Prisoners endure diver’s training program

By Jason Kandel, Daily News Staff Writers
February 22, 2008

CHINO – Fresh from a grueling diver’s training program, 13 teary-eyed prisoners embraced family and friends Thursday at a graduation ceremony of the renewed Marine Technology Training Center at the California Institution for Men.

The men in prison blues beamed as they were handed their certificates and reflected on their accomplishments amid hopes for a better future with an opportunity for better-paying jobs.

“This is the best thing that has happened to me,” 25-year-old Josiah Hernandez, a two-time felon from Whittier, said as he hugged his mother, Reny, after the ceremony.

“It’s a relief. It’s an accomplishment.”

For Jovan Oliva, 25, of North Hollywood, graduation brings hope that when he gets out in about a year, he’ll be able to get a job working salvage in Louisiana or Dubai.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “This is some of the best work.”

Hernandez and Oliva were in the first graduating class since the program was suspended five years ago because of insufficient funds. But thanks in part to the Prison Industry Authority, a state agency that operates manufacturing and agricultural facilities at the state prisons, the program has been resurrected.

The state is contracting with the authority for about $400,000 a year as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrestles with how to ease prison overcrowding and improve the rehab efforts of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Graduates of the program were required to complete yearlong courses including physics, diving medicine, blueprint reading and seamanship.

Waiting list

In the 1,800-hour program, they learned underwater welding, used in offshore construction in oil drilling and bridge building, as well as other marine industries such as operating and repairing diesel engines.

Inmates endured five-mile swims in a prison pool built by other inmates to develop the stamina needed to work in deep-sea construction jobs’ harsh conditions in which they weld by feel in darkness under intense deep-sea pressure.

The prison has a waiting list to get into the program, which trains 100 inmates a year at a cost of about $6,000 each, said PIA General Manager Charles Pattillo.

And Pattillo said graduates have at least an 11percent less chance of returning to prison than the general inmate population, saving taxpayers $23million a year.

Thursday’s graduation ceremony was held inside a drafty warehouse that looked like an airplane hangar. From a rafter in the corrugated metal warehouse hung the motto: “Only the Strong Survive! The Weak Die Along The Way. The Cowards Never Started. Can’t Hang, Get Out!”

The graduates – some with only sixth- or seventh-grade reading levels – sat eagerly smiling on folding chairs in the front row waiting for their names to be read aloud and certificates to be awarded.

Behind them sat more than 100 family members and friends, who cheered and clapped as each name was announced.

“It’s a warm and emotional time to see the program coming back to life,” said Leonard Greenstone, an ex-Navy salvage diver and plumbing business owner who started the prison’s Marine Technology Training Center in 1970.

In his speech, Greenstone implored the graduates to stay out of trouble.

“You guys have worked damn hard,” he said. “You are going to go to work. When you go to work, stay on the job. There’s no reason for you to come back.”

Alex Ballan, 37, graduated from the program in 1994 and came to the ceremony Thursday to cheer on his fellow graduates.

“For the guys here, it gives them a new identity, something to latch onto,” said Ballan, who served time for a burglary conviction stemming from a 1991 arrest.

`The right track’

With his beaming mother, father and sister in tow, Arturo Hernandez Jr., 28, of Los Angeles said graduating from the program made him feel as if he finally has overcome a troubled past.

He didn’t want to talk about that past, instead choosing to look forward. But he said it was amazing he got through the rigorous program in which inmates did sit-ups, push-ups and timed runs and swims daily from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The tough program weeded out a lot of men: Twenty-eight inmates started the program but only 13 graduated.

“I never accomplished anything in my life,” said Hernandez, who has a wife and two kids and said he has a job lined up tending equipment for oil-rig divers in Louisiana after he is paroled in 10 months.

“It’s a dream come true.”

His father, Arturo Sr., had no words to describe how he felt.

“I can’t talk about it,” he said, fighting back his emotions.

Eyes red-rimmed, sister Liliana Hernandez, 21, said she was very proud.

“He’s my big brother. It’s good to have him as someone I can look up to.”

Arturo Sr. added: “He’s on the right track now.”

Going deep

Eric Pawling, 45, of Chatsworth is set to be paroled today after serving time for a petty-theft conviction from a June 2006 arrest, his second such offense.

Pawling now has to decide whether to take a diving job in Long Beach or the Gulf of Mexico.

He relishes the opportunity to work under water in decompression chambers – some of which are large enough to walk and sleep in for days in the depths of the sea.

“The deeper you go, the better you get paid,” said Pawling, who said the program has left him so physically fit that he feels like he’s 20 again.

“This is gonna change my career.”

His father, Robert Pawling, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer for 26 years, stood at his son’s side after the graduation ceremony.

“I’m really happy for this program,” he said. “It straightens a lot of guys out. They find their anchor.”

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