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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 6/18/15. Prisoners wait to receive their certificates of completion during a graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 18, 2015 for the first group of offenders to complete the Vocational Welding Program at Walker State Prison.
This was an answer to a prayer for me, it's going to give me a second chance.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. — The 33 graduates stood in their black caps and gowns in a side room. Some looked nervous, some looked ahead stoically, many wore proud smiles. They had worked hard to get to this moment.

When the recording of "Pomp and Circumstance" began to play, the first graduating class of the vocational welding program at Walker State Prison filed into Multi-Purpose Room 1.

"I couldn't be any more proud of you than I am today," Warden D. Bruce Lee told the men as representatives from the Georgia Department of Corrections, Gov. Nathan Deal's Office of Transition, Support and Reentry, and a few fellow inmates looked on.

Lee said the program, open to prisoners who have completed their GED and are within five years of their release date, was one of Deal's major initiatives to help felons from being jailed again.

This is a big opportunity for me to create a new direction of life. I feel positive that I have a trade to supply my family with.

"One of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to provide vocational training so that people have a skill when they get out," he said.

Inmate John Turner said learning a skill is just a part of the program's value.

After 11 years in prison, earning his welding certificate has left him feeling like the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," Turner said.

"Throughout that film, the Scarecrow wanted a brain," he said. "The Wizard told him he had one all along, and that all he needed to show people he had one was a diploma. "I'm like the Scarecrow, and this program is the Wizard."

Turner, who is up for parole in July, said he has two job offers waiting for him.

"Thank you for giving us the tools to be returning citizens," he said.

The program, which started in August 2014, is a 22-week course featuring 106 hours of lecture and 140 hours of hands-on lab time. Participants are introduced to welding technology and skills and earn 13 credit hours from Central Georgia Tech, transferable to any technical college within the Technical College System of Georgia.

The graduation ceremony was a "significant day," said the keynote speaker, Dr. L.C. "Buster" Evans, assistant commissioner for education and programs for the Georgia Department of Corrections.

"Today really is a success story," Evans said. "You've shown that there are opportunities for people to make good decisions and change their lives."

For a prisoner to leave prison, the future is nebulous to say the least. This program gives us an opportunity to expand and broaden ourselves into productive people.

Evans said the welding program has been replicated at Lee State Prison, and a program for female inmates is being introduced at Arrendale State Prison. He said there are 337,000 unfilled welding jobs in the United States, and that number will rise as the aging workforce retires.

"We've heard from technical college presidents all over the country, saying they have employers calling them with hundreds of jobs to fill right now for people who want to work," he said.

Evans said the combined earning potential of these graduates is more than $3 million a year, in a career that can pay some individuals up to six figures a year. He said this batch of graduates might end up welding together a new stadium for one of Atlanta's sports teams, a hospital, or a school.

"You will leave as a part of the solution to society, as part of the solution for your families and part of the solution for the American economy," Evans said.

After posing for a group photo, the graduates smiled and threw their caps into the air.

A new crop of 52 participants has already started the second installment of the program at Walker, and are scheduled to graduate in November.

Contact Will Healey at whealey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

This class has been a true blessing for me. I've always felt I was dealt a bad deck of cards, but this has been an opportunity to better myself. I want to be able to go home and support myself and my son, and be the father that he needs.
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