we received,” she said. “I mean, that’s kind of our motto. And that wasn’t that way before. It was warehousing, and people just got out when they got out, and they just came right back. And it was just this 30-year criminal career, and … all of us I think are invested in getting that cycle broken and getting them to a better place.”

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

Lee Berzanske, owner of Lee’s Heavy Equipment Repair, shines a light on an Enstar Natural Gas Co. truck so Thaddeus Lewis can see where to drill holes during their work day Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at the repair shop on Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, Alaska. Lewis, an inmate at Wildwood Correctional Complex, was the first offender admitted into the facility’s new Vocational Work Release Program. (Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion)

Lee Berzanske, owner of Lee’s Heavy Equipment Repair, shines a light on an Enstar Natural Gas Co. truck so Thaddeus Lewis can see where to drill holes during their work day Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at the repair shop on Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, Alaska. Lewis, an inmate at Wildwood Correctional Complex, was the first offender admitted into the facility’s new Vocational Work Release Program. (Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion)

An offender works on the Wildwood Correctional Complex’s newly-acquired welding simulator Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at the facility in Kenai, Alaska. Welding is one of several vocational classes available for inmates to take, and comes with a certification that qualifies them for jobs after release. (Photo courtesy Lynnie Einerson, Alaska Department of Corrections)

An offender works on the Wildwood Correctional Complex’s newly-acquired welding simulator Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 at the facility in Kenai, Alaska. Welding is one of several vocational classes available for inmates to take, and comes with a certification that qualifies them for jobs after release. (Photo courtesy Lynnie Einerson, Alaska Department of Corrections)

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