Con Diver Program Still Going Strong

Divers preparing for lessons. | Photo: KCET/Socal Connected
Divers preparing for lessons. | Photo: KCET/Socal Connected

This story was published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Learning to deep sea dive doesn't seem like something you would be able to do in prison. Yet, if you are one of the lucky few selected into the diving program at Chino State Prison, that pipe dream can be a reality.

In 2011, "SoCal Connected" visited with Fred Johnson, Director of Chino Prison's Marine Technology Training Center, and his diving students. From their morning training drills to underwater diving instruction we got a day-in-the-life view of what it takes to earn a commercial diving certification.

Three years later, Johnson and the diving school are still going strong, averaging about 17 students per 18-month class cycle. Since 2011, 90 men have been accepted to the program and 45 have graduated, some who stay on as teaching aides.

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"They can't put their head on a desk," says Johnson, when talking about the physical endurance and mental toughness it takes to be a part of this program. Many drop out after the first day because of the grueling nature of training, which includes being able to non-stop swim five miles. For many participants that accomplishment is life changing.

"That's the day they find out they are winners not losers," says Johnson.

The realization of being able to swim and not sink coupled with a certification in a specialized industry are the main reasons behind the program's high success rate. The program touts a 7.1 percent recidivism rate, better than the corrections-wide 61 percent recidivism rate.

The Marine Technology Training Center is part of the larger California Prison Industry Authority. The immense organization serves approximately 7,000 inmates a year. Through the Authority there are certifications available in many industries like welding, baking, and even optometry. Its funding comes from the goods and services produced by inmates in the Authority.

Not all the inmates that participate in the program go on to be deep sea divers; in fact, only 10 percent go on to pursuing a diving career. Many others go on to be welders or work in construction. But just because they aren't going into diving doesn't mean they aren't employing what they learned in the program.

"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."

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