A new vocational trade at San Quentin teaches inmates how to build homes from the ground up.
The building maintenance program has been in operation for about a year. Instructor Dante Callegari spent a few months getting the shop ready for students.
“This building was storage for clothing when I got here,” said Callegari. “It used to be a greenhouse for landscaping. This program is brand-new at San Quentin. I had to get it ready.”
Chris Deragon changed jobs from carpentry maintenance in the kitchen to working in the tool room for building maintenance. He said that as their first assignment, he and Charlie Spence were hired to clean up the shop.
“In my entire 18 years in prison, I’ve never met an instructor who has more passion to teach inmates to be better,” Deragon said. “He’s inspired me to do better. He has patience with each student and finds a way to guide them in a positive direction.”
Spence, who became the shop clerk, said he and Deragon worked hard to rebuild the classroom and Callegari goes out of his way to make sure everyone understands what needs to be done. “When I parole, I will use this trade to get through law school,” Spence said.
Starting from ground zero, Callegari teaches the students what it takes to build structures. He begins with proper safety procedures. The orientation includes completing an Injury Illness Prevention Plan.
“State law says you have the right to know anything that can harm you here,” said Callegari.
Several members of the class have some previous construction experience. However, this class provides certification in construction technology, which the men can use to secure employment once they parole.
Darell Flowers, formerly a long-haul truck driver, said, “I tried for a long time to get into the class.” He is looking forward to having a new trade when he gets out.
“It’s a new, exciting experience because I am learning how to build a real house from scratch,” said Tare Beltranchuc.
“I want to learn as much as possible about construction because this is useful in everyday life,” added Marco Villa.
The students’ study material covers pouring concrete, introduction to masonry, installation techniques, floor systems and foundations.
By the end of the course Callegari says inmates will learn the construction of walls, roofing, ceilings, framing, roof framing, exterior finishing, stair layouts, electrical systems, introduction to HVAC, drain waste, pipe fitting and plumbing.
“We cover everything in a construction technology trade,” said Callegari.
Every student is required to pass the Craft Core Curriculum test.
“The course is very challenging for them,” said Callegari. “They have to demonstrate to me that they understand a chapter to move on.”
Students are also required to pass tests based on the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), Introductory to Craft Skills and Construction Technology.
Inmates learn to read blueprints
Callegari said California building code books are used to teach the course.
The building maintenance shop displays scaled-down versions of homes designed by inmates.
“Everyone working here will have a firm basis for building a house,” said Damien Coleman.
Anthony Passer is building a scale model of the house he and his family lived in for many years. Complete with a concrete foundation, his house will have scaled plumbing, electrical and water installations. “I lived in this house,” he remarked.
Kevin Robinson, who is serving a life sentence, is the architect and engineer of a structure that he had to learn to build to scale.
“It’s tedious work, but it teaches you how to build a house. I didn’t know anything about this before I started,” Robinson said. “It shows me how to make an honest living. I have a skill now that I can take with me.”
Robinson said he enjoys working and receiving instruction from Callegari. “Dante, he’s a master at this. If he doesn’t know something, he’ll find out. I’ve yet to ask a question he doesn’t know.”
Teams of four are selected. Inmates are expected to work in cooperation. “They get one chance to opt out of the team for another, but no one has done it yet,” said Callegari. “On the street you have to learn to work with different personalities.”
Callegari said the course takes about a year and a half to complete 850 hours of bookwork and 850 hours of performance.
“I don’t see how anyone could get it done quicker than that,” said Callegari. “Somewhere else this program could take a longer time. I’ve worked at prisons at different levels. I like the inmate mentality here.”
The San Quentin atmosphere
Callegari said San Quentin is a different kind of prison because of limited lockdowns, so “everyone is on a constant flow of training. I couldn’t teach this program at High Desert (State Prison).”
“I like coming down here teaching,” said Callegari. “I like the lifers’ mentality. They’re dedicated and focused.” He said lifers have done it all. They want to move to the next level. “The games are done. They’re here to learn.”
Callegari has been employed with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for 28 years. He started working construction in high school. He received formal construction training in junior college while in an apprentice program, as well as OSHA training. He has previously taught at California State Prison-Solano and the California Correctional Center, where he also worked in maintenance and plant operations. He has worked in facility management construction at Folsom State Prison. Callegari has two separate teaching credentials granted by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing for auto body and the construction trade