Click2Daily: Vocational Center at Fort Bend County Jail teaches inmates usable skills

RICHMOND, Texas – Michael Antol has been in the Fort Bend County jail for 14 months on a drug charge.

Instead of sitting in his jail cell every day, the Sheriff’s Office allows Antol and other inmates to take classes.

This month they’re learning how to weld.

“It gives us the opportunity and the skills of the welding class so I think it’s a great opportunity for us inmates,” Antol said.

Right now, a group of men are going through a 10-week welding certification program. It was something Sheriff Troy Nehls wanted to start in Fort Bend County shortly after he took office in 2013.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something about educating them,’” he told KPRC. “Let’s get them something to do to keep them motivated and keep them focused forward.”

Not all inmates are eligible.

Nehls says there is a vetting and application process.

[PHOTOS: Fort Bend County Jail Inmate Vocational Center]

Violent offenders and those who have committed crimes against children, for example, are not allowed in the program.

The classrooms are located in separate buildings behind the jail. The men can learn welding, HVAC certification, some electrical work and soon there will be a plumbing class offered.

The “Inmate Vocational Center” is funded without the use to taxpayer dollars.

“This building was $472,000 and it was all paid through the commissary,” Nehls explained. “When (the inmates) buy a Snickers bar we get a percentage of that. We’ve been able to save enough money for the past several years and we use those monies to build buildings like this and provide the training. It’s their own money.”

The goal is help the inmates learn a trade and get certified, so upon release they can find a decent paying job.

“I’d rather have them working at the Ship Channel than breaking into my home or going back into whatever criminal activity they had before they got here,” said Nehls.

But, are companies reluctant to hire them?

Richard Erivo’s job at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office is to go into the community and find “offender-friendly employers,” who will work with them.

“Yes, some are hesitant,” Erivo said. “But with time they tend to see the need to get them employment.”

“We have a five-page list of offender-friendly employers,” said Thomas Goodfellow, the Detention Bureau Commander. “They will take misdemeanor and minor felons who have been trained and put through the program.”

Currently, 10 percent of the inmates at the Fort Bend County Jail are female. There are some sewing and textile classes available for them, but they are not permitted in the HVAC, welding or plumbing classes. The sheriff said it’s best to keep the men and women separate.

Right now, the jail is working on the GROWTH Program - “Gaining Respect & Opportunities for Women Through Horticultural."

Sheriff Nehls said his goal is to have several gardens on the property and maybe one day a greenhouse. The female inmates can learn how to grow flowers and vegetables, the food will then be used in the kitchen to feed the inmates.

Those programs are still in the planning phase.

“Our inmates should be able to leave this facility and go out and find a decent paying job,” Nehls said.

Hanging out with Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls. He's telling us about their Inmate Vocational Center. It allows inmates to learn a trade so they can get a job upon release.

Posted by KPRC2 / Click2Houston on Tuesday, February 21, 2017