Female inmates at Utah State Prison don’t have access to as many vocational trainings as the men do, and some state officials worry that plays into gender stereotypes and may funnel them into lower-paying jobs when they are released.
Both men and women can take classes in culinary arts and business administration. But male prisoners also can pursue courses in welding technology, automotive technology and CNC (computer numerical control) machining, which uses computer-controlled tools to create parts.
This discrepancy came up at legislative hearings in recent months, and leaders at Davis Technical College, which provides the courses, and the Draper prison told The Salt Lake Tribune in late October that they are aware of the situation.
“When I learned about that, I was a little bit surprised, to be honest, and a little troubled,” said Anndrea Parrish, programming division director at the Department of Corrections, “because those particular programs seemed stereotypical gender types of programs, and I thought we should be doing better for our female population.”
Welder is listed as one of the “hot jobs in Utah” on the Department of Workforce Services’ website, with an hourly median wage of $20.68. Secretaries and administrative assistants earn an hourly median wage of $17.68, according to online data from the department.
Davis Technical College wants to expand its classes to more women, and has brought the issue up with the Department of Corrections before, said Dan Powers, the school’s corrections program manager.
“There’s a lot of interest,” he said, and “we would love the opportunity to provide what would be considered traditional male career and technical education programs to the women. Gender equity is certainly a big piece for us.”
Ultimately, though, the Department of Corrections decides who can participate in what programs, according to Powers.
With preparations underway to open the new state prison next year, Parrish said her team is currently figuring out which programs will be offered to inmates, and what those will look like.
‘Our females lag behind’
Davis Technical College isn’t the only school that provides vocational courses through the Department of Corrections, but it is the only one accessible to female inmates.
Uintah Basin Technical College has a construction program available to state inmates, who are all male, housed at the Duchesne County jail, according to Stephanie Carter, vice president of public affairs and student advancement. And Snow College teaches construction and culinary arts at the Gunnison correctional facility, which also only houses men, said Stacee Yardley McIff, vice president for technical education and workforce engagement.
After listening to presentations about these educational programs at a legislative hearing this summer, Rep. Suzanne Harrison questioned if the Davis Technical College classes, in particular, played into gender stereotypes.
“I imagine a welder is in much higher demand and makes a lot more money than someone in administrative services,” Harrison, D-Draper, said at the June 15 meeting of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Harrison’s concern is that, while not done on purpose, female inmates could be pigeonholed and directed into lower-paying jobs than the men.
“I share your concern, and I appreciate the question. You’re exactly right,” Darin Brush, president of Davis Technical College, told Harrison.
“One of the first programs we want to expand is welding for women,” Brush said, as well as in other nontraditional occupations, for women to “create more equity and parity.”
The college has seen an interest in welding from female students at its Kaysville campus, according to Brush. The school has also looked at automation and robotics for female inmates, Powers later told The Tribune, “because we see the high pay, high wage jobs that are available.”
“When it comes to vocational opportunities [in the Department of Corrections], our females lag behind,” Parrish said during her presentation at the committee’s Oct. 19 meeting. “And I just want to be honest about that. I think it’s really a problem that we want to take on.”
How to move forward at a new prison
Parrish started her role with the Department of Corrections at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, so she said she “can’t speak to the decisions that my predecessors made and why they chose the set of vocational offerings that they did.”
“They probably were dealing with their own constraints and challenges and political issues or policies at the time,” Parrish said.
Parrish has a plan, though, for how to move forward, she said. And right now, her team’s focus is “to do our homework.”
“We’ve recently hired an intern,” Parrish said, whose “full-time job is to not just do a review of this gender gap ... but really trying to figure out the bigger picture of ... are we providing the best set of services to our individuals who are going to be returning to the community?”
Specifically, Parrish said they are doing a market analysis to see which jobs are not just growing and available, but are also industries willing to hire employees with a felony record and to provide family-supporting wages.
Parrish said she hopes they will finish their research in the next couple of months, and then will make recommendations to the department’s executive team.
Parrish isn’t sure yet if the existing programs will continue, and “I’ve tried to be clear with the partners,” including Davis Technical College about that, she said.
“I think we really want to let the data lead out and make sure that we’re making good decisions that are going to benefit our population and are going to line them up to succeed,” Parrish said, “because they you have enough barriers that they’re facing.”
Davis Technical College has taught classes, which are accredited and market driven, at the state prison since 2010. Like the Department of Corrections, Powers and his team make sure the courses are in fields where jobs are available and that work for people who have been convicted.
“We know that when we’ve done this well, students can just absolutely thrive,” said Melanie Hall, a spokesperson for the college.
Some students at the prison have continued their education on campus after being released, she said. Hall said she knows of one student who recently had been able to “put an offer on a house for the first time in his entire life.”
“It’s more than just a job,” she said. “It’s being able to be part of their full rehabilitation.”
Both Powers and Parrish said they think the new prison will allow for more opportunities for more people.
“I think we’ve been a little bit bound by sort of the hands-on programs, such as the welding or the automotive trades,” Parrish said. “But as we take that new space and it’s fully Wi-Fi-enabled ... we’re looking at like coding and project management and (commercial driver) CDL licenses and other types of opportunities that we haven’t historically offered.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.