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Programs give JRCC inmates job skills they can use upon release

John M. Steiner / The Sun Inmates like Reed Stewart, left, and Julian Nickaboine, middle, learn trade skills at the James River Correctional Center. Warden Don Redmann, right, says those skills help inmates reintegrate into the real world.

To reduce crime and the expense to incarcerate those who commit it, the state offers felons financial stability -- or at least a means to get there.

North Dakota incarcerates about 1,000 inmates a year, and room and board costs about $30,000 for each one.

The rate of recidivism in North Dakota varies year to year, but North Dakota Department of Corrections says about 40 percent of the inmates released in 2005 returned to prison whether due to a new crime or because they violated the conditions of their sentence. That's better than the national average of 60 percent, but officials say they're looking to improve.

At the James River Correctional Center, officials seek to expand those programs so more inmates have the opportunity to work. Currently, the prison offers about 180 jobs to its 419 inmates.

Work and learning to work help convicted felons find employment once they've served their time, said Don Redmann, warden at the JRCC. Not only does it give them job skills, but it gives inmates a sense of pride and accomplishment -- something atypical for inmates who are accustomed to eating, sleeping and working out or watching TV.

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Convicted of criminal trespass, assault on a peace officer and preventing arrest or discharge of other duties, Julian Nickaboine said he had an alcohol problem and anger management issues.

Reed Stewart was convicted of unlawful possession of prescription drugs with intent to deliver, unlawful possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver as well possession of stolen property and two counts of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

Both have records, and both may face trouble finding work with felony convictions. But that hasn't stopped Nickaboine from learning skills like heating, plumbing and air conditioning or Stewart from studying to be an electrician.

Prison is sometimes boring, said Stewart, who was a mechanic before he was jailed. But work makes him feel productive. Spending six hours a day learning skills means he's completed three years of his apprenticeship. It takes four years to earn a license.

"I wish I would have started it sooner," he said.

Learning trades teach them to produce in society, said Dennis Fracassi, deputy director of industries and education for North Dakota's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Adult Services. It's a method of making tax burdens into taxpayers, he said.

"When you get out, you have something to hold onto," he said.

Some inmates, like Nickaboine and Stewart, have skills before they enter prison. But 21 percent of them don't have high school diplomas, Fracassi said, and the average age of inmates at JRCC is about 34 years old.

Skills learned at JRCC aren't limited to trades. Fifty-four inmates earn $200-$300 a month working in the Rough Riders Industries program.

Seated behind sewing machines and using tools like utility knives and nail guns, inmates in the medium-security prison create upholstery, military garments and furniture. The items are sold through Rough Rider Industries and treated like products from any other business, said Bernie Duven, operations manager.

Inmates learn skills they can transfer to any industry, skills like accepting authority, working together and how to work on an assembly line.

"A lot of them haven't held a job before. They come from all walks of life," Duven said.

Rough Rider Industries is in many ways like private businesses. It competes with other businesses and doesn't use tax dollars.

But unlike private business, Rough Rider requires inmates to save 25 percent of their wages. Plus, inmates shuffle through a metal detector at the end of every work day.

Duven said most inmates working through the Rough Rider program consider their employment a "premium job." The work reduces misbehavior, because acting out, even off the Rough Rider premises, can cost them their job. In 11 years, only one fight has occurred within the Rough Rider site, Duven said.

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Education and job-training allow inmates earn money while incarcerated -- money for child support, fines and fees or to put a down payment on a used car, Redmann said. The programs not only help inmates re-establish themselves, they also help the community as a whole.

"If Julian and Reed don't go out and commit another crime, then we don't have another victim," he said.

Plus, the inmates save tax dollars when they complete tasks like landscaping or shoveling snow, he said.

The state pays for inmates to earn their GED, but post-secondary courses like Stewart's are paid by the individual inmates.

"The return (to the state) is, them learning a skill and what value do you place on education?" Redmann said.

Sun reporter Katie Ryan can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by e-mail at kryan@jamestownsun.com

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