RICHMOND — Looking to train incarcerated offenders in an area of need for many Commonwealth communities, a new Virginia Department of Corrections program allows offenders to get certified to properly deal with wastewater.
After they leave prison, these offenders can gain employment as licensed professionals in the field of wastewater treatment.
“Every community, large or small, has wastewater treatment needs,” explained Nottoway Correctional Center Treatment Plant Operator Robbie Jones. “There are many jobs available, and these jobs require increasingly stringent credentials. People don’t realize how much it takes. A lot of science and math goes into wastewater operation.”
Eleven apprentices have completed the year-long program, and ten have passed the Class 4 wastewater certification and received an operator’s license. One offender has advanced and earned a Class 3 certification, and at least one former offender now works at a wastewater treatment facility in his community.
Only offenders deemed to be low security risks may apply for and enter the program. Violent and sexual offenders are not eligible.
To train the offenders, VADOC offers classroom and computer course work sanctioned by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). To complete their apprenticeships, applicants must make it through an interview panel and a fact-finding conference; submit a variety of paperwork; and document their hours in the classroom and at work. There are four licensing classifications, each with progressively more rigorous requirements.
While much of the learning is a traditional combination of book study and on-the-job training, the apprentices also have access to computers, which, for security reasons, are stand-alone units without connections to the internet.
The new program is quite popular, and part of the draw is the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art equipment. But the primary attraction is the promise of future job opportunities.
“With a professional license, these offenders have a much better chance of getting a job when they return to their community,” Jones said. “This is a catalyst, an incentive to get their GED if they don’t have one and then get into the apprenticeship program. This gives them a goal, and when they get their professional license and get out, they can get a job.” A high school diploma or a GED is a prerequisite for entering the program.
VADOC’s Wastewater Apprenticeship Program is the brainchild of Environmental Services Unit Director Tim Newton, who saw it as a way to help ex-offenders enter the growing field and become contributing members of their communities upon reentry.
The apprenticeship program is offered at several prison sites around the state, including St. Brides, Haynesville, Deerfield, James River, Nottoway, Baskerville, Buckingham, Rustburg, and Powhatan correctional centers, Virginia Correctional Center for Women, and Caroline Correctional Unit. Most recently, the program expanded to Buckingham and Coffeewood correctional centers, and Cold Springs and Rustburg correctional units.
More information on the VADOC can be found at www.vadoc.virginia.gov.