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Program Offers California Inmates A Second Chance Through Diving

CHINO, San Bernardino County (CBS 5) -- An innovative program is taking California's felons and problem parolees, teaching them how to become highly skilled deep sea divers and keeping them out of jail.

California spends nearly $50,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate. Since 2006, program administrators calculate the dive program has saved California taxpayers $2.5 million.

"When they leave here they are not the same people they were when they came thru the gate on the first day," explained lead dive instructor Fred Johnson.

The facility is the Marine Technology Training Center: a commercial dive school on prison grounds at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

The curriculum is mind-boggling.

"I've learned a lot about commercial diving, physics, dive medicine welding, blowtorch cutting, and torching, and a lot about myself," said Joshua Roberts. The 19-year-old was put behind bars for assault with a deadly weapon.

The training will take these inmates from the cell block to the open sea, where they could make up to 6 figures as commercial divers, underwater welders, and heavy construction riggers.

"It has opened up an arena of opportunity that I didn't know was available to me," said inmate Zachary Love who was convicted of drug possession.

"I came to this program hoping to change my life and it did," explained inmate Jeremy Moose who was convicted of robbery.

According to the instructors, the biggest challenge is to get these inmates to believe in themselves. "In most cases, all of their lives, somebody told them they were worthless," Johnson said.

The whole idea of the program is to make these convicts not only responsible for themselves but to their fellow workers. At the dive facility, race doesn't matter: all men work together as a team.

Johnson said because these men have lived in prison, they're well-prepared and in high demand to work and live on oil platforms, doing dangerous work, hundreds of miles offshore.

"They don't have that problem of living in confined space and they don't have homesickness," Johnson quipped.

The training is grueling; inmates are required to spend four times more hours training than civilian divers.

By the fourth month, they must be able to swim 5 miles without stopping and weld not only above ground but underwater as well.

80 percent of the inmates don't make it through the program, but those who do surface as skilled deep sea divers capable of patching pipeline from hundreds of feet underwater.

Perhaps the bigger skill for these men is staying out of prison. Many of these convicts are so well trained, they are in high demand and some have jobs already lined up once they get out of parole.

"This is life training. These guys are learning how to survive. They're learning how to take orders, how to show up for work," said dive instructor Jeff Powers.

And this program is working at rehabilitating these men: less than six percent of inmates at dive school land back behind bars. Compare that to 65 percent of the state's general population.

Who pays for this program? Not the taxpayer. All the funding comes entirely from inmate produced goods and services under the California Prison Industry Authority.

"I probably would have ended up coming back because it's all I knew," said inmate Roberts, "but now that I have this I have something to look forward to for the rest of my life."

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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