By J.R. Abernathy
Three days a week, you will usually find volunteer and business owner Scott Bohlmann devoting his valuable time, knowledge and positive energy to inmates at Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, Calif.
“Prison is my sanctuary,” said Bohlmann, 54, explaining why he volunteers his time to teach three different classes to inmates at DVI.
“I’m not into altruism. I do this for myself…it helps me.”
Bohlmann, who is White and has a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Mary’s College in California, teaches an African-American history class composed primarily of Black inmates.
The other two courses he teaches are philosophy and creative writing with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, twin brothers who have been teaching creative writing at San Quentin State Prison for the past 14 years. This year Bohlmann intends to add Latin American history as well. The African-American history class is based on an undergraduate course taught at Yale University titled “African-American History: From Emancipation to the Present.” The purpose of the course is to examine the African-American experience in the United States from 1863 to the present. Prominent themes include the ending of the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, the urbanization experience of Blacks, the development of the civil rights movement and an examination of notable and historical Black leaders.
“I just wanted to do something different as a challenge. It’s not like I have a background in Black history studies. I came in knowing nothing about Black history. I’m learning right along with the students. These students have taught me more about the experience of being Black in America than I could’ve ever learned from a book,” Bohlmann said of his inspiration to teach the class.
Bohlmann began volunteering at DVI more than 20 years ago to help support the mechanical drafting classes being offered to inmates at the time. He stopped only because the classes shut down. In 2013, he returned to DVI under the condition that he wouldn’t be obligated to teach any particular subject.
“I’m here to make myself useful in the capacity of a volunteer. I’m a tool for DVI,” Bohlmann said.
Currently, Bohlmann is in talks with prison officials about establishing a mechanical engineering program that includes computer-aided design (CAD) at DVI. The CAD program is a 15-month course that trains inmates in engineering design drawing and the use of CAD software. Participants will learn how to design 3-D images, for example. Bohlmann is the owner of a company called Valley Engineering Group (VEG), in Livermore, Calif. VEG provides mechanical engineering resources to companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere across the nation.
“There’s a high demand for mechanical designers nationwide, and there are certainly not enough mechanical designers in Silicon Valley,” Bohlmann said.
CAD doesn’t require knowledge of physics, chemistry or biology. Inmates just need to understanding basic arithmetic, have mechanical aptitude and a good work ethic. The particular skill sets are selected in accordance with industry demand. With time and repetition, the development of such skills will lead to proficiency and marketable skills that are applicable to the real-world job market.
“In my experience, people do really well after receiving hands-on training in design. Providing this training is something we’ve done for years at VEG and find those with the training tend to out-pace those without it,” Bohlmann said. His goal is to provide inmates with training skills more in line with current technology, which means that inmates will have a better chance of obtaining more advanced and higher-paying jobs upon their release.
“Not every inmate wants to spend eight hours a day working outside on a roof. There are a lot of smart men in here. These guys want to seek something different other than laborious jobs after their release. My goal would be to help provide that to them.
“The students here at DVI are awesome. I can’t even explain how much gratitude I have for these guys. They’ve given so much more to me than I could ever give back,” Bohlmann said.
“Scott is very uplifting, informative and inspirational,” said Black student Damian Scott. “He provided us with something that is lacking in the prison system … which is the love for the self. I consider him a friend. He is genuine, honest and transparent.”
“To me, Scott is innovating,” said Ray McClenton. “He’s trying to provide us with modern-day learning tools and technology that will enable us to work with our minds instead of our hands.”
Radciffe Walker, who studies Black history, philosophy and creative writing, says Bohlmann’s understanding of Black history impresses him because he’s White. “He’s passionate about where we [Blacks] come from, and he’s very interested in the cultural barriers between Whites and Blacks. His demeanor in teaching gives me a sense of comfort with him being so knowledgeable with history. I’m proud that Scott is teaching us Black history from Yale University.”