ANAMOSA, IA (CBS2/FOX28) - If you've ever been to a government building or a state university you've probably come in contact with a bench, desk or other item made by prison inmates. Their talented handiwork has come a long way from punching out license plates; a new program at the Anamosa State Penitentiary is changing offenders' lives, and at the same time, giving them hope for the future.
Nearly 1,000 Iowans eat, sleep and work behind the walls behind the Jones County Courthouse. Because of their past, they have no choice but to call the Anamosa prison home... at least for now. Many have decided to spend their time locked up, looking to a brighter future.
"Nobody is too old to learn and gain knowledge, you know?"
"It's free education, that's education is so key."
Nathan Curtis and Bobby Simmons are just two of dozens of inmates learning to better themselves with the help of a new hands-on educational program.
" I've done enough welding on the streets," said Simmons, "For instance when you're getting spatter, blow out on your torches, things like that these books expand why it's doing that and I've learned a phenomenal amount of material.
"I'm hoping it opens doors for me," said Curtis, "I don't plan on welding for the rest of my life but I hope I can use it as a stair way to get somewhere better."
Both Curtis and Simmons are about half way through their sentences; both faced more than two decades behind bars for robbery.
"I was given chances in the past but like I said, I was immature, I didn't know what to do with them, but this apprenticeship, it's actual hands on training and it's educational book work - a two part process. and given that chance and opportunity, i knew i couldn't blow it on this one," said Curtis.
"Our program focuses on helping people, our program focuses on building skill, our program focuses on our mission of no more victims," said Tim Diesburg, one of the creators of the program, "What matters is what you do from here on out."
According to the Iowa Department of Corrections it costs the state $34,168 to hold an offender for a year, regardless of how they spend that time. The Apprenticeship Program's annual budget is $128,862; it's helping to certify 200-prisoners. That breaks down to about $644 to give each of these inmates a means to be productive, both inside and outside these walls.
"That money will come back to the system," Promises Curtis, "You give me a good paying job, now I turn around and I'm a tax paying citizen."
Diesburg helped bring the program to Anamosa in 2014 and as of the end of 2015; it's now being implemented at all nine of Iowa's prisons.
"We went to the U.S. Department of Labor, showed them our program, what it was today and how we'd built it up and they approved every bit of the program so we started to develop our standards of apprenticeship," said Diesburg.
Diesburg is proud of his students, pointing out that even the database used to keep track of each prisoner's progress was designed by an inmate going through the apprenticeship program.
"What people would have in a normal atmosphere in society, we're doing this apprenticeship and being positive, productive incarcerated," said Curtis, "It's a lot better than how I used to do my time I came into prison and there wasn't anything really for me. I had a 25-year prison sentence, so there wasn't anything for me to look forward to, to want to be positive. "
The Department of Corrections offers 16 different types of apprenticeships from Welding to Electrician to Cooking. Each one has a certain number of curriculum hours paired with hands-on training.
"I'm nine books in and I have 18 for the metal fabrication," said Simmons, "They go from welding, to blue prints, to schematics to mathematics."
"If you're an employer, you're hiring a person, not hiring a history. You're hiring a person who has taken the initiative who took a tough situation and turned it into something positive." said Diesburg.
Right now, nearly 30% of inmates wind up back in prison after they've served their time. Curtis says he thinks the apprenticeship program will lower that percentage because it gives offenders not only a way to take care of themselves and their families; it gives them a sense of self-worth.
"I want to show I've changed. I want to show I'm rehabilitated and I'm able to do that with the apprenticeship plus coming away with education and certification," said Curtis, "I didn't want to be a statistic."
"I've really changed 100%, 150%... it's woke me up. It's time to start doing the right things. I've done it wrong long enough," said Simmons.
Since the program began 29 inmates have completed apprenticeships. Diesburg says that's proof that by coming together, we can all help each other succeed.
To learn more about the program or Iowa Prison Industries, click here.