From the big house to the Habitat house

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Inmates from the Rifle Correctional Center help construct a Habitat for Humanity house in Carbondale Thursday.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Forty-year-old Joseph Morón has been working construction since he was 14, but he’s never been as grateful as he is now for his job.

Morón isn’t a typical construction worker and he’s not in a typical situation. He is an inmate at the Rifle Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison within the Colorado Department of Corrections. He is part of a supervised crew of eight that is working three days per week on a Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork house under construction at Keator Grove in Carbondale.

“This is what I love doing,” Morón said while taking a break Thursday. “This is what I was doing on the streets.”

He has been incarcerated for seven months after a conviction for second-degree assault. He worked a job at the Rifle Corrections Center for 30 days and then applied for an outside job. Construction appealed to him because he’s been at it so long. Several of his uncles owned construction businesses or were supervisors for large firms in the Roaring Fork Valley. Nevertheless, working with Habitat has allowed him to expand his skills because the crew works on everything from the foundation to the finishing details.

“I learn something every day. I feel good because I know I have a job when I get out. I know I don’t have to commit any crimes to get money,” he said with a smile that came across as jubilant rather than crass.

“Best crew” for Habitat

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork coordinated with the Rifle Correctional Center for work crews about 2½ years ago. Inmates have helped with houses from Silt to Basalt and Habitat gets good workers. The inmates learn skills that theoretically could help them get jobs and improve their lives upon release.

“It gives them an opportunity to get out of a prison environment,” said Chad Robison, labor crew supervisor with the Department of Corrections.

It’s good for the inmates to interact with people outside of the facility, said Travis Horton, operations manage at the Rifle Correctional Center. They develop broader skills and a work ethic.

“It’s one more layer of support” for when they get released, he said.

Dan Villemaire, a supervisor for Habitat, said the inmate crews have been a godsend.

“They are hands down the best,” he said.

Many of them have prior construction experience. Guys like Morón act as de facto supervisors by helping less experienced workers. The amount of time they spend on a job really hones their skills.

“When I can get a regular group like this I can make huge progress,” Villemaire said.

Taking it to next step

Habitat and the Rifle Correctional Center decided last fall to take the relationship up a notch. Habitat paid Villemaire to teach the 2015 International Residential Code to the inmates. The lengthy code contains rules and regulations that building departments use as a guide for construction work. From mid-November to late January, the inmates spent at least two hours per week going over the code with Villemaire in a classroom setting. They didn’t memorize the tome, but they learned how to use it as a reference guide on every feasible aspect of residential construction.

In early February, all eight members of the crew took a grueling, three-hour, open-book test on the residential code. It was administered by Snowmass Village Chief Building Official Mark Kittle.

Kittle said that when he was driving to the test site he was thinking fewer than half of them would pass. To his surprise and delight, they all passed on the first try. They received their Board of Examiners for Standardized Testing or BEST certification. That means they are qualified to supervise construction of one- and two-bedroom residences, Kittle said. In essence, he said, it means they know what it takes to comply with the code.

General contractors on jobs between Rifle and Aspen are required to have a BEST-certified carpenter supervising at a job site during business hours, Kittle said. So BEST-certification can help workers secure jobs. “It helps immensely,” he said.

Opening doors

Morón figures his experience plus the BEST certification can help him secure a supervisory position at around $35 to $40 per hour once he is released. Being sent to prison can be tough on a person’s self-esteem, he said, and achieving the certification restores that self-esteem and dignity.

“It opens more doors,” he said.

He has set a goal of getting his general contractor’s license when he is out of prison.

Morón is proud of his colleagues for passing the test because some of them are new to construction and are now gaining the skills that can keep them out of trouble in the future.

Adrian Alamillo, 32, was a drywall contractor in Aurora before he was convicted of robbery. Drugs and alcohol “got the better of me,” he said.

He also earned the BEST certification last week and sees a world of opportunity unfolding because he knows so much more than he previously did.

“You have this understanding of how to push a hammer around,” he said, but with BEST, he now understands how a supervisor needs to focus on all aspects of construction.

He acknowledged he was “amazed” to pass the test. “I didn’t think I was going to pass, to tell you the truth,” he said.

He has helped complete one Habitat house since joining the crew and now they are well into the construction of another. It’s a far cry from when he was an inmate at a medium-security prison. Alamillo said he was confined to the library and workout room. “It’s sort of dead time,” he said.

He has been accepted for a community corrections program, which means that once a space opens up, he will live at a supervised facility but go to work outside each day. Inmates commonly refer to community corrections as a halfway house.

Alamillo believes his on-site experience and BEST certification will help him re-enter society.

“Habitat for Humanity was a big step,” he said. “It gives you a stepping stone because I was going to pursue the construction field.”

Hitting the books

The crew has additional opportunities to improve its construction education. Villemaire said he offered to continue the classroom education with the crew in construction mathematics and modern carpentry. He found an enthusiastic response. The inmates, he said, make very eager students.

“They’re like, ‘We ain’t got nothing better to do than that,’” Villemaire said.

Horton said Rifle Correction Center’s outside crews work for governments or nonprofits. Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork and its chapter president, Scott Gilbert, have really embraced the program and offered inmates a chance to improve their skills.

“Not every agency is willing to say, ‘Yeah, bring a bunch of inmates here,’” Horton said.