Inmates make eyeglasses, gain clarity in Chowchilla

Inmates at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla make eyeglasses for children and elderly who are Medi-Cal recipients. The program is competitive and many inmates leave with certification to begin a career as an optical technician.

Deshawne Thornton carries a stack of trays as he walks between shelves in an optical lab Tuesday.

He's pulling sleeves with lenses inside, fulfilling eyeglass orders.

"It starts off like this," he says, pulling out a lens. "We send it to the machines. Whatever the shape of the frame, they cut it."

The lenses will be transformed -- much like Thornton.

"I committed second degree robbery. I was addicted to crystal meth. I was homeless and my actions led me here," he says.

Thornton is serving a seven-year sentence at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla.

But rather than spending the time on the yard, he's in the lab.

Valley State Prison is one of two state prisons with optical labs, where inmates produce glasses for children and the elderly who are Medi-Cal recipients.

Inmates in Chowchilla produce almost 550 pairs of glasses a day.

Last year, they produced more than 345,000.

"The typical reaction is, 'Are they made correctly? How's the quality?'" says Rick Vogelsang, Enterprise Manager for California Prison Industry Authority, the agency that runs the lab. "We're not here for profit. We're here to provide a curriculum so our offenders can learn a trade."

Optical is considered among the more competitive programs at the prison.

There's a waiting list of about 300 inmates to set foot in the building.

"When I was told I was getting the job, I didn't believe it. You're always told people who get these jobs are through connections," says Scott Wheeler of Fresno, who says he waited four years to be selected for the optical program.

He says a meth addiction led him to steal, and landed him in prison five years ago.

"You don't want to mess up," he says. "I tell a lot of my friends I'm in a better place now than I've ever been in my life. It gives me a good, stable program."

The optical lab in Chowchilla employs 120 inmates.

The goal is to save taxpayers' money by keeping offenders from returning to prison.

The recidivism rate at Valley State Prison is 46 percent.

Around 12 percent of inmates who work in the lab land back in custody.

Supervisors say it's up to the inmates to do what they want with the skills -- and certification-- they gain while in custody.

Certified opticians are in demand.

"If they go out there with the skills we give them, it's because they don't want a job because we've trained them very well," says Jose Chavez, an Industrial Supervisor who has worked at the lab for 32 years.

Thornton says he hopes to make a career out the experience he's gained.

But he says the clarity he's gained is just as powerful.

"It made me see I'm worth something. I don't have to live like that any more. I'm used to waking up and working a 40 hour week. Once I'm released, I want to continue to do that," Thornton said.

He has five more years on his sentence-- and a son at home.

He wants to be a positive male influence.

"When I have a child's glasses in my hand and I'm pulling the frames, it feels good," Thornton says. "I think about my son a lot. He's a big part of my motivation to get my life together."

California Prison Industry Authority is in the process of starting an optical program at the Central California Women's Facility nearby.

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