HOFFMAN — Morrison Correctional Institution graduated 17 inmates from its first commerical driver’s license program Thursday morning in the center’s minimum school library.
The course began with 24 students, but the prison’s Assistant Superintendent for Programs Robert Trask said some of them dropped out because of academic or behavioral issues.
“They studied for three hours a day,” he said. “Most of them are in the academic school as well, so they spent half a day in academic and half a day at this.”
RCC truck driver training instructor Anthony Lynn said he is proud of the young men who stayed with the program from beginning to end, addressing them in a brief speech before awarding their certificates.
“We had some good times, we had some bad times,” he said. “But we made it through it, and it’s on the upswing from here. It’s up to you where you go from here. This was our pioneer program. One thing I’ve tried to instill in you is do what’s right, no matter what the cost or what the consequences.”
As program graduates stepped up to claim their certificates, a voice from among the seated students said, “Hey, don’t cry!”
“It’s OK to cry,” Lynn said, smiling.
Morrison school Superintendent Pete Buchholtz said the program — the first of its kind at the prison — has the potential to help the transitioning inmates make better lives for themselves.
“They can leave here and find a job they can make a good living wage on,” he said.
The students trained for a gamut of real-world truck driving hazards from clear, dry weather to icy nighttime roads in blinding snow — all with the help of a realistic simulator. Inmates Eddie Warren and Lameek Singleton demonstrated the technology after the graduation ceremony.
Warren’s father, a truck driver by trade, had given him time behind the wheel before. He said the program gave him respect for what his father does.
“We had a lot of reading, a lot of boring videos, but it’s a great start,” Warren said. “You take it and run with it. Everything you need to learn about a big truck you can learn here. I’m going to do everything I can to be a better person.”
Singleton found out about the program in January.
“I’d been asking the unit manager about it every week of every month,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of family in the trucking business. I had to drop a few of my other classes to take this, and it was a little difficult at first. But Mr. Lynn is a great teacher. The simulator helped, too.”
“It’s very realistic,” Lynn said. “We have had people to try it and get sick. We always like to warn especially older people before they try it out.”
Lynn said the sickness is mostly due to the intense, up-close graphics used in the simulations and the sense of motion people experience while immersed in the virtual environment.
The simulator — complete with truck seating, clutch and pedals — looks and feels similar to what a driver experiences. If the driver runs over a curb or strikes another vehicle in the sim, the seat moves realistically in response. If not for the seatbelt, some drivers might topple out.
Nornia Bullock, Title I Director for North Carolina Department of Public Safety, said she is thankful for the federal funding that pays the cost of the program and others like it across the state.
“We had an academic program for GED,” she said. “The students we serve are considered the most challenged academically, so we had to find a way to give them a vocation. I went to a conference in Washington where I heard a speaker who showcased how we could use federal funds in collaboration with state funding to offer the CDL program. I just can’t believe how enthusiastic the students are to get their commercial driver’s license training.”
Bullock said the state has even put together a list of trucking companies that hire ex-felons, which helps the students obtain jobs.
Morrison school Principal Andy Reeder said the program will benefit not only the young men re-entering society, but also the entire state and nation.
“It’s great to see the guys having a chance at a living wage, to see them able to sustain themselves and never return to the prison,” he said. “They will be contributing to the tax base again. They will be spending in the economy. All of this combined with a reduction in recidivism is a much better use of tax-payers’ money.
Bullock said everything good ultimately comes from God.
“God is the one that did this,” she said. “He is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. It really took a whole village to make this happen, but God is the center.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.