Given a Second Chance: Inmates Graduate from Special Valencia Program


Joshua Johnson poses with friends after graduation

Sam Schaffer and Samuel Schaffer

Emotions ran high and tears flowed freely in the Orange County Jail on Friday, as 18 Valencia College students donned both their jumpsuits and graduation gowns to cross the stage at the Phoenix Construction Class graduation.

The Phoenix Construction Class is a collaboration between Valencia College, Orange County Corrections, and companies like Goodwill and Suntrust. The program uses the same curriculum that Valencia’s other construction programs use with some modifications. There are no field trips for example.

Minimum security inmates volunteer to take the five week course, during which time they go to class Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00p.m. in the jail. They divide the time evenly between classroom learning and building projects. The projects they build go to charitable foundations. This class made bookshelves to take to the Russell Home for Atypical Children. Students in the program also earn a number of certifications that will show future employers that they are properly trained workers.

“I have been in and out of trouble my whole life, so I figured this would be the best chance to turn my life around and get started on the right track,” said 22 year old student Joshua Johnson.

Many inmates have a hard time getting a job after being released from jail, which leads to a struggle for money and resources, which can lead to stealing resources and getting rearrested. The Phoenix construction program not only teaches students job skills, but also works with Goodwill and Suntrust to teach the students things like business ethics and financial literacy. The program also works with companies like Jr. Davis Construction and Kleenco Construction so students leave jail with the real life knowledge that they need to make an honest living and stay out of jail.

Johnson explains, “I got to basically go out there and learn how to work with my hands, build bookshelves. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and got a lot of opportunities for myself when I get outta here.”

According to Orange County Corrections, this was the eighth graduating class from the Phoenix Construction Program. The program has now graduated 151 students, 14 of which have been female. Eighty-five of the graduates have found jobs, 69 of which are in construction. Of those released, one out of 12 of the female students has been rearrested, and 23 of the 133 male students have been rearrested.

Javier Rojas is the Construction program manager at Valencia College. He said that people in the jail are already suffering the consequences for their actions. “Do we continue to close doors, or do we open them? Hopefully what were doing with this program is opening doors.”

Anyone at graduation could clearly see this program has affected the students and their families.

“First off I want to thank God,” said an emotional Erica James, one of two women in the class. As she gave a speech she tearfully thanked her instructors and then got even more emotional. “Mom, thanks for coming! I’m so happy to see your face and support. I needed that,” she cried. She then touched on her progress, before “I had accepted where I was, I was nowhere,” she wiped tears from her eyes, “the program changed everything; I thought about myself, for me it was life or death and I chose life.”

Students wore graduation gowns over their usual blue jumpsuits and slides at graduation.
Students wore graduation gowns over their usual blue jumpsuits and slides at graduation.