The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 23, 2013

Ex-prisoners get chance to learn welding skills

JOHNSTOWN — Charles C. Brown knew he needed to change his life.

Years of bad decision-making had landed him in rehabilitation and prison. He was sporadically employed. And, as the Johnstown resident admitted, family members and friends endured a lot of pain because of his actions.

Brown had a choice to make: Continue down the same self-destructive path or straighten out.

He chose to better his life, which, in part, included participating in a federally funded Second Chance Act program.

Earlier this year, Brown, 39, became a certified welder through a class offered at the Somerset County Technology Center.

“Right now, I know that it’s either now or never,” said Brown, who previously lived in Pittsburgh. He added, “It’s a shame it took me so long to recognize the things that really affect me and my family.”

Brown graduated from the 10-week class in May.

He was one of six Johnstown area residents on probation who participated. Four received full accreditation. Two others passed the exam portion, but need to retake the actual welding test.

To receive assistance through the Second Chance Act, individuals must be at a medium to high risk of recidivism, but clearly willing to make changes in their lives.

“This is not for everybody. This is for an exceptional group of highly motivated individuals,” said Keith Pesto, a federal magistrate judge. “But we have to provide that opportunity because we have way too much talent locked up in prison that eventually is going to come out. You can’t turn a recidivist into a choirboy, but if you’ve got somebody who’s in prison because of a stupid thing that they did and they’re highly motivated and they’re able to turn their lives around, for us not to provide them an opportunity is to sacrifice talent that we desperately need in America and shoot ourselves in the foot at the same time.”

A main goal of the program is to provide former prisoners skills needed to find  jobs.

“We’re trying to look long-term and career-orientated,” said Chief U.S. Probation Officer Belinda Ashley. “Instead of just pushing people out to get anything, we’re trying to actually do long-term planning to get people into jobs that they actually like and will actually maintain even after they come off supervision. We want them productive, we want them paying taxes, we want them part of the community.”

U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson added, “When someone has been in prison and is coming back to the community, one of the key problems they have is finding employment. Any program that can give them skills that will allow them to get a job in the community is going to benefit both the person and the community because it will guide them away from going back to their prior life of crime.”

Still, the search is difficult.

Brown has applied for more than 130 jobs recently and received only two interviews.

“I know the mistakes that I’ve made, but I also think I could use a second chance,” said Brown.

Even though no participant has found work as a welder, taking the class has provided some positive benefits.

“You could see the difference in these guys from when they started until when they finished,” said Sue Babik, a probation clerk. “They had pride that they finished a class. They felt good about themselves.”

Probation Officer Dennis Martin concurred: “It’s created, in them, a sense of accomplishment and encouraged them to have pride to do other things.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

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