Deer Ridge inmates weld bridge to brighter future

Madras prison's art welding program boasts high success rate

Inmate artwork offers break from troubled past

MADRAS, Ore. - With each cut, each spark and each hammer, there's a group of state prison inmates creating more than masterpieces -- they're reshaping their lives.

"It's a lifeline for me," Deer Ridge Correctional Facility inmate Shei Perez said Wednesday. "I didn't have any kind of work experience out on the streets. I've always been on the wrong side of the tracks."

That wrong side of the tracks landed Perez in prison for the third time.

He's at Deer Ridge for violent crimes he committed as a drug dealer.

But now, Perez deals good advice.

He's completed a free welding program offered through the prison and Central Oregon Community College. He now tutors other welding students while waiting for his freedom -- just six months away.

The program consists of 19 college classes, including math and writing, that lead to a one-year certificate of completion from COCC.

Only 10 inmates are selected every nine months for the welding program at the facility. And for most of the guys in the program, it will be their last time behind bars.

A total of "96  percent of the people who have gone through the program and been released are out working," said Deer Ridge Welding Technologies Coordinator Tucker Bauman.

The classes come with opportunities for industry-applicable work -- some with more than a bit of irony.

"We built the security fence for the city of Madras," Bauman said.

But practicality can't beat creativity -- an escape from reality.

"I'm definitely not the same person I was three years ago," said an inmate painting a metal piece of artwork. "With doing the artwork and painting, it's another way to express myself."

Artwork this good isn't stuck behind bars, either. Several pieces now hang for display and sale throughout the Redmond Library.

Library officials said its the most popular exhibit they've ever had.

And the stickers don't lie: Sold, sold and sold -- it's hard to find a piece somebody hasn't already bought.

"It looks like the high-end graffiti, almost -- the real artistic, the real delicate touch," Redmond resident Justin Menning said as he examined the art.

The work inspires visitors who pass by -- and those so close to achieving more than they ever dreamed.

"I want to have that white picket fence," Perez said.  "I want to have the family. I want to work a job -- not 9 to 5, I want to work 12 to 16 hours a day," he added with a laugh.

Part of the proceeds from the art sale will benefit Friends of the Redmond Library. The inmates also work on projects for the city, community and local schools.

The prison's welding program is paid for by the state, as well as grants.

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