Tradeswomen share benefits of union building trades careers with women incarcerated in Vandalia prison
By SHERI GASSAWAY
A plan for a building trades pre-apprentice program for female inmates would offer women being released from prison an opportunity to enter the union building trades with meaningful careers that offer high wages, benefits and a path to deter them from returning to previous behavior patterns.
State Representative Donna Baringer, (D-St. Louis) came up with the idea for the program after visiting the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo., last fall when she and two other state representatives dropped by the prison unannounced as part of the #VisitAPrison Challenge.
While there, Baringer talked to three women preparing for their exit interviews. All three were incarcerated for drug convictions and told Baringer they were afraid to leave the facility because they had not been adequately prepared to reintegrate into society and find jobs that would prevent them from falling into the same pattern of behavior.
“Moved by the conversation, I began to search for a solution,” Baringer said. “As I examined the programs, I noticed there was a lack of in-prison training for union trade jobs, which offer high paying entry-level positions, continued training, healthcare and encourage their employees to stay clean by performing routine drug tests.”
HOW THE IDEA CAME ABOUT
Baringer discussed her visit to the prison with Iron Workers Local 396 journeywoman Aurora Bihler before their 16th Democratic Ward Club Outreach Committee meeting. Bihler told her about the Trades Related Apprentice Coaching (TRAC) program implemented at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash.
Bihler learned about the program while attending a recent Tradeswomen Build Nations conference. The TRAC program prepares female offenders for competitive entry into a union apprenticeship. Participants are taught self-confidence, self-esteem and the job skills necessary to begin a life-long career, earn a living wage and prosper as a productive citizen.
REDUCES RECIDIVISM RATE
The education and training is intended to reduce the probability that women will re-offend after release. While the average rate for female offenders in Washington is close to 50 percent, TRAC graduates re-offend at a rate of less than five percent.
Both Baringer and Bihler thought a similar program would be a good alternative for incarcerated women in Missouri. Baringer contacted the Missouri Department of Corrections about the idea and scheduled a second visit to the Vandalia prison.
On Jan. 13, Baringer, Senator Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors), president of the Missouri Building & Construction Trades Council and an Insulators Local 1 retiree, Bihler and five other local tradeswomen shared the benefits that careers in the union building trades can offer women.
The group met with about 50 female inmates. One of the more awe-inspiring moments during the presentation was when Lisa Porter, a Laborers Local 42 member, shared that she had once been incarcerated in the Vandalia prison. Porter has volunteered as a prison minister around the state since 2011.
“I understand the anxiety and fears the women have,” Porter said. “Many of the women were surprised that they could land a career where they could make $30 plus an hour and still have a record. You simply have to change your ways and the people you are around. I think it provided them with some hope.”
(Read more about Porter and a new non-profit she is organizing called Beyond the Four Walls to help provide a support system for children with incarcerated parents in the Feb. 20 Labor Tribune Women of Labor section.)
‘WE BELIEVE IN SECOND CHANCES’
Walsh, commended Baringer for coming up with the idea, calling it well thought out and well organized. Walsh, who stepped down as president of the Missouri Building Trades & Construction Trades Council on Feb. 1, said she would assist Baringer in any way she could.
“I hope this (program) gains legs,” Walsh said. “In the building trades, we believe in second chances and recruit from everywhere. If this fleshes out, it will be a win-win for everyone involved. These kind of programs have been in men’s prisons for years.”
A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
Bihler, who recruited the five tradeswomen visiting the prison with her from IBEW Local 1, Ironworkers Local 396, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 and Laborers Local 42, said that many of the women inmates are unaware that you can have a conviction and still get into the building trades.
“In the building trades, we don’t treat you any differently,” she said. “It was cool to see the visit come together and share with the women how a career in the union building trades can be a life changing experience.”
After the Jan. 13 presentation, the women were given surveys to determine their interest in a building trades pre-apprenticeship program and which trades they were interested in learning. The visit was videotaped to be shown to women in Chillicothe Correctional Center to give them the same opportunity.
The Missouri Department of Corrections has made a commitment to bring in the specific training if there is an overwhelming request for a particular trade, Baringer said. If there isn’t interest in a specific trade, there is a possibility for a 30-day basic training program for anyone interested in the trades.
“The ultimate goal is that women can find work in the trades at a higher wage to provide for themselves and their families, while encouraging them to stay clean,” Baringer said. “I have to commend the Missouri Department of Corrections for moving so quickly on an idea from a surprise drop-in-tour I took in September.”
Baringer said she hopes the three women she met with last fall who shared their stories with her will learn that they were the ones who gave her the inspiration to move forward with the program. “Maybe we’ll be able to find those women and help them, too,” she said.