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Project May Offer Entree to Real Jobs

Jail: Female inmates learn construction and beautify a once-ugly corner at Twin Towers, gaining potentially valuable work skills.


They're not doing hard time at the jail in downtown Los Angeles. They're doing hardscape.

Female inmates are pouring concrete, constructing block walls and planting trees to create a graceful new entryway to welcome people to the Twin Towers lockup.

"I'm proud of it--it's going to look very nice," Tonya Dennis said this week as she wrestled a heavy hose to spread a thick layer of concrete for a sidewalk next to the corner of Vignes and Bauchet streets. "When I get out, I'm going to bring my kids here and show them I contributed to this."

Dennis, a 41-year-old Gardena resident serving a four-month sentence for forgery, is one of about 150 women who over the last year have helped plan and create a park-like setting near the main entrance to the jail.

Working in groups of 14 at a time, the inmates receive classroom instruction on the finer points of irrigation-sprinkler installation, concrete-block laying or landscaping before being escorted outside to do the work.

Only low-risk inmates are invited to join the work crew, which is supervised by vocational teachers from the Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District.

The do-it-yourself beautification project completes a missing piece of the $373-million, state-of-the-art jail. When the 4,100-bed Twin Towers Correctional Facility opened 5 1/2 years ago, its entrance was marked only by a minimalist, 6-foot-tall sign erected on the vacant corner lot.

But the lot soon became a dusty patch overgrown with weeds after its sprinkler system was crushed by TV news vans that parked there while covering occasional stories at the jail.

"We kept sending people out there to clean up trash. So we thought, 'Why not do something with that corner? Why not convert the cleanup crew into a landscape crew? " said Sheriff's Capt. John A. Franklin, who helps run Twin Towers.

Plans were drawn up, and jail administrators began searching for money to pay for tools and materials. They decided to finance the $75,000 project with cash from an inmate services program that is funded by proceeds from vending machines and pay telephones inside the jail.

"The county didn't have the money. And we couldn't find outside donations. It's real hard to get people to sponsor a jail," said Sheriff's Lt. Jack Carey, another Twin Towers administrator.

Vocational instructor Bob Reyes said he worked vocabulary and mathematics lessons into his construction class curriculum, which included hands-on instruction in the use of tools ranging from shovels to laser levels.

"At first there is insecurity on their part. Some of the women have never had their hands dirty--they've never had a job," Reyes said. "We discuss the work first and then go out and actually do it. When they're doing the work, you can see things click in their eyes as they realize, 'I did it!' "

The inmates will take a sledgehammer to the existing jail sign in about two weeks, when they are ready to stucco a new, wall-like masonry sign that curves around the street corner.

"The women were joking that we should sell tickets to destroy the old sign, and we could raise more money for the project," said Reyes, who estimates that it would have cost the county as much as $400,000 to pay professionals for the corner makeover.

The project's supervisors say some of the women have honed skills they can use in paying jobs. Those completing the class receive certificates that specify their skill level, according to Addelle Hutak, a coordinator with the Hacienda-La Puente district.

"At least 20 have gotten jobs doing masonry or landscaping. That's huge, well above our expectations," Reyes said. Pointing to inmate Mary Flint-Herrera, he added: "She could get an apprentice job tomorrow."

Well, not tomorrow. But maybe in January, when she finishes her one-year sentence for an accessory-to-burglary conviction.

"I like cement work, bricks, the hardscape," said the 28-year-old Lancaster resident, using the term professionals use to describe garden structures. "I like not feeling like there's a need to commit a crime to make money. I plan to become a mason. I definitely plan to be doing this and getting paid for it when I get out."

Rebecca Heredia, a Venice resident serving a year for a narcotics conviction parole violation, said the work she and the others have done will make the jail more pleasant for families visiting inmates. She remembers Twin Towers' entrance before.

"I was here two years ago, and this was awful-looking. It made the jail look ugly," she said. "But now it's going to look wonderful. And it's something I accomplished--something I helped create."

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