One Man Created a Welding Program in a California Prison

Life dealt Michael Monsivais a tough hand. As a youth from an underprivileged and abusive household, he dealt drugs and committed other small crimes to get by. Entangled in gang life, Monsivais bounced in and out of the California correctional system until he realized that he would have to make a change or see the rest of his life trail down the same path. So, he did.

Mike Monsivais, photo provided

Mike Monsivais, photo provided

Monsivais enrolled in local trade schools where he learned the skills necessary for his current career as a unionized underwater welder. That was before the recession hit in 2008. He lost his job and resorted to dealing methamphetamine again to support himself and his family. Two years later, an FBI sting operation involving a former partner led him to Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, a federal men’s prison in California.  over 10 years.

In prison, Monsivais was interviewed about what kind of educational programs he wanted to enroll in.

“I already knew what [programs] they had — they were kind of worthless” he says. So Monsivais told them,  “this is what I do. I’m a welder. I’m a diver.”

He explained to them that it would be more meaningful to bring a trade into the institution so people could eventually join a union and not have to worry about their past haunting them.

“[Trade unions] generally don’t care about anyone’s past,”Monsivais says. “They just ask that you’re willing to work hard and show up on time”.

By May 2012, Monsivais, Lompoc Correctional and his union had plans to bring an accredited vocational welding program into the prison. After three years, the plan finally made it up the chain and was approved in Washington.

Monsivais created the program’s curriculum, material list, budget and entire welding facility with the help of a couple other motivated inmates. Monsivais adds that other programs currently exist and can be developed in prisons across the nation, and he encourages joining a trade union or facility work program to build skills to fall back on when you get home—even if they’re not accredited or union-supported.

Today, Monsivais is less than a year on the outside, and he is still working to get back on his feet. We talked while he was driving home from an underwater welding job he is currently working on. He remains in good standing with his union and committed to his trade, and Monsivais is building other meaningful connections in high places as well.

He recently attended two first-of-their-kind prison reform panels in California where former inmates, advocates and celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Meek Mill and Scott Budnik spoke on the corruption of the American prison system and campaigned for potential changes.

As part of his continuing advocacy, Monsivais has plans for another educational program. This time, on the outside with CTM Welding in Anaheim, California. He wants to mentor youth and help keep them from going down the wrong path. The program is also for people coming home from prison, he notes.

“I got my eye on the prize and I’m not going to stop until I accomplish it,” Monsivais says.

IAN LEBLANCPrison Reform