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Colorado prisoners get lessons in heavy lifting

Administrators hope a specialized prison program here will turn tax-using inmates into taxpaying workers.

The vocational heavy equipment program at the medium-security Buena Vista Correctional Facility features classroom studies and behind-the-wheel training. Inmates obtain the skills to run front-end loaders, dump trucks, bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment.

``I found out we can place 100 percent of our students -- the field is wide-open,'' instructor Tom Bowen said. ``I think that will really help reduce the recidivism rate.''

``These guys can begin to pay taxes instead of using them,'' Bowen said.

The best part of the program is that it does not use tax dollars. Salaries for Bowen and program manager Pete Stone, plus all supplies and other costs are paid for by program profits.

So far inmates have rebuilt roads at Tomahawk Wildife Area in South Park, re-created fish habitat at Spinney Reservoir, bladed and rebuilt forest service roads, maintained campgrounds for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation area and revamped the Department of Corrections firing range in Canon City.

Since the program started 18 months ago, eight inmates have participated. This week, three of those inmates will move on to minimum-security prisons or community corrections, one step closer to jobs paying $15-$16 an hour.

Part of the reason the inmates are so employable is because they know how to operate six or seven pieces of equipment, while the average construction worker knows about three.

The road to heavy equipment certification through the Association of General Contractors of America is not an easy one for the inmates.

To qualify, inmates must have a minimum-security classification, a high school diploma or GED and display their best behavior without reprimands for at least three months.

Bowen said it is such a sought-after program that inmates from other prisons are applying, he said.

Once accepted, inmates are handed two huge three-ring binders filled with learning materials and tests. Classroom work is intense -- running eight hours a day -- and requiring computer literacy.

``It's really discouraging at first, I had not been in a classroom for 20 years,'' said inmate Louis Lopez, 39. ``There was a lot of prayer involved.''

Then on-the-job training is even more intense and inmates work 10 hours a day in the field.

Inmate Matthew Gorman, 22, already has received a couple of job offers in the construction field.

``I felt if I could learn something here, I could stay out of trouble,'' he said.

Tom Dellecave Jr

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