DILLWYN, Va. - The sheet metal classroom here doesn’t look much different than those at many trade schools and community colleges across the country.

It has a plasma table alongside smaller machinery such as press brakes and shears, and plenty of hand tools.

Students hammer, cut and weld, making fittings, toolboxes or sculptures. The instructor walks from workbench to workbench, offering advice on a better way to hold a tool or make a cleaner-looking seam.

But “here” is the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., and the students are inmates serving multiyear sentences for crimes ranging from robbery to murder. It’s one of a handful of U.S. prisons that offer sheet metal-oriented classes. And for many prisoners, it may be their best chance for a crime-free future.

U.S. government statistics say the odds of a former inmate returning to jail or prison is high. A 15-state Justice Department survey said that 67.5 percent of 272,111 people released in 1994 were re-arrested for serious crimes within three years. Almost half were convicted and 25.4 percent were again sentenced to prison.

Successfully completing a job-training program slashes those odds, according to those who study the issue.

A 2004 report by University of California-Los Angeles researchers Audrey Bazos and Jessica Hausman said graduates of prison education programs were 10 percent to 20 percent less likely to commit future crimes.

“This (program) truly does lift people,” said Win Sisson, spokesman for Virginia’s prison education department.

Inmates in the sheet metal program have to be well behaved to stay in the class and be trusted with tools. Elmo Reid uses snips to cut a piece of metal. Image courtesy of Virginia Department of Correctional Education.

Programs

Virginia’s Department of Correctional Education offers sheet metal training at three state prisons, including Buckingham. Such programs are rare in other states. Although a number offer inmates training in HVAC work, only a few, including Texas, Rhode Island, Mississippi and California, provide courses dedicated to sheet metal.

State officials said they believe their program is the largest in the country.

“We are very proud of our sheet metal programs here in Virginia,” said Norris Williams, director of apprentice programs for the state’s correctional education program.

The prisons use a curriculum certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which is the same one used by many colleges and trade schools around the country, Williams added.

In the last three years, an average of 183 inmates have enrolled in the prisons’ sheet metal programs each year. About 20 percent graduate.

State officials say those who complete the program are really committed to it.

“If they get interested in it, they will study 24 hours a day,” Williams said. “They have a lot of free time.”

Enrolling in the sheet metal program is a privilege, and only inmates with good behavior records who can be trusted with tools are allowed to participate.

Buckingham’s program includes computer-aided drafting lessons. Duane Stokes (seated), who works as an instructor, discusses a program with Curtis Bridges, another tutor. Image courtesy of Virginia Department of Correctional Education.

Experience

At Buckingham, the classes are taught by Jackie Price, a 60-year-old with almost four decades of experience in sheet metal. He currently has two classes, each with 12 students. He’s assisted by six inmate tutors, who earn from 35 to 45 cents an hour. The self-paced course takes anywhere from 10 to 18 months to finish. Classes meet for three hours, five days a week.

“We cover everything from A to Z,” said Price. “I teach ‘old school’ and ‘new school.’ It’s a lost art anymore.”

There’s currently a 75-person waiting list to get in his class.

Price’s job is part instructor, part guidance counselor.

“I preach to them like a father figure,” he said. “You can’t go out and do the same things you did before you got here. There’s no point in leaving (prison), then.”

Some of the ductwork students make is installed in other prisons around the state. The tin men, metal squirrels, crabs and other sculptures they create are sold at the education program’s annual trade show.

“I love building stuff using my mind, my hands and my heart,” said Duane Stokes, a 37-year-old who has been at Buckingham since 1991. He works as a tutor.

After he is released, Stokes hopes to open his own sheet metal business.

“Sheet metal has opened many doors in my life and it has given me a brighter future than I could ever expect,” he said. “I cannot find anything in this field that I do not like.”

Ray Dolan (left) receives tips on using the scratch awl from tutor Roy Voss. Image courtesy of Virginia Department of Correctional Education.

Employment

Although tracking graduates can be difficult - not everyone who has served their time wants to stay in touch with people they knew in prison - there are success stories. Price said area sheet metal shops hire three to five of his students after they are paroled or released each year.

The state keeps a list of companies that have hired former convicts and personal referrals from instructors such as Price help as well.

“Our instructors are encouraged to keep good contacts within the industry,” Williams said.

The day Snips visited the facility, a former student and prisoner who now has his own sheet metal shop spoke to students about what the training could mean for their futures.

“With the knowledge you get in this class, you become a very valuable individual to a company,” the man said.

Because his customers and competitors do not know that he is a convicted felon, the man asked that his name not be printed.

“If you learn this trade and love what you do, no one can touch you,” he told the class.

That’s the kind of optimistic message prisoners such as Sylvester Boyd like to hear. Boyd, 45, has been at Buckingham since 1986. He was involved in a robbery that led to murder.

“I think about it every day,” he said about the crimes that put him in prison. Now he earns 45 cents an hour tutoring other members of the class, and is hoping to be paroled soon.

“This is my job,” Boyd said. “The sheet metal trade means a lot to me. As far as my future is concerned, I do plan to pursue a career in the trade and I hope to become a certified technician in the field of HVAC.”

He’s especially proud of the two 5-foot-tall knights, clad in armor, that he created in the class. They’re on display in the room.

“I like to be versatile,” Boyd said. “I used to see these figures on roofs and wonder, ‘How did they make it?’ I found it amazing.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.