One of the problems of incarceration is that many prisoners, once they are released and back on the street, have few opportunities or education and find themselves in trouble again. But at Deer Ridge Correctional Facility in Madras, instructors from Central Oregon Community College are trying to stop this cycle by helping the inmates get their GED.
The education program, which the department of Corrections contracted COCC to conduct, serves a minimum of 180 inmates a year. Two GED instructors, a welding instructor, and other part time instructors help the inmates achieve their educational goals.
“Education saves lives,” said Cody Yeager, director of education at DRCI, “and the education team here loves their job and love what they do.” Inmates attend classes during the day and those who are on work crews attend classes at night. Besides general education classes to help inmates get their GED, there is also a welding program, a keyboarding class, as well as creative writing workshops put on by The Nature of Words.
“Research says that education and trade skills help inmates avoid coming back to prison,” said programs superintendent Kevin Hormann.
“We have a great partnership with COCC and the education team fits in well with the institution,” said Joe DeCamp, superintendent of DRCI.
“The instructors are here by choice, this is a great work enviroment, and the college is very supportive of what we do,” said Yeager, “The team is great at doing more with less, and there is always a need for more.”
To be a part of the GED program, inmates must submit a letter requesting to be accepted, called a kite. Once the kite is received, Yeager goes to work to get them in classes and learning.
“We are truly helping people improve their lives, you can’t get better than that,” said Dianne Dean, Adult Basic Education director.
“The most rewarding part of this job is seeing the change in their lives,” said Yeager, “to see how big a change education can make in their lives and how it opens up so many things for them.”
East of Madras lies a ridge covered with juniper and sagebrush that offers a spectacular view of Mount Jefferson. It’s just the sort of place any Oregonian would love to call home with its fresh air, wide open spaces, and mountain views. But for the 600 men incarcerated at Deer Ridge Correctional Institute, this place is anything but warm and inviting.
Deer Ridge, which opened in July 2007, is a minimum security prison, surrounded by tall fences topped with barbed wire, locking doors, and overseen by armed guards. The walls are made out of cement block, and the doors and guard stations have thick security glass.
The inmates sleep in large barrack-like rooms reminiscent of the kind military recruits sleep in at basic training. Each unit contains 100 inmates, who sleep on bunk beds with thin mattresses, and share toilets with no doors on the stalls. Inmates are allowed to purchase a TV and many of them have one attached to their bed. Each unit also contains a small library with books and puzzles. Inmates are required to be in their bed five times a day for a head count, twice during the day and three times at night.
Next to the buildings containing the sleeping units is a recreation room. Inside there are TV’s, ping pong tables, exercise equipment and a small climbing wall. Behind this building there is a garden where inmates grow vegetables to use in the kitchen.
The inmates have access to a yard and in the middle of the it, there are volleyball courts, horse shoe pits, basketball courts and weight lifting equipment. Next to the garden is a baseball diamond where the softball league plays games with each other.
The education center, located across the yard, is full of classrooms where inmates attend classes to receive their GED or to help them adjust to society when they are released. It also contains a chapel, which attends to the spiritual needs of the inmates.
Next to the kitchen, is a building with a woodshop, sewing shop and welding shop. The sewing shop mends and repairs the blue denim pants and blue t-shirts inmates wear. The welding shop is home to a unique program where inmates are taught how to weld to help increase their chances of getting job when they are released.
Inmates are required by Oregon state law to either work or attend school 40 hours a week, and most do a combination of the two. The kitchen, staffed by inmates, cooks meals for the Madras Senior Center, and the city of Madras uses inmate work crews for projects around town. Work crews have also been used to help improve The Cove Pallisades State Park near Culver.
But concrete walls and razor wire still surround the entire facility and being in prison is still a punishment, even if there is a climbing wall, and the sad faces of the men walking in circles around the yard are enough to convince anyone that they should try as hard as they can to stay out of prison
A flash of light, a burst of sparks, and two pieces of metal are welded together. It is an inspiring sight, to witness hard metal made into something entirely new. But what is even more inspiring, is to talk to the students in the welding program at Deer Ridge Correctional Facility, and see how they are turning their lives around.
The prison is host to a program, headed by Tucker Baumann, to train inmates in welding. The program instructs 10 inmates at a time, with the hope that a new job skill will keep them on the straight and narrow once they are released.
“This program opens up a lot more opportunities,” said inmate Dave Rystedt as he programmed a computer
connected to a plasma cutting machine. “It helps many who didn’t have job skills before.”
“We use the same curriculum as Central Oregon Community College,” said Baumann. “Currently we instruct them anywhere between six to nine months, but next fall we will begin a new program that will let the students get the same 31 credit certificate in welding that students get at the college in Bend.”
“This is the first chance I’ve had to better myself,” said student Tim Patrick. Baumann built the shop from the ground up. Teaching began in August 2009, and since then inmates have been taught the skills they need in the trade.
“This is a great program for inmates 35 and under because they can build a future for themselves,” said Ed Bess, inmate in charge of maintaining all the gear and equipment. “Years ago, I wish they would have had something like this, because I would have found a different avenue.”
“It’s a real benefit for guys trying to change their lives,” said student Matthew Krupp. “Now I can take care of my family and I have a passion for something.”
“There are so many positive benefits; more education, more skills, more job trades. It benefits us and Oregon cuts down on the number of criminals,” said Rystedt.