Michael Okwu: This is not the kind of place you’d expect to find hope. Chino State prison, 40 miles east of Los Angeles is a place of guard towers and barbed wires. Rules and regimentation, where most of the nearly 6,000 inmates served one monotonous day of hard time after another. Their lives and ambitions on hold, until their sentences end. Then there are these guys. A hard charging close-knit band of inmates who’ve signed up for one of the most unusual and toughest prison rehabilitation programs in the world.
One that turns convicted felons into elite, commercial divers.
Fred Johnson: It is a diving school but basically what it is…it’s a business that salvages lives.
Michael Okwu: Fred Johnson is the no-nonsense director of Chino Prison’s Marine Technology Training Center.
Fred Johnson: I tell them right up front, you don’t deserve respect. You’re a prisoner. What’s respectful about that? You stay here, and we can teach you to be men and you’ll get our respect. You have to earn it, we don’t give it away.
Michael Okwu: The inmates who enroll in this program – from convicted bank robbers to drug dealers – hope the skills they learn here will give them a clean start. John Fernandez is serving a four-year sentence for felony firearm possession.
John Fernandez: For me, personally, this is like a life-changing experience. You have to want to change. You have to want to be different. A lot of the guys back here, they don’t seem to want that.
Michael Okwu: But first they have to survive the grueling 18-month long training program. That means burning off pounds and sweating gallons. Hitting the books, and mastering subjects from physics to physiology. Getting hands dirty welding and learning construction techniques. And of course, there’s clocking hundreds of hours in the water, where inmates master everything from swimming fundamentals to far more technical forms of diving. It’s all as tough as it looks. 8 out of 10 prisoners who start the dive program don’t make it to graduation.
Peter Kelly: This program is a challenge. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s not like the regular carpentry, the regular welding. You’re going to be pushed to the ultimate test 24 hours a day.
Michael Okwu: Peter Kelly is serving 5 years for bank robbery.
Peter Kelly: This was not given to us on a silver platter.
Michael Okwu: So you’re learning more than just diving.
Peter Kelly: Oh my god, yes. You learning who you are.
Michael Okwu: Inmates who graduate from the program and serve their sentences are hoping for adventurous jobs with six-figure paychecks in commercial diving. One of the students with the highest hopes for this program is also the youngest – 18-year-old Josh Roberts.
Josh Roberts: I’m just tired of being angry at everybody. Tired of all the drugs and all the stuff I was doing. I’m ready to move on.
Michael Okwu: With his dad also in prison, his mom also battling drug addiction, Josh’s hard luck life started early. He recently transferred from the California Youth Authority and is serving a 6-year sentence on assault charges.
Josh Roberts: I just hope this takes me to a better place than when I first got locked up. I just want a normal life.
Michael Okwu: But first, Josh will have to learn to swim. Really swim.
Josh Roberts: When I swam my first mile, I never expected it to be that hard. It was exhausting. I was tired. When I got out of the pool, I threw up a couple of times. Getting to the bottom of the pool and doing a project. It looked easy at first but then when you’re down there doing it, it’s really not.
Jeff Powers: He knows what he needs to do. He knows that we’re going to get him through training. But if he quits tomorrow, then that’s a break, you know. Divers, double time.
Michael Okwu: In a prison system where real and lasting rehabilitation is rare, the Chino divers know they’re lucky to get this chance especially Michael Console, who has been in and out of California prisons for over 20 years.
Michael Console: Nobody gives you any assistance. There’s no help, there’s no programs. They throw you out of the gate, and that’s as far as you go. Somebody is giving me an opportunity to take it and run with it, and change my life. I will probably have another opportunity. I can’t afford to go to college or anything like that. I’m going to take this opportunity and do the best I can and hopefully never see this place again.
Michael Okwu: It’s easy for these men to forget where they are when they are training. But that all ends at the end of the day when the gate is open and they rejoin their fellow inmates.
Thousands of inmates are housed in Chino Prison, just 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Just beyond the barbed wire fences, guard tours, and orange jumpsuits, there's a small group of inmates enrolled in one of the toughest prison rehabilitation programs in the world.
Some inmates are convicted bank robbers and drug dealers hoping for a second chance at life through the prison's 18-month long training program. That's where the Marine Technology Training Center comes into play. The rigorous program trains felons in deep-water diving.
Through the program, inmates are able to learn technical forms of diving, swimming, and other skills. But it's not all fun and games -- 8 out of 10 divers don't make it through graduation.
Since 2011, 90 men have been accepted to the diving program and 45 have graduated, as KCET's Lata Pandya reveals.
Fred Johnson is the director of Chino Prison's Marine Technology Training Center. In 2011, Johnson gave "SoCal Connected" a sneak peek of the facility, which trains inmates to become more than just expert divers.
"They haven't had a sense of value, and I think that's the primary thing we give these guys," says Johnson. "We give them a sense of value and self-worth and a belief that they can achieve anything. The diving is secondary."
Featuring Interviews With:
- Fred Johnson, training director
- John Fernandez, inmate
- Peter Kelly, inmate
- Josh Roberts, inmate
- Michael Console, inmate