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More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and recidivism is a major concern. Finding a legitimate job is one of the biggest obstacles for people released from prison. The Washington Corrections Center for Women outside of Seattle aims to give its inmates a better chance by running a pre-apprenticeship program inside the prison for careers the women may never have envisioned. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Inside one of the buildings at Washington Corrections Center for Women, it looks like a prep site for construction. It's full of cement blocks, wheelbarrows and wooden frames. Instructor Steve Petermann watches as more than a dozen women wearing bright orange safety vests and hardhats pound nails into the frame.
STEVE PETERMANN: There's a method here. They got to do so many nails in so many minutes. And they have to do those nails down on the side and overhead.
CORLEY: Petermann is a retired carpenter. He's been managing the TRAC program, Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching, for about six years. Petermann says in a prison, female inmates may not think about the trades as an option when they leave.
PETERMANN: And if they do well in here and complete their testing, what they - what we can do is we can get them direct entry into a living-wage job.
CORLEY: When TRAC graduates finish their prison terms, they have what Petermann calls preferred entry or apprenticeships with four unions - the carpenters, ironworkers, laborers and cement masons. The starting wage first day on the job is about $25 to $26 per hour, and that's important. Many of the women here are single mothers with children. Thirty-five-year-old Crystal Lansdale has four children. On this day, she's near the end of her sentence for identity theft and drug offenses. No longer addicted to meth, Lansdale says she made bad decisions she doesn't want to repeat.
CRYSTAL LANSDALE: The construction trades is something, like, way out of the box for me. But I need a career that's going to give me retirement, that's going to give me benefits, that's going to give me an opportunity to take care of my kids.
CORLEY: To get into the program, the women have to be in good health. They go through screening. That includes testing for math skills and physical agility. For about 16 weeks, the women spend up to six hours a day learning about tools and techniques. There's homework and physical work that requires plenty of stamina. Desiree Jensen just completed one exercise.
DESIREE JENSEN: I was doing the blocks. We have to do a set of 13 blocks back and forth four times in under 11 minutes.
CORLEY: The cinderblocks weigh about 30 pounds apiece.
JENSEN: I did 6:37. I love it. It gives me a good workout.
CORLEY: Jensen was convicted of assault. She has two daughters. She also has a background in welding and likes math and detail. She's interested in becoming millwright, a high-precision craftsperson who works with machinery. She says she's plenty motivated.
JENSEN: This is my future. The way I've been living my life the last 30 years is - isn't working. So it's time I do something else because I'm never going to come back to this place.
CORLEY: Many former felons return to neighborhoods that offer few opportunities, so the women in TRAC get encouragement from others who know what they'll face on the outside.
LISA MARX: So I'll start by introducing myself. My name is Lisa Marx.
CORLEY: Lisa Marx is an outreach worker for Northwest Carpenters Institute. She worked building and taking down scaffolding for oil rigs in Washington state and acts as a mentor now for many women working in the construction trades.
MARX: Now when you guys think of carpentry, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Wood.
CORLEY: Marx is here to tell the women the carpentry union offers eight different apprenticeships. She's also honest about what they'll face from outright sexism on the job to awkwardness that may come with being the new kid in a field dominated by men. She tells them the job market is more accepting of women and to stay determined.
MARX: I mean, I'm not going to say everything's going to be peaches and cream and rosy because it's not. There's been a lot of times that I've been set up for failure. And you may face that at times, you know? And just know that you do not jeopardize your safety for anybody.
CORLEY: Out on the training floor, inmates are getting timed as they shovel gravel and sand. The women wearing red hardhats are leaders who are paid and help run the classes. Thirty-seven-year-old Chantal Trotter, who wants to become an ironworker, has four children and was convicted on drug charges. Trotter says TRAC has made her confident, and she wants to pass along the excitement she has about the future to other women she's helped train.
CHANTAL TROTTER: And to be able to walk in here - it's more than just digging ditches and shoveling gravel and carrying heavy things really quickly. It's more of a - getting to know who you are, where you want to be...
CORLEY: And learning how to navigate the outside world successfully. In the last six years, there have been about 120 graduates of TRAC. Trainer Steve Petermann says there has been about a 3 to 5 percent recidivism rate with most women returning to prison for technical work release violations. Late this year, Washington state expanded the pre-apprenticeship to its other women's prison. Petermann says not everyone who starts a trade union apprenticeship makes it all the way through. He has high hopes, though, for Crystal Lansdale and Desiree Jensen who will start their union apprenticeship soon. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Gig Harbor, Wash.