A man with a prison sentence may feel trapped by his past, even after release.

The New Professionals Career Development Program at the Sierra Conservation Center, the prison located on the outskirts of Jamestown, is trying to change that.

“We do it despite the challenges,” said Ralph Contreras, 43, inmate and project manager for a 2016 graduating class working on building a business plan for a Special Olympics softball game in Tuolumne County. “We keep pushing forward.”

“It helps us understand the business aspects, yes, but we are the project essentially. We can manage our lives and know that in our past we were working for success but didn’t understand the language. We are the project managers of our own lives.”

“Now it’s not just a matter of how to complete a project,” said Dameion Renault, the program sponsor. But how does any community or business organization “work with a group that’s in prison?”

Vocational programs are emphasizing that a prison sentence does not have to define the entire life of an inmate. By preparing them for employment with legitimate education and community involvement, the program give them tools to succeed in the future.

About 700 inmates are involved in some kind of program, whether it be one of the 79 religious services, 38 rehabilitation programs or 38 educational workshops, Renault said.

“We teach the understanding that criminal thinking means you want it now and will do anything to get it. Career thinking means you’re thinking about the future and what you need to succeed,” Renault said.

Robert Kelsey, SCC public information officer, described Renault as incredibly “passionate” about his position at the prison.

“Everything he does is for them, it’s not for the department. He really cares about what he’s doing with them.”

Real-world experience

Renault stressed that an inmate’s civic contributions while in prison could contribute to the atonement of their crimes once they are released.

And for inmates involved in the program, the promise of a more significant future motivates their participation.

“This shines a light on our group. It’s more than just a prison. A lot of this yard are doing good things. Every single one of us is involved in some kind of program,” said Patrick Demery, 52.

Lee Williams, 28, another member of the project group, nodded in affirmation.

“Yep, make sure you get that in there. That’s right.”

Renault told various success stories about inmates coming into the class with nothing but a grade school education and gaining self-confidence in their employability by the completion of a 10-month program.

The average time people spent at a job was about six months, he cited. And if an inmate could complete a 10-month class, he said, what can stop them from completing a job for that same amount of time or even longer once released?

Renault also keeps track of some of his graduates when they get out, making calls to their probation officers to check on their progress.

“That’s combating recidivism,” he said.

Inmate Devin Dwyer, 26, is the graduating assistant on this year’s project, and project manager on last year’s project for Vision Sonora.

He said he and his fellow inmates worked from start to finish on creating a business plan of standardized street signage for businesses in downtown Sonora, pointing to a design that recalled an old miner style.

“They asked for a plan and that’s what we delivered to them. It gave us a lot of real world experience,” he said.

Their plan was to produce the signs at the prison with no cost to the taxpayer, he said, and though the plan did not proceed forward, the group was proud to have completed the project.

Renault emphasized that inmates could be better prepared for a return to outside life by better understanding success and developing their own well-worked achievements.

The certificates the inmates receive with the completion of the program, he said, were issued by an outside agency without the involvement of the Department of Corrections.

“That’s such a big deal. But the fact that it comes from the community is important. They can put training on their resume from ‘that company.’ Not the prison.”

Special Olympics softball

At the New Professionals Career Development Program Thursday afternoon, nine inmates had gathered in small, sparse classroom on the Level 3 lot of the prison grounds to continue with a lesson on “effective project management.”

On their ninth month of a 10-month program, the inmates honed project management skills to the summation of a proposal for a Special Olympics softball game sponsored by Tuolumne Economic Development Authority.

They could now apply the fundamentals of all they had learned.

“I learned how to create and build a professional resume and portfolio. We really learn how to tell our story as opposed to our history,” Contreras said.

The group had just begun on the preparation and planning aspects of the proposal they are to eventually submit at the conclusion of the course, he added, but they were confident they could successfully represent multiple community stakeholders in the final product.

The concluding project is difficult, Dwyer said.

“You have to deliver, you don’t want to be the guy that fails,” he said. “We get real practical experience here. And it gets stressful, but it’s good because you can think through it instead of just being reactive.”

Jerry Welsh, 46, another inmate in the program, displayed an icon he designed which he said was meant to display the cooperation of SCC inmates with outside agencies.

“It’s from the World Games 2015,” he said, pointing to the image. “It’s also drawn with the use of an SCC logo. I love it, I’m an artist. I’ll sit here all the time and draw.”

Renault added that at this point in the program, he sits back and allows the inmates the independence to foster their own organic ideas.

“All I do is smile every time they struggle. Because most importantly they are doing it themselves,” he said.

A cooperative system

Another program within the SCC inmate rehabilitation system regards the economic information used by prospective business owners in Tuolumne County.

The SCC prisoner group is developing software and compiling data with an Engineering Service Learning Team at University of California, Merced, to create a demographic database of useful economic information, said Larry Cope, of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

“This will streamline a lot of process we do in the website to create economic data that we give to our business owners such as showing shopping habits for business startups as we attract them to the community,” he said.

Cope explained that the economic data being sourced by the inmates and processed by the university team will develop specific economic profiles, which would include information such as population in different time ranges, pie charts, graphs that could all be embedded onto other data such as income or the ethnic makeup of a certain area.

The end goal will be to have all the economic indicator data stored for Cope so that he can more efficiently provide snapshots of Tuolumne County’s economic health over different fiscal quarters.

“Demographic data takes a while to collect and that eats into time for other projects,” Cope said. “It frees up a little bit of time for us. If it’s successful in Tuolumne it’s something that can be used in other rural counties. We’re the baby of that.”

But for Renault, the biggest challenge has been understanding and developing the role of the inmates in the project.

If they have no access to software or computers while within the prison walls, he asked, how do you keep everyone involved?

“His project focus has been we want all this infrastructure in one place. Our project is to create the system,” he said.

And the project is set to take over a year of effort, on both sides, he added.

A group of inmate students will graduate from a 10-month course, and then a new group of inmates will come and pick up where they left off.

Another complication with working with the inmates has been the issue of communication.

Since computers, software and digital communication materials are banned for the inmates, Renault has been tasked as functioning as the middleman.

“They stay in contact through email about once a week,” said Chris Butler, director of the Engineering Service Learning Program at UC Merced. “The students will email Dameion with information for the inmates and they will send the response through Dameion out back to us.”

The ESL Program is a class at UC Merced, Butler explained, and has the same amount of autonomy as the inmates to complete the project without too much supervisory guidance.

The inmates have been working with spreadsheets that hold various data points for population density, demographic data and unemployment, Renault said. They have been cataloging the raw data into a more organized form so that the ESLT can uploaded them into software for Cope’s eventual use.

Renault believes that these programs, among the many offered to the inmates, are the key for inmates to learn new skills and foster the mindset of a productive lifestyle once they leave prison.

“What they learn in here is transferred outside. They gain real-world experience that is legitimately transferrable,” he said.