Behind an old warehouse in San Quentin Penitentiary sits a brand new 800 square foot house, its fresh paint bright against the prison’s gray stone walls. Inside, the home appears ready for a family to move in. Chilled air blows from vents in the ceiling, a refrigerator hums beneath recessed LED lighting. The pilot light burns on a gas range, hot and cold water flows from the sink, and a solar array on the roof soaks up the California sunshine. But no family will ever take residence here--the model home was built as a classroom exercise by the students of RISE, a vocational program teaching construction skills to inmates who will soon be paroled.
Starting at the Foundation
Dante Callegari, the program’s instructor, has been preparing inmates to reenter society for over thirty years. The yearlong course in construction skills “starts at the foundation and goes all the way up to the roof,” he says. “The students get hands-on experience in every area of residential construction: electrical, plumbing, HVAC, sheetrock--we’ve even started working on incorporating green technologies, like wind and solar, into our buildings.”
But as Callegari explains, technical skills are only part of what his students must learn. RISE stands for Readying Individuals for Successful Employment,” he says. “I can teach them all the skills, but we still need to bridge the gap that could keep them from getting on a payroll. Some of these guys will leave here with only $200, so they need to be able to pick up employment within a few days. They need to have a plan.” To help his students develop that plan, Dante relies on Sean Luigs of Elite Supply Source.
“I’ve been teaching thirty years,” Dante says, “and it’s a challenge to stay current with what the market requires. A lot has changed since I was in the industry, so I asked Sean to come in and contribute to my trade advisory committee.”
Bridging the Gap
Sean Luigs has been a trade advisor to the program for 3½ years. “Elite Supply gives back to the community by volunteering our time here at San Quentin, trying to bridge the skills gap for inmates reentering society.”
Soon after joining the advisory committee, Sean realized how his experience could contribute to the program. “Prisoners don’t see a businessman come in very often. We decided to build a comprehensive curriculum that would help get these inmates job ready and eventually placed in employment.”
The result is the “RU Job Ready” program, an eight-day course that helps inmates develop their post-release goals and understand the steps that will prepare them to rejoin the workforce. “Our partnership with Sean provides current information that the program needs to be successful,” Callegari tells us. “The feedback I’m getting from the inmates has been very positive.”
Elite Supply Source has also provided material support for the program. “When we were remodeling the machine shop,” Callegari tells us, “we needed paint, and Sean reached out to me and said ‘let me donate that. Let me give you the materials you need to help move this program forward.’”
Laying a Foundation
The RISE program’s graduates have found success outside the prison. “We’ve had six students paroled out,” Callegari says, “and all six have stayed out. They write to our current students, telling them about the opportunities waiting for them across the bay in San Francisco when they get out.”
Building a positive mindset is important. “At the beginning of the course, I tell my students to take out a sheet of paper and start making a list of every negative thing that’s going on in their lives,” Callegari says. “You can imagine, it’s pretty easy for them to fill up that page. Then I tell them to flip the page over, and write a list of everything positive, everything good. And this side of the page, it’s not nearly as full. I tell them that to be successful, they’re going to have to start focusing on filling up this side of the page. We’re helping these inmates build the skills they’ll need to succeed on the jobsite, and that’s more than just learning a trade.”
Working with inmates has affected Sean, as well. “It’s changed the way I look at my life. Not everybody has what we have. It’s made me thankful for my thriving business, my partnership with Grainger, and my customers. We have the flexibility to try to make things better.”