“A Chino Hand”

By Stephen Green, California Prison Industry Authority

Among his brawny peers in the underwater construction industry, J. R. Childress is known as “A Chino Hand.”

Chino refers to the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif., where Childress learned his job skills at the Leonard Greenstone Marine Technology Training Center — the world’s only training program for prison inmates seeking to become commercial divers.

“That’s not a negative,” said Fred Johnson who has charge of the Training Center. “A Chino Hand is one of the best hands on the job. Because our training is so intense, we have priority hiring in the industry. Inmates who complete our training are guaranteed a job — before they leave prison.”

Marine Technology Training Center

Most graduates earn $50,000-to-$80,000 in their first year out of prison, he added. Once they’ve had a few years experience, they pull in six-figure salaries.

That’s why only two Chino graduates have returned to prison in the four years Johnson
has been running the program. And one of them was sent back only after it was discovered he used a false name while he was doing time. For inmates in California’s general prison population, 52.3 percent return to incarceration during the first two years after their release.

In Diving Gear

Like most inmates who enter the program, Childress had no diving or construction skills. Today, at age 48, he does underwater welding, bracing and fabrication on the Texas Gulf Coast. And he’s also learned engineering duties on the boats that take workers to off-shore job sites.

The Association of Diving Contractors International finds worldwide placements for Chino’s certified graduates. Most graduates use their skills constructing bridges and off-shore oil drilling rigs, and in construction and maintenance work in ports and shipyards.

“The training was just excellent,” Childress said. “I never thought I’d be doing anything like this …and I like what I do, what I am.”

Chino’s diver training “changes the whole psychological and social attitudes of the people there,” said Leonard Greenstone who founded the program in 1970.

Greenstone was a U.S. Navy salvage diver and diving contractor in Southern California who began volunteering in inmate training programs in 1961. Now at age 87, he is a long-time member of the California Prison Industry Authority governing board. There he oversees a self-supporting state agency that operates manufacturing and agricultural programs where inmates learn job skills. Chino’s Training Center is one of the Authority’s

“People who learn good job skills that lead to productive employment come out of prison very determined,” Greenstone said. “They turn out to be good employees.”

Some also give back. In spare time, Childress meets with students at the Alternative Learning Center in suburban Houston for kids who are one step from doing time in juvenile detention.

“J.R. has been providing counseling to our students since early May 2010,” said Franklin Izuora of the Learning Center staff. “Our students listen to him attentively. The hard-core students who are in gangs initially are cautious, but eventually have opened up to him. They meet role models like J.R. and realize that all is not lost and that there is hope for them.”

Diving Equipment

The Chino Training Center has 30 inmates in training at any given time. When one makes parole, another comes in from a waiting list. Besides learning to dive, they take a wide range of classes in general education, physics, diving medicine, underwater survival, welding, blueprint reading and seamanship.


Inmates train in pools and in simulated underwater working conditions. They learn to work in a pressurized water tank while standing in muck in total darkness.

It takes 18 months and the completion of 2,050 hours of course work to become a certified commercial diver. The entry-level diver tender (or diver’s helper) course is 1,850 hours. Topside welders complete 350 hours of course work and topside riggers take 250 hours. Two-thirds of the trainees drop out in the first month.

“The program is very intense,” Johnson explained. “It requires 150 percent of participation. There’s no dilly, dallying. I have a one-strike rule. Screw up one time and you’re out.”

The one-third who complete training “develop a completely different attitude than the one they had when they came in,” Johnson continued. “They are taught to be self-starters. They have a new attitude toward life and everything else.”

Some enter training without knowing how to swim. “They’re tadpoles,” Johnson said. “But they learn. In four months, they swim five miles without stopping to rest. If you’re working in the Gulf Coast, you’re apt to be swimming all-day long.”

Greenstone started the program with a grant from the federal Manpower Development Administration. After a few years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation took charge of the program. But it was closed down in 2003 in
response to budget cuts.

In December 2006, the California Prison Industry Authority resurrected the program and recruited Thompson to run it. Thompson, who is now 67, became a certified diver at age 16 and worked for years as a diving contractor.

“This is one of the most unique rehabilitation programs for inmates in the country,” said Charles Pattillo, General Manager of the California Prison Industry Authority. “It gives inmates real job skills that are in high demand around the world. More importantly, it gives inmates confidence, life skills and a lucrative paycheck — all that helps them succeed in their transition back to society.”