AUBURN, Maine — A group of women made history in March when they graduated from a new welding certificate program at Central Maine Community College.
Seven of the eight women are incarcerated. They are residents at the Southern Maine Women's Re-entry Center in Windham, a Maine Department of Corrections facility.
DOC vocational trades instructor Corrine Bailey found the new welding program at CMCC in Auburn and signed up these women for the course. Bailey said a career, not simply a job, offers better outcomes for the incarcerated women when they leave the prison system.
"Doing things like this really builds them up and really gives them a future to look forward to, because they can go from here and sky's the limit," Bailey said.
Many of these women have been in prison before, gotten out, and have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced again for a new slate of crimes because of a combination of factors upon release: no skills, no work history, no income, and more.
"I've gotten out, and not having any foundation, not having a solid plan in place, it's setting yourself up for failure," Amber Morin of Lewiston said.
Morin, 29, is serving a four-year sentence for drug trafficking.
"When I got out [of prison] before, I did well for about three years. And then I messed up again," Sarah Denbow of Bangor said.
Denbow, 38, is currently serving time for a drug trafficking sentencing.
According to a MDOC report from the end of 2022, 49% of women residents and 26% of men residents in 2022 were serving a sentence for furnishing drugs.
"A lot of women have been beaten down over time -- they're not good enough for things, they can't do this, or they can't do that, and it really harms people," Bailey said.
She said she estimated about 95 percent of women in the prison system suffer from past trauma.
"I was really lost. I had no self-esteem. I was just broken," Morin said.
The women all said gaining skills they can use to apply for meaningful careers after serving time gives them hope.
"Since being here I've found myself, and I have self-esteem now, and just having that is a big step," Morin said.
The next obstacle they face after prison is the job application, which asks them to reveal if they are convicted felons or not.
"It's hard to get a job. People look at you a certain kind of way when you have something on your record," Denbow said.
"They want to put that behind them. They've done their time. They've paid their dues, and it's time to move forward," Bailey said. "But if they have to check that box every time. It's a reminder of where they were, not where they can go."
The women said that whether being offered another chance, having a path and a purpose helps them put together the pieces of a new chapter.
"It gives me hope," Denbow said.
These women are the first prison residents and first women to graduate from the new welding program in the new lab at CMCC. The Center for Workforce and Professional Development at Central Maine Community College unveiled the new welding lab at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 26.
A $950,000 grant from the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce and the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan paid for the lab. It is home to the Center for Workforce and Professional Development’s Welding Academy.
The academy is a four-week, 160-hour training program that covers a variety of welding techniques, including MIG and TIG welding, industry-standard weld joints, print reading, basic metallurgy, sheet metal forming, tube welding, and grinding and polishing.
The training is free to those who are unemployed, underemployed, or whose job was negatively impacted by COVID-19.
Each student contributed time and at least one of their required projects to a sculpture that will go in the SMWRC flower garden that residents maintain this spring.
"They were very proud of the piece and to donate it to the facility to demonstrate what education can do for both future residents and staff/administration. What a great group of students," class instructor Forrest Stone said.
Bailey has been approved to chaperone a second cohort and already has enough for full enrollment, Stone said. He wants to use this second cohort to do instructor training with Bailey.