Jail Offers Deckhand, Welding, Other Programs To Benefit River Industries

A new program to teach jail inmates the basics of becoming a towboat deckhand is expected to begin within a few weeks at the McCracken County Regional Jail in Paducah, Ky.

The program follows on the heels of a welding program announced earlier this year that was primarily serving river-related industries, Jailer David Knight said. The jail is also planning heating and air conditioning repair and basic electrician courses.

Programs to teach inmates skilled trades were among the ideas Knight campaigned on when running for jailer in 2018. Knight also obtained authorization to make the jail a testing site for general equivalency diplomas to help inmates studying for their GEDs.

All the programs are designed to help reduce recidivism, giving inmates marketable job skills and reducing the rate of those who reoffend.

“I saw what we were doing wasn’t working,” Knight said. “We lock them up and forget about them. They get out and come right back.”

Fourteen inmates have graduated with their GEDs this year. Six graduated in September from the welding program, through which they also became certified by the American Welding Society. Some graduates have already been released and gotten jobs. A second class is now underway.

“Most of this stuff is donated,” Knight said. “What little equipment we fund is out of the (inmate) commissary account. No tax dollars are ever spent on them.”

Donations have included steel for a simulated barge deck and welding rods from Western Rivers Corporation; kevels and bits and flat steel from Bailey Port Inc.; welding rods and bottled gas, including oxygen, from Acety-Arc Inc.; oxygen, regulators and a reduced price on gas from Airgas; a borrowed portable welder, rigging and thousands of pounds of scrap steel from James Marine Inc.; and two dump truck loads of gavel from Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel.

The inmates selected for all the new programs must meet certain requirements, jail Sgt. Arnie Puckett said. They must be low-level, non-violent offenders who abide by jail rules and who already are participating and doing well in community work programs, he said. The inmates continue working during the day while adding the trade classes at night, generally once a week. Having a positive attitude and a strong work ethic are also considerations jail staff take into account when selecting among those who apply for the programs, Puckett said.

Those accepted into the program must also be eligible to be hired in the trades they are learning. For example, Puckett said, those who want to be a part of the deckhand program must be able to obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, commonly called a TWIC, to work on a towboat after graduation. The TWIC application process includes a criminal history records check, and among disqualifying offenses are some related to the use and transportation of firearms. Inmates must also meet physical fitness standards so that they are more likely to succeed at jobs within the industry once they have completed the program and been released from custody.

The jail has worked with instructors at West Kentucky Community & Technical College—which already has an Inland Logistics and Marine Institute—to develop the deckhand program curriculum in association with industry leaders, since a full semester class is not always possible for inmates who may have short jail stays.

“We said, ‘What out of this is important for you guys to have the skill set for?’” Puckett said.

Mary Anne Medlock, business services liaison with the West Kentucky Workforce Board, worked with the jail in offering the new programs, helping ensure they were a success for industry officials looking for qualified new employees.

She mentioned a welding program that the Fulton County (Ky.) Jail had developed, and McCracken jail officials took a tour and saw what Fulton County inmate participants were doing.

“During that discussion, they that learned recruiting welders for the river industry was a big deal, and they wanted to work with them on that, but recruiting deckhands was a bigger deal,” Medlock said.

So the jail began looking into developing more programs.

“We started looking at what an individual needs to be a successfully recruited deckhand, and the No. 1 competency was the ability to live away from home, so that’s worked,” Medlock said. “The second competency is having healthy bodies, so we brought in HealthWorks to talk about that piece. We brought in the community college because they have that inland marine training center, and they have folks that can help with that curriculum.”

In the end, Puckett said, the programs the jail is developing will be a benefit to the river industry as well as to the inmates and their families.

“It’s just a positive for everybody,” he said.

Medlock agreed, adding, “If we can move even just a few inmates into a career as a deckhand, then everybody wins.”

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