Prison Welding Program Transforms Women’s Lives

Written by: Asra Jawaid

After spending weeks learning to manipulate metal through the application of extreme heat, 10 inmates at Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, Montana, were awarded certificates for successfully completing the facility’s inaugural introductory welding program last December. The emotional ceremony suggested that something else had been forged in the workshop as well. “I know I can succeed because I’ve seen the success. I’ve seen the success on the faces of the other inmates in the program,” said Erin Gravelin, an inmate and program graduate, during the ceremony. “I can show you the success in my weld.”

The course began in late October 2016 and involved multiple four-hour lessons each week, many of them taught by Great Falls College Montana State University instructor Bob Baker. Inmates learned a variety of welding techniques, including gas metal arc welding, flux core arc welding, oxy-fuel cutting and shielded metal arc welding. The course also covered basic construction math and workforce readiness preparation. Participants passed qualification tests for FCAW, SMAW and oxy-fuel cutting using current industry standards.

“The new welding program is a great opportunity for the women here to learn marketable skills that will help them re-enter society and attain gainful employment,” said MWP warden Joan Daly-Shinners. “The women overcame their initial hesitation, recognized the opportunity they were being given, and worked hard to succeed.” “They just put their helmets down and went after it,” said Baker. “They were a great class, they really were. They really wanted it.”

An emotional Misty Cockrill gets a hug from instructor, Bob Baker at the welding class graduation.

Misty Cockrill, one of Baker’s students, said that the opportunity to go out into the workshop trailer and focus her thoughts exclusively on welding allowed her to forget her status as an inmate and feel a sense of freedom. “You feel like you’re actually doing something good for yourself,” she said, adding that the physical labor brought back fond memories of her youth growing up on a farm. She hopes to continue her education in welding through a pre-release program. As for Gravelin, she said that before taking this class she never saw herself learning how to weld. When she decided to enroll, she thought she would use the skills she learned to make jewelry. Now she’s less interested in jewelry and more interested in learning more about the craft. “A person’s weld is like their signature, it says a lot,” she said. Both she and Cockrill said they hoped the class would be offered for other inmates in the future because of the personal growth and increased self-confidence they experienced thanks to their own enrollment. In Gravelin’s summation, welding is a complex process that requires lots of information processing and problem solving. “You definitely have to be able to see as a whole,” she said.

As he stood up to deliver a speech to the graduates, Baker began to tear up. “We made it,” he said. “I was hoping I could get up here and not get emotional…I wouldn’t trade it for anything, seriously.” Baker told the audience – comprised mostly of inmates – that he believed the key to the class’s success was the women’s ability to feel good about themselves. “They had to start feeling good about themselves. All the books, the things we gave you, weren’t going to work unless you began to believe in yourselves. That was the greatest thing I saw,” he said. “Now when you get out, you can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘there’s one amazing woman right there.”

Many Montana educational institutions and government departments collaborated to make the pilot program a reality: Montana State University; Billings City College; Great Falls College, which is a satellite campus of Montana State University; the U.S. Department of Labor and Industry; Montana Correctional Enterprises; Billings Adult Education; and the Montana Women’s Prison. “The Department of Corrections is fortunate to have such great partners in our efforts to broaden inmates’ job skills,” Montana Correctional Enterprises admistrator Gayle Butler said. “Welding is a non-traditional skill for women, but this first class at the Women’s prison certainly rose to the challenge and showed what they are capable of given the opportunity.”

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