North Block project teaches construction skills

By Juan Haines

Prisoners on a San Quentin work crew say they are being “rehabilitated, one building at a time” by learning state-of-the-art techniques useful in today’s construction industry.

Their latest project is an addition to an existing building, North Block. The addition was completed in mid-September and is scheduled to open as a medical dispensary.

“This project has helped me to grow as a person,” said Robert “Rocky” Cote, 60, who has been incarcerated since 1975.

Supervisor and journeyman carpenter Michel Moreno said, “Every aspect of the building and project teaches the inmates new stuff. Teaching inmates these skills feels natural for me. I’m the oldest of four brothers, and I always teach my brothers new things, so it’s kind of natural for me to help others.”

Dave Smith, who also supervises prisoners, added that the overwhelming response of the inmates is a desire to learn new technical skills.

“The inmates generally show enthusiasm for the work,” Smith said. “They take ownership and pride in the work they do and deservedly so.”

“I get to learn green technology,” said prisoner James Benson, 61, “Being able to come to work every day has put me on a real positive path and helps me stay focused on my future, based on the changing laws.”

Carlos Smith, 50, said, “I like doing work that has a true purpose.” He added, “The friendships I’ve gained with the crew are humbling. We put our differences aside to build this project that will be standing long after we’re gone.”

Eric “Turk” Curtis, 48, added, “This job shows that we’re capable of normal activity. It’s something that you can see done outside of the prison.”

Don Sabados, 52, said, “There’s always a construction comedian, and that’s me. I love doing this, and I look forward coming to work every day. We’ve got a great bunch of guys. We learn a lot about construction and ourselves.” As to what career he’s headed for, he says, “When I get on the streets, I want to be a chef.”

Bobby McClelland, 49, said that the money he earns allows him to support himself and takes the financial burden off his family.

“Family is the treasure and crown jewel of any person,” McClelland said. “Also, the early hours and work give me the work ethic that I can take to the streets.”

Antoine Watie, 37, has been incarcerated since 1999. He has been at San Quentin since 2011. Watie goes before the parole board in 2019.

“This job has taken me to new heights,” Watie said. “Working with the foreman from the streets, it’s given me real-life experience in the workforce.” He added, “Dave Smith has taught me the electrical skills I know today. Many of us have torn down our communities. Now, we’ve learned the exact skills needed to build California back up. We’ve changed from being a liability to society, to now being an asset.”

Brian Shipp, 58, has been incarcerated 36 years and off and on spent 18 of those years at San Quentin. He goes before the parole board in 2019.

“The best thing about this job is every day we leave, we can look back and see what we’ve accomplished together. There’s a gratifying feeling that you can look back and see what the whole crew has accomplished. The unique thing about this job (is it) gives people the opportunity to learn tools and skills they’ve never had. These skills, they can take to society and get into unions to make a good living.”

Juan Zaragoza has supervised inmate construction workers for about two years.

“The best part of the job is seeing it complete the way it is supposed be done,” Zaragoza said. “The hardest part was the beginning, building the foundation, but it gets us in shape, the physical work.”

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