Tree-trimming graduation: Ala. PREP Center prepares inmates for employment
Aligning with high-demand jobs, the initiative carves a new pathway for post-incarceration job and life stability
By Mike Cason
UNIONTOWN, Ala. — Men who graduated from an Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles program intended to guide them to employment and stability and away from crime say it is working.
The bureau, working with Ingram State Technical College and other public and private partners, operates the PREP Center inside what was once a private prison on U.S. 80 in Perry County.
Carlton Jones, 58, an Atlanta native, one of 17 men who donned robes for a graduation ceremony on Friday, said the teachers and other professionals at the PREP Center helped change his thinking and gave him skills to find a good job.
“This is not my first merry-go-round,” Jones said. “So it gave me an opportunity to gain some tools that I didn’t have before during my first one, two or three incarcerations. I’m sad to say this is my fourth time. But this particular time, I’ve never been more ready to take on the world. Because now I have this skillset, the tools, and the mental capacity. An old saying, I know better, therefore I’m going to do better.”
The PREP Center opened in November 2022. The men who received diplomas Friday are the third graduating class.
Jones and 10 others completed a tree-trimming program that taught them how to clear power lines, operate skid steers and forklifts, and other skills needed to do risky work safely. Alabama Power Company proposed and developed the tree-trimming program, an example of training aimed at filling high-demand jobs. The graduates were the first to complete the 10-week program, which started in July.
Tim Tavel, CEO of PowerGrid Services, a company based in Hartselle that provides tree pruning, storm repairs, pole replacement, and other services for utilities across the nation, said the program is unique and fills an important need. Tavel said PowerGrid Services spends a lot of money hiring employees only to find that some are not cut out for the work. Tavel said giving the men who have come through the PREP Center a second chance is the right thing to do and can be beneficial for the company.
“They, number one, understand the job and task that we’re asking them for,” Tavel said. “They’ve already had some training and some skills for those jobs. So it’s a cost-savings to us. And also gives us confidence about retaining these employees going forward.
“These 11 candidates today. They’ve already put in their applications. So after today, we’re going to start reaching out to them immediately and start offering positions and start offering jobs.”
Last year, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles bought what was a 700-bed private prison in Uniontown. The Legislature appropriated $15 million for the purchase, plus $4 million for renovations.
LCS Corrections Services built the prison in 2006. It had been vacant for years when the bureau bought it from GEO Group. The bureau signed a $5.2 million, two-year contract with GEO Reentry Services to staff the PREP Center.
Bureau Director Cam Ward said most of the men who are good candidates for the program are those who have committed property crimes, often as consequences of addiction. The PREP Center assesses the men for mental health, substance abuse, and adult education needs.
Along with the graduation on Friday, the bureau held a news conference at the PREP Center to announce Alabama’s participation in Reentry 2030, a nationwide initiative that aims to reduce recidivism by 50 percent by 2030. Reentry 2030 was started by the Council for State Governments. Alabama is the third state to join, following Missouri and Washington.
Ward said there are more than 44,000 people in Alabama who have been previously incarcerated.
“That’s a population that we cannot ignore,” Ward said. “It’s too big of a population. Whether a veteran, whether they’re in some other agency jurisdiction, they’re out there and we have an obligation and we have an opportunity to serve those people and make sure they don’t go back into the criminal justice system.”
Jason Watters, workforce development coordinator for Alabama Power and project manager for the tree-trimming course, said the second class is underway and has 18 participants. They will finish in December.
The trainees start with a climbing assessment using a 65-foot concrete pole at the PREP Center. Watters said the assessment helps determine if the men can learn to rely on safe practices and equipment to work far above the ground, understanding that the climb is a new experience for most.
“We’re not looking for them to be experts, but we want to gauge if they can do it,” Watters said. “Now how quickly, but how safely are they climbing? Are they following all the proper safety procedures that they’re taught before we go out there?”
Jones made it even though he said he he has a fear of heights.
“My first time climbing that pole, I got about halfway down and realized I wasn’t scared anymore,” Jones said. “Because the first thing they tell you is, trust your equipment. So, once I got to the top and the harness felt just like a jacket on me, it let me know that safety was their first priority. So once they knew you were safe, and once you felt like you were safe, the sky was the limit.”
Richard Tillman of Andalusia, 40, who said he has been incarcerated for more than three years after a parole violation, said he joined the tree-trimming program to make his time pass faster and allow him to be outside.
“But the truth is, from the very first moment I stepped into the class, it grabbed my attention and held onto it,” Tillman said.
He said he learned more than practical skills, including how to trust the men he was training with.
“I came here with the mindset of I didn’t deserve to be here,” Tillman said. “It took me a minute to realize you didn’t have to be addicted or you didn’t have to be any type of thing to be here. But you could have something wrong with your thinking. So this program actually taught me how to change my thinking. And once I sat down and evaluated myself and the situation that I was in, at the end of it all, it was all about my thinking. My choices in life is what’s made me come here.”
Carlos Smith, 41, said he initially did not want to be sent to the PREP Center after serving more than 20 years for robbery. But he said the PREP Center staff and teachers treated him respectfully and he accepted the situation and sought to benefit from it.
“I’m here so I’ve got to deal with it,” Smith said, describing his attitude. “So once I got to that level, I was more interested in the classes and all that. I started seeing that a lot of stuff they were saying pertained to me. The way I was thinking, criminal thinking, I started to change it.”
“That was the hardest part for me,” Smith said. “Changing the way I think, changing the way I see things. I’m thinking 100% different. I see things as on a positive level now. I don’t dwell on the negativity. I don’t blame people for my actions or my mistakes. I’m more accountable now.”
Smith said it was the quality of teaching at the PREP Center that made the difference.
“I ain’t saying that just to be saying it,” Smith said. “But now we have some wonderful teachers. Even the officers. They have to help you keep your mental state at a certain level too, a positive level. They always treat you with respect. Anything you need, they try to help you get it.”
Jones, who spoke at the graduation ceremony, also praised the PREP Center teachers.
“If my high school teachers were as great as these ladies, I don’t even think I would be here,” Jones said. “These ladies are exceptional teachers. Thank you.”
Jones said a message on a poster at the center captured how his outlook has changed.
“I choose to live by choice, not by chance,” Jones said. “Never again will I take chances with my freedom. Never.”
Knocked down, getting up
Bureau Director Ward, in closing remarks on Friday, thanked the family members who came to the ceremony for sticking by their loved ones. He told the graduates that they would always encounter negativity from some people because of what they have been through. But he said to remember that everyone has struggles.
Ward said he’s a movie buff and talked to graduates about a message from one of the Rocky movies.
“If you get knocked down, and you get up and you move forward, that is how winning is done,” Ward said. “And today you’re going to walk out of here because you’ve been knocked down, you’re getting up and you’re moving forward. And that means, winners are walking out of this building today. You’re going to make it.”