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Work cheers women inmates

It's long been a theory of prison experts that giving inmates a marketable skill increases their chances of success after their release.

That belief has been the bedrock of the Utah Department of Corrections industry program, which trains inmates in everything from print shop work to construction to horticulture.Those opportunities, however, have not been available to the same degree for female inmates. Women in prison mostly spend their time cleaning, doing yard work or sewing.

That is changing. Last year prison and state officials were awarded federal grant money to construct a building that would house industry and work opportunities for women. It was even built with the sweat and determination of the prison's female population.

One of those women was Michelle, whose father took time when she was younger to show her some tricks of the construction trade that he learned while working on the Glen Canyon Dam. But it wasn't until the prison got $166,000 in federal money and $55,930 in state funds that she was able to put her construction knowledge to use.

Michelle was one of only two women inmates who worked on the building from the start of construction in December until its completion in August.

"At first I was tired a lot," she said. "But now I'm used to it . . . I love it."

Michelle and many other women inmates say it's about time women are afforded the same opportunities as male inmates.

"It gives women the chance to do something different," she said.

"The men have all the opportunities," another inmate added.

And, Michelle said, "If the men had built the building, our yard would have been closed (for nine months) to us."

The new 5,000-square-foot warehouse houses the first correctional industry program exclusively for women. Nineteen women work as data entry clerks for the Division of Wildlife Services, spending eight hours a day inputting fishing and hunting license information. They're paid between 60 cents to $1.85 per hour.

It may seem like a mundane way to spend a day, but for many women inmates it's a dream come true.

"I just kind of wish it was more than eight hours," said Keri Roberts, who was among the first to be hired. "The time goes by too fast."

For many it's not just a way to pass time. It's a way to gain skills that will make finding a job on the streets much easier and much more profitable.

"This is a really good opportunity for women, finally," said Linda Peterson, 42, who trains women hired for the data entry program. "A job like this usually would start around $8 or $9 an hour."

"Unless they want to go back to drug dealing, (inmates) are going to have to get legitimate jobs. . . . Once you have some experience on computers, it opens a lot of doors."

Even with the new programs, the building remains about two-thirds empty. Rick Brown, operations director for Utah Corrections Industries, said prison officials plan to allow private companies to occupy the remaining space if they employ female inmates at the industry's going rate.

Teaching inmates self-sufficiency is the tangible benefit of the new program. For some prison officials, however, boosting the inmates' self-esteem is a more important benefit. It can be seen on the faces of the women at the keyboards and those participating in the culinary arts program.

The latter program is a series of courses taught by corrections officer Tony Kiss-Illes, a graduate of the course offered by Salt Lake Community College. In addition to classwork, women in the culinary arts program cater special events on prison property - including the open house for the women's industry building Thursday afternoon.

Those completing the course receive an associate's degree, which allows them better work opportunities at higher paying jobs when released.

"It gives us an opportunity to go into so many different fields," said Candis Farrer. "I'd like to open a bed and breakfast (when paroled)."

Kelli Staples already has an apprenticeship lined up when she gets out on parole in three weeks. She's also enrolled to continue her courses at the community college until she graduates next spring.

"It's an excellent program," she said. "I've always loved to cook."