Fresno, Calif., Local 100 member Bob Thomas, left, works on a mental health facility alongside one of the inmates he trains at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Due to prison regulations, inmates cannot be identifiable in photographs.   

KC Matthews says she hopes to be an electrician someday and it’s thanks in large part to Bob Thomas and the Inmate Ward Labor program at the Central California Women’s Facility.  

Thomas, a member of Fresno, Calif., Local 100, works with Matthews and other inmates in the program on projects including construction of a 72,000-square-foot mental health building from the ground up. The majority of the construction work – from bending conduit to installing closed circuits and boxes for alarms and data – is performed by the inmates, he said.

“I’m training them, but they’re doing the work,” Thomas said. “And they’re good at it. They’re very hardworking.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in conjunction with the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, manages the program.

The prison contacts the local when it needs work, which basically runs like any other job, said Local 100 Business Manager Ronny Jungk, except that members undergo a background check and train the inmates. The members are drawn from a list maintained at the union hall.

Four of the eight women working as electrician helpers have expressed an interest in becoming electricians and only have about a year of their sentences left, Thomas said.

“I’ve encouraged them to get into an apprenticeship program wherever they end up,” Thomas said. “And I’ve given them all the information I have to help them do it.”

Thomas said Matthews has the skill level of a second-year apprentice.

“KC really picked it up,” Thomas said. “I would recommend her for an apprenticeship. I think she’d be an asset to our trade.”

Matthews, who has been a part of the program for four years, wrote said that Thomas has been a mentor and father figure to her.

“Bob is very patient and loves to teach the trade to me,” Matthews wrote to the IBEW. “He’s really making a good name for the IBEW.”

Thomas, a Vietnam veteran, said he’s always loved teaching and will probably continue to do so in retirement.

“I want my students to win,” he said. “You have to be patient, and if someone doesn’t get it, you have to figure out how to teach it to them.”

Some prisoners are able to apply their hours worked toward an apprenticeship once they’re released,
Jungk said.

“They were fantastic apprentices, and even better journeyman,” Jungk said.

Thomas says he would like to take it one step further and see the IBEW establish a pre-apprenticeship program.

“It would benefit everybody,” he said. “These programs cost a third of what incarcerating a person does. And helping someone transition to a good-paying job is an effective way to reduce recidivism.” 

Considering the need for more construction workers, programs like these can also play a crucial role in growing the workforce, Thomas said.

“Our industry is suffering from a lack of trained, qualified electricians,” Thomas said. “Hundreds of baby boomers will retire in the next 10 years. We need to expand our horizons.”