Changing lives in prison
VENUS- Dennis Porterfield wakes up every day excited to go to work at the Sanders-Estes Correctional Unit in Venus. Porterfield teaches building trades – a class so popular among inmates, there is a waiting list to get into the program.
Porterfield didn’t expect to be teaching woodworking skills to inmates at a medium-security prison in the Texas countryside. It was all by chance, as he tells it.
“I got my start in corrections a long, long time ago,” Porterfield said. “I was a CO (correctional officer) for a while, then I went into construction and did that for a long time. I learned a trade myself and was very successful at it.”
Then, the stock market crashed in 2008 and everything changed as jobs dried up.
“I came back to corrections as a CO and worked my way up,” he said. “I remember walking into the woodworking shop and thinking that it was really neat that they had this here.”
Soon, prison management asked Porterfield to take over the building trade program.
“I had the experience in construction and I knew how to deal with inmates,” he said.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice often partners with private-prison companies, such as the one that operates Sanders-Estes. Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is a Utah-based company contracting with 14 prisons in Texas. With about 1,049 inmates, Sanders-Estes is the fourth largest prison in Texas that MTC operates, according to the MTC website.
While Sanders-Estes has not made the headlines for riots or deaths in the prison, other MTC contracted prisons have.
On Feb. 20, 2015, riots broke out at the Willacy County Correctional Detention Center in South Texas. At Willacy, over 2,500 inmates were housed in Kevlar tents where the plumbing would back up and sewage would overflow into the tents, according to a report by NPR. Prisoners had been complaining for years about the lack of sanitation, as well as sexual abuse. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a detailed report about MTC and other prisons like it.
However, Porterfield said the staff at Sanders-Estes is different. It starts with the teachers and instructors.
“If we treat them like animals, they will act like animals,” he said. “When these guys get out, they are going to be your neighbors. We need to give them the tools they need to succeed when they get out of prison. You can’t just put someone in prison and forget about them. Prison is full of good people who made bad mistakes. It’s also full of bad people who need to stay in prison.”
At Sanders-Estes, inmates with five years or less left on their sentence have the opportunity to prove good behavior to get to the unit, which gives them the freedom to engage in classes. MTC wants to give prisoners an education, Porterfield said, and inmates are free to choose from a variety of classes including horticulture, electrical trades, building trades, GED, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Dave Ramsey Financial Peace, music and religious classes.
“Our corporate office has totally supported us and given us the reins in regards to educational programs. We try to give the inmates confidence and show them they can do things,” Porterfield said. “A lot of these guys haven’t had a real job.”
Porterfield picked up a wooden jewelry box an inmate made, adorned with pulls and beveled edges.
“The inmate that made this had been a drug dealer his whole life,” he said. “It’s amazing to see with a little instruction what they can do.”
Additionally, inmates in Porterfield’s class can become certified for construction safety (NCCER) which will help them get a job once they get out of prison. A few times, Porterfield has heard from previous inmates who’ve had success landing a job after their release.
“We had a young man who called up, he had been out three days, and got a job with the city with his janitorial certification,” Porterfield said. “Every once in awhile, we do get word back and it feels good. I’m lucky I get to watch these guys change.”