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Welding class preps inmates for life on the outside
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Mike Brandt, center, welding program director at Lanier Technical College, talks with inmates at Hall County Correctional Institution during a welding class in Gainesville, Tuesday, July 17, 2018, at the institute's welding shop. The college offers welding classes to inmates in Hall and Jefferson counties to prevent recidivation by helping them become "immediately employable," says C.I. warden Walt Davis. This is the third group of inmates at the C.I. to take the course. - photo by David Barnes

After nearly a decade behind bars, Ray Grizzle, 49, is now in the midst of the biggest transition of his life.

He’s already working for Cottrell, a Gainesville-based manufacturer of “over-the-road” car haulers and equipment, reporting at night to a “transitional” home until his sentence (which he said stems from a charge of fleeing the police) is complete this fall.

Grizzle said Cottrell has been a good place to work, and he likens the job to his love for fishing.

For example, he added, success comes with starting the day early.

“If you put your mind to it …” he said, trailing off as if to let the remaining words fill themselves in.

Some days, though, end late when Grizzle is working to finish his welding certification through a class offered by Lanier Technical College in conjunction with WorkSource Georgia (the state’s federally funded employment and training system) and the Hall County Correctional Institution.

Grizzle credits this class, which is operated out of a welding workshop housed in a building adjacent to the correctional institute and county jail, with helping him hone a talent for the trade that can become his next career. 

Fifteen current and former inmates have already been certified, some of whom, now released, are working locally as welders, according to Warden Walt Davis.

The certification takes 10 weeks to complete at a cost of about $2,500 per inmate. That cost includes a tool kit, with welding masks and supplies, that inmates get to take with them upon release.

The class is offered to low-level offenders, such as individuals convicted for drug possession, probation violations, theft and other non-violent crimes, who are up for possible release within eight months.

These inmates are part of the Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program, which serves inmates returning from state prison to Hall and Dawson counties prior to their release on parole or probation. 

“This program allows us to prepare them for a skill set … that makes them immediately employable,” Davis said.

Davis took the welding class himself, “learning like them,” he said. And it gave him an appreciation for the hard work these inmates put into preparing for re-entry into society.

Mike Brandt, who teaches the class, said the inmates are consistently engaged and willing to learn.

“I’ve been really impressed with their work ethic,” he added. “I think they feel like they’re getting a lot out of it.”

For Lanier Tech, it fits the school’s mission “perfectly,” said Tim McDonald, vice president of economic development for the college.

The Northeast Georgia region is home to a large concentration of welding, soldering and fabricating jobs, McDonald said, part of a broad manufacturing base that contributes to a healthy job market.

“(These inmates) are no different than anyone else,” he added. “They can benefit from training. We’re all working together to ensure our neighbors will return better than when they left.”

For one inmate (who did not give his name because he is still incarcerated and not yet in a transitional home), the welding class came available to him at an opportune time after his cellmate told him about it.

“I’ve been liking it,” he said, adding that it has given him a path to a better life when he’s released in about eight weeks following an eight-month stint for a probation violation. 

The inmate said he plans to use his new skills to join a business of family and friends building barbeque grills.

Another inmate, who has served 20 months for drug possession, said the welding class is the first step to reconnecting with his wife, family and friends when he’s released.

“They give us the opportunity … to have a better career whenever we do leave the facility,” he said. “I do think it’s going to help a bunch of us out, especially the ones who are real serious about it. I’ve learned an awful lot here.”

Staying on the right side of the law once they are released is the goal for everyone involved, and helps justify the cost of the program, McDonald said.

As Grizzle readies for life on the other side, he’s taking the time to show some of the younger inmates what he’s learned in the welding class and on the job at Cottrell.   

“I try to show them things,” Grizzle said. “It takes patience. But as long as you apply yourself …” 

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