Sonya Tefertiller, 29, wears an orange jumpsuit to class at Rio Salado Community College.
Her classmates, Teresa Hill, 43, and Heidi Jaeger, 32, are similarly dressed. No, it’s not their choice of fashion.
The three are among 30 orange-clad female prisoners from the Perryville Prison in Goodyear who attend hands-on classes four days a week at the Rio Salado campus at 2323 W. 14th St., Tempe.
The prisoner-students are learning building skills so — when their prison terms are completed — they can build their own lives.
“This course has given me the confidence and knowledge I’ll need when I get out of prison,” said Tefertiller, a Phoenix mother of two. She has to serve 20 more months of a three-year prison term for auto theft before she is released.
Tefertiller, like her prisoner-classmates, is working toward an associate’s degree in electrical technology.
Hill, also of Phoenix, will complete her prison term in three weeks. She is learning skills in plumbing, carpentry and electric construction.
Besides remodeling Rio Salado Community College offices and working on other public agency projects, Hill, Tefertiller and Jaeger have also helped to construct 10 homes for Habitat for Humanity.
“It made me feel like I was giving back to society,” Hill said.
The college program, Construction Technology, is part of several educational courses available at Rio Salado Community College on a voluntary basis to more than 2,000 inmates at the Perryville and Lewis prisons each year.
Male inmates at Lewis Prison located in Buckeye attend classes at the prison while women prisoners who are classified low-risk are bused to the Tempe campus where they not only attend classes but also work directly on remodeling projects.
The construction project on campus began eight months ago and involves upgrading several offices.
Jaeger, a mother of two from Avondale, was among the first to help — and learn — about various aspects of remodeling.
“The hands-on work and the classes are preparing me for what I want to do when I’m released,” Jaeger said. “I want to be a construction project manager.”
Earnest Adkins, vocational instructor at Rio Salado Community College, directs the daily work-and-study programs for the inmates.
“Some of the students work directly, others observe and listen while others attend classes,” he said. “I regularly call contractors in the Valley and explain our course and see if they’re interested in hiring our students. Out of every 10 calls, only one refuses to participate. The others tell us the program sounds like an excellent idea.”
Adkins, who began as an instructor and student monitor five years ago, said some of the trained student prisoners earn as much as $60,000 a year after they are released and begin working in the civilian world.
“They call and thank me,” he said. “Sometimes, they send me thank-you cards. It’s a nice feeling because I feel I helped give them the skills — and the desire — to succeed in life.”
Jo Jorgenson, director of the program and Dean of Instruction at Rio Salado, started coordinating the prisoner-student program on a part-time basis in 1989. By 1994, the program expanded with funding from the Arizona Department of Corrections.
“Our working partnership with DOC has been very strong,” Jorgenson said. “The opportunity to learn skills has changed many lives. It has taught them to be optimistic about life. They can become law-abiding citizens, members of society.”
She added: “There is empirical evidence to show that inmates who are educated during incarceration are less likely to return to prison following their release.”
She said the waiting list for inmates who want to participate in the voluntary program is long and growing longer.
Besides construction skills, another related course teaches inmates the parenting skills needed to strengthen family relationships during separation and prepare them for reintegration with their children, Jorgenson said.
Rio Salado Community College is the largest of 10 in the Maricopa County Community College District with more than 48,000 students.
* Six community colleges in Arizona, including Rio Salado Community College, offer work-based education programs such as Construction Technology for inmates at 10 correctional facilities. The others are Central Arizona College in Florence, Pima Community College in Tucson, Eastern Arizona Community College in Safford and Globe, Cochise Community College in Douglas and Western Arizona Community College in Yuma.
* The state’s correctional training program costs $1.1 million annually. About $108,000 comes from the general fund, and the remainder from profits generated by various inmate industries and funds in the inmate commissary.
* To educate a prisoner for a year, it costs about $2,100, which is equivalent to the cost of confining a prisoner for 38 days.
(Source: Arizona Department of Corrections)