La. inmates get second chance through sheriff's welding program

Nine of the 16 past graduates are working in welding jobs now


By Katie Gagliano
The Advocate

LAFAYETTE, La. — On Thursday, Scott resident Mary Olivia Simon clutched a green and black disposable camera in her hands as she snapped photos of her son's graduation from South Louisiana Community College.

Her son, 46-year old Derrick Guidry, was awarded a technical diploma in welding alongside six other men — Kolby Albanese, Joseph Babineaux, George Bourque, Timothy Durham, Wilbert Howard and Jacob Landry — in the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office's reentry program.

Guidry, a Lafayette native, has been incarcerated for more than 20 years.

Simon said she's seen a total turnaround in her son during his time in prison. He got addiction assistance, leaned into his faith and received career assistance through the welding program.

She's now 100% confident when he's released in a couple years and comes to live with her that he'll be able to make it out in the world.

"He's totally different than the guy he was when he came in. He really is different now. We are proud of him," Simon said.

The seven graduates were the fifth cohort to graduate from the joint SLCC and Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office program.

The partnership began in 2017 as an effort to reduce recidivism by giving inmates the education and skills to step into a high-wage, high-demand field after release and have greater stability in their lives, said Lana Fontenot, SLCC vice chancellor for institutional advancement and external relations.

"Education is really a critical gateway for economic and social mobility. Unfortunately it's an opportunity that is denied to so many of our citizens that are currently incarcerated," Fontenot said at the graduation.

Jessica Hall, Sheriff's Office reentry supervisor, said of the program's 16 past graduates, nine are working in welding jobs in the community either through work-release programs or full-time jobs after release.

Five of Thursday's graduates are still incarcerated and will be transferred to parishes with work-release programs so they can begin using their welding skills. Lafayette's transitional work program was shuttered in 2019 as part of broader downsizing and layoffs.

Hall said it was important to the reentry team members that they find ways to keep the program going during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a combination of distanced outdoor work and Zoom classes, the Sheriff's Office was able to keep the classes operational, she said.

"These guys are amazing. For them to be able to accomplish this while in jail and through the pandemic and do everything they need to do to be college graduates, it's an amazing accomplishment," Hall said.

For three semesters, Guidry and his classmates worked their way through a combination of classroom learning and hands-on welding experience at an outdoor portable welding studio donated by SLCC. The trailer studio is located at the Sheriff's Office's safety complex on West Willow Street.

The mobile welding classroom is outfitted with all the tools needed to learn stick welding, metal insert gas welding, tungsten inert gas welding and flux core welding, as well as how to cut, grind and prepare metal for welding, instructor Dwayne Martin said.

Martin, an adjunct SLCC professor, said the incarcerated students are getting the same learning experience any other welding students on SLCC's other campuses receive. Once completed, the students graduate with a technical diploma and three National Center for Construction Education and Research certifications.

Martin helped jumpstart the program five years ago after a 31-year career with the Lafayette Parish school system as an agriculture instructor. The veteran educator said he's inspired by the men's ability to turn their lives around.

"Most of these individuals are older, and most of them are very appreciative of what we're trying to do for them out here. They're willing to do whatever it takes to come out here," Martin said.

Guidry said at first, the welding program was intimidating. The Lafayette native didn't have the same dexterity and hand-eye coordination skills he had as a younger man.

"I looked at other people accelerating faster than I did and it was kind of frustrating for me, taking so long to catch on. But once you catch on and you complete it, it's such an accomplished feeling. Some days, I did want to quit. I was frustrated — not with the program, but with myself. Do I have the ability to do it?" Guidry said.

Martin and Hall reminded him that school is a place to practice, make mistakes and improve, he said. The knowledge that he could walk away from jail with a diploma from a local respected community college, like any other student, kept him going on the hard days.

Guidry said his self confidence has grown exponentially since entering the welding program. He's also more confident that he can support himself once released and avoid past bad environments, so he can "become a solution to the problem of crime and not the problem itself."

Guidry and his mother said they hope more incarcerated people can get a shot at reentry programs like the Lafayette Sheriff's Office's.

"They make you feel like more of a person, instead of just a criminal locked up," Guidry said.

Wilbert Howard, 43, first passed the HiSet exam, a high school equivalency test, before enrolling in the welding program. He was released in May, before instruction wrapped, and transferred to an in-person program at SLCC to complete the technical program.

A father to a 19-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, Howard said he wanted to be a role model to his children of the importance of second chances, seeing your commitments through and taking advantage of opportunities.

Howard has several interviews lined up for welding jobs around the region, including for a pipeline operation in Texas.

"I'm 43 and enough was enough. This wasn't my first go round. I have two kids out there, and by going back to school, getting my HiSet and earning the technical degree, it makes my kids proud of me and could make them strive to persevere," Howard said.

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at www.theadvocate.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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