El Paso Community College has entered into a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to teach incarcerated students the necessary welding skills to make them legitimate candidates for in-demand, good-paying jobs upon their release. 

The program should launch this spring.

The EPCC Board of Trustees approved the five-year, $520,000 agreement last month. To prepare, EPCC must hire a full-time instructor, while the leaders at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, need to upgrade its camp facilities in Anthony, Texas.

La Tuna is a low-security prison for incarcerated males located about 20 miles northwest of El Paso. According to its website, it has about 690 inmates and offers vocational training in welding, automotive and office technology. The prison’s satellite camp will house the inmates picked for the welding program.

This is the latest effort between the two entities to prepare people who are incarcerated to transition back into society. Blayne J. Primozich, associate vice president for Workforce & Continuing Education at EPCC, said it was part of the college’s mission to assist underserved populations.

“(Incarcerated students) earn time off their sentences for every course they complete, but the idea is also to make them workforce ready,” Primozich said. “That’s key to reducing recidivism.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 600,000 Americans are released from state and federal prisons annually, and they add to the almost 80 million who have been arrested or convicted for a crime. That connection to a criminal past can make it difficult to get a job, let alone one that pays well.

El Paso Community College officials said that they need to hire a welding instructor and La Tuna federal prison leaders need to upgrade facilities before the expected launch of its welding program this spring. The prison is in Anthony, Texas. (Courtesy photo)

According to a 2022 report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 60% of people who were incarcerated in a federal prison do not have a job up to four years after their release. To put it in perspective, the U.S. had an unemployment rate of 13% in 2020 during the pandemic. The current unemployment rate is 3.7%.

A RAND Corp. analysis showed that incarcerated people who participate in education programs are 43% less likely than others to be incarcerated again, and the government saves $4 to $5 in reimprisonment costs for every dollar spent on prison education.

While the college and the prison have collaborated for more than 20 years, this is the college’s first big effort to teach at the prison since the pandemic. Olga L. Valerio, dean of EPCC’s Advanced Technology Center on the Valle Verde campus, said prison officials will select the participants for the certification program, which should last from six to eight months. Each cohort could have as many as 14 students.  

EPCC officials said that the college has collaborated with La Tuna on other similar training programs that teach interior and exterior vehicle renovations, and Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning. Valerio said participants with those skills have become successful workers and, in some cases, business owners, upon their release.

“This has opened doors for them,” Valerio said.

Primozich said that the college’s goal is for the La Tuna students to earn their American Welding Society certifications in Shielded Metal Arc Welding and Gas Metal Arc Welding. The courses would include theory, safety training and hands-on experience with industrial welding equipment.

Once certified in those welding processes, those participants will be ready to work in maintenance and manufacturing shops, steel construction sites and oil field operations, according to the abstract presented to the trustees. The size of employers range from big companies to small businesses.

According to Salary.com, the average salary for an entry-level welder in El Paso County is $40,843 as of January, but salaries could range from about $36,300 to $46,800. Those who move out of the area could earn more.

The welding courses, which are free to the students, are funded in part through the government’s First Step Act. Congress passed the legislation in 2018 to promote rehabilitation services such as job training, lower recidivism, and to reduce sentence times.

An August 2023 brief in The Sentencing Project included an announcement from the Department of Justice that the recidivism rate of those people who used the First Step Act was lower than those who did not. The report stated that of the nearly 30,000 people who gained an early release because of the program, almost 90% had not been rearrested or reincarcerated. In contrast, a 2021 article in the Harvard Political Review stated that within three years, about 66% of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested, and more than 50% are reincarcerated.   

College and prison officials said that they will do what they can to help the certified welding students to find a job after they are released.

Louis Castillo, a Workforce Solutions Borderplex project manager. (Courtesy photo)

Louis Castillo, industry project manager with Workforce Solutions Borderplex or WSB, said having an up-to-date certification in an in-demand field helps, but people who were incarcerated  also need to find a company that will give former felons a chance.

People who recently were released from prison often deal with barriers to employment. Among those Castillo listed were homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues, the stigma of a criminal record, and a lack of reliable transportation.

“When an employer is looking at two candidates, a lot of times those kinds of biases will have them choose the one who doesn’t have the record,” Castillo said.

The WSB manager said that there are openings for skilled laborers such as welders. However, he said that jobs outside the region could pose a logistical problem for people who must stay in a certain area as a condition of their parole. While La Tuna prisoners come from throughout the country, most are from the southwest.

Sandra Quiñonez, La Tuna’s supervisor of education, said the prison is in early discussions with EPCC and the University of Texas at El Paso to offer college courses inside the institution using Pell Grant funds. As of July 1, 2023, the U.S. government made Pell Grants available to qualified people who are incarcerated so they can pursue a college education.

Quiñonez said that the effort will proceed after the institutions submit the required documentation to the U.S. Department of Education.

A UTEP official said the university is in talks to offer some courses at La Tuna, but there is nothing official to report yet. EPCC did not respond to a request to comment.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.