Society wants us to fear prison. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t work as a crime deterrent.

That’s why Alcatraz was on an island in the middle of chilly San Francisco Bay and Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas has 40-foot high walls that also extend an equal distance into the ground.

I wasn’t scared about going to Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., featured in this month’s cover story, but I was curious. I have some knowledge of the corrections system. My father worked for decades as a sheriff’s deputy, so I had visited one of the county jails he worked in several times.

Of course, jails are for those serving short-term sentences and awaiting trial, so the type of people held there are different from those in state prisons like Buckingham. I didn’t know if I would find loud, obnoxious people like those frequently shown on TV news shows, or quiet, well-behaved students.

When I arrived, I was told that I would not be allowed to carry keys, cell phones or anything similar. They would have to be checked at the front desk. And I would not be going into the cell areas. I would be staying in the wing that contained the classrooms, which if you didn’t notice the metal detectors everywhere, didn’t look much different than those at other trade schools I have visited.

Apart from the fact most students - the prisoners - wore the same blue collared shirts, beltless jeans and brown slip-on shoes, you could almost forget you were in a state prison.

I was genuinely impressed with the class and the students. Most were friendly, genuinely proud of their skills and excited by my visit. Several were longtime Snips readers. Prison officials had told me education programs are a privilege with a long waiting list to enroll, so when students are accepted, most don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. They’re typically among the prison’s best-behaved residents.

I don’t know if they’ll go on to be sheet metal workers when they’re released. Many companies are understandably reluctant to hire people with criminal records. But from my limited interactions with them, a number seemed like they could be excellent employees. I left with a new respect for prison-based vocational education.

When state budgets are tight, these types of programs are often among the first things lawmakers cut. There aren’t a lot of strong lobbyists working on behalf of prisoners. But if, as studies show, many of the Buckingham program graduates have a decent chance of getting a job and staying out of trouble because of these kinds of classes, it seems like a dumb move to me.

Letters - Industry full of proud people

This is in regards to your editorial, “Construction workers can’t get ‘satisfaction,’ it seems,” in Snips’ August issue.

I started my sheet metal apprenticeship in 1939 and worked as a journeyman for many years. And I have been connected to the industry in one way or another, all my life. Like you, I am mystified by the results of Dr. Maloney’s study (see “Breaking through,” June 2007 Snips).

In all my years of working with the industry, the great majority of sheet metal workers I knew were proud of their skills and their hard work. These guys would never say, “I love this trade.” But through it all, you could see the pride shining through when they talked about the job they just installed. And they would talk with respect about a guy who was “a hell of a mechanic.”

One possible explanation of Maloney’s study is that perhaps it only surveyed sheet metal workers and not others in the sheet metal industry. It is a generalization, but I see sheet metal workers as falling into two major groups: Those who only put in their eight hours on the job and spend the rest of their time on beer and bowling; and those with pride and interest in their work who study and advance to other aspects of the trade such as contracting, estimating, testing and balancing or supervising.

If the second group - who are not strictly “sheet metal workers” - were not included, then the survey does not present a true picture.

For many years, I wrote training materials for the Sheet Metal Workers union. This material was reviewed regularly by a committee made up of contractors, supervisors and skilled journeymen. There could never be a finer group of men dedicated and proud of their industry.

Another explanation is the general attitude of school counselors and academic teachers toward vocational-education classes: It’s where the “dumb kids” go. This attitude carries over to parents and students, who then develop the idea that working with your hands is somehow debasing.

The truth is that most construction workers are highly intelligent - you have to be to succeed in any of the trades.

Another truth is that most of the “dumb kids” are the result of inadequate teaching. Teachers become teachers because they think from the abstract to the concrete, and they teach that way. Many students think the opposite way - from the concrete to the abstract. They are hands-on people. Talk to these students about the theories of inductive and deductive reasoning and they don’t know what you are talking about. But give them a car engine that isn’t running properly and watch the reasoning at work.

Leo Meyer

Lama Books

Hayward, Calif.