Caddo vocational program offers inmates a second chance
Inmates at the Caddo Correctional Center participate in a hands-on lab exercise handling fiber optic cables.
By Elise Saloom
Rick Bateman believes in second chances. The chancellor for Bossier Parish Community College holds a personal interest in expanding opportunities for incarcerated people through vocational programs at correctional facilities.
Recognizing the opportunity and need for a fiber optics workforce in Louisiana, Bateman proposed a new fiber optics vocational program for the Caddo Correctional Center.
The established curriculum offers Louisiana Department of Corrections inmates participating in the Northwest Regional Re-entry Program at CCC two fiber optics certifications through BPCC. The certifications include the Certified Premises Cabling Technician curriculum and the Certified Fiber Optic Technician curriculum; the industry-based certifications are awarded by the Fiber Optic Association.
The two two-week curricula are adapted from BPCC courses and use a combination of classroom lectures and hands-on lab exercises to demonstrate applications, installations and communication systems related to fiber optics.
“For us at BPCC, expanding correctional-based programs is part of our strategic enrollment strategy, but it goes quite nicely with the workforce need that exists to build these networks,” Bateman said. “We approached the folks at Re-entry, the sheriff’s office and our friends at the Department of Corrections and began that process last year.”
Caddo’s sheriff, Steve Prator, was an early proponent of the program.
“I think the program sold itself,” Prator said. “It’s something that you don’t find a lot of people are certified in. It fit the bill for something that might give a good fresh start for some inmates.”
Though the process to get approval for the program ran smoothly, Bateman’s primary challenge was the search for an instructor. Former BPCC student and industrial technology graduate Alex Boone was a clear match for the job. After teaching fiber optics classes on BPCC’s campus in the mornings, Boone would head to Caddo Correctional Center each afternoon to deliver the training to the inmates.
“The guys were super easy to work with, and everyone came wanting to learn,” Boone said. “They all stayed really professional in class which made it very easy to get all the material to them.”
While each class has a capacity of only 10 students, more than 50 inmates applied to be part of the first cohort.
“We started with the earliest releases just because they wouldn’t have a chance to do it if not,” Boone said. “We plan on making it a recurring class and getting a lot of people through the program.”
One of the students, Marcus Thomas, took a special interest in the class. After completing the carpentry program offered through the re-entry program and becoming a tutor for his peers, Thomas was eager to gain fiber optics training.
“I first heard of the class last year,” Thomas said. “I really wanted to be part of something that was new. Something fresh. I didn’t know a lot about fiber optics, but I wanted to be a part of it.”
According to the Fiber Optic Association, the Caddo Correctional program is the first program of its kind in the country. With courses offered each month, the program serves to lay a solid foundation for fiber optics skills. Upon release, graduates will have an upper hand to get a job in fiber optics.
The first month-long program concluded with a graduation ceremony on Feb. 24 at the Caddo Sheriff’s Re-entry Facility. For all graduates, the ceremony was a testament to their hard work and determination. At the ceremony, Bateman, Prator and Boone presented each graduate with his certificate in front of an emotional audience of families and friends.
“A lot of their families were there celebrating and there were a lot of tears,” Bateman said. “We were motivated to build a workforce, and there was a significant need. But as you see the potential it has to change their lives and futures, to me that is extraordinarily fulfilling.”
For Boone, seeing his first graduating class was also rewarding.
“It was a pleasure to get to teach them and get to know them,” Boone said. “For a month, we spent a couple of hours a day together. Getting to go to the graduation and see everybody with their family was a great experience.”
With numerous communities still underserved and unserved when it comes to high-speed internet, the need for fiber skills exists all over Louisiana. Bateman hopes this first class will inspire others to seek out talent to train and employ fiber optics technicians.
“We have almost $2 billion coming to Louisiana to build out these networks,” he said, referring to the aggregate dollar amount expected from all federal programs including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and GUMBO grant program. “This is critical work that we are going to look back on in 20 to 30 years from now and celebrate that we got it right or we are going to be frustrated that we missed an opportunity.”