Rebuilding life: Walton County inmates graduate from heavy machinery operator's program

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Five inmates at the Walton County Jail soon will re-enter society with a skill set they didn't have previously. 

Each inmate now knows how to safely operate heavy-duty vehicles designed for construction tasks. The Walton County Sheriff’s Office held a ceremony for graduates of the heavy machinery operator's course on Tuesday, April 13.

The group is notably the first class of graduates since the vocational programs were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More:Local jails working to remain coronavirus free

The course instructor, Mark Simmons, congratulated the inmates and presented them with certificates Tuesday.

“I’m very proud of everyone up here. I believe everyone of you can have an opportunity to get a job and make yourself better. That’s my dream for you all,” Simmons said. 

Heavy machinery instructor Mark Simmons and inmates James King, Julian Mesure, Travis Beaver, Justin Schoonover and Brandon Johnson pose for a photo. The inmates graduated from the Walton County Jail's heavy machinery operator's course Tuesday, April 13.

The six-week course, now in its fifth year, was created to help meet a high demand for workers in the field and give inmates an opportunity to change their lives, said Cory Godwin, director of jail operations. 

Contractors such as C.W. Roberts Contracting regularly recruit former inmates who have completed the program to work on infrastructure projects. 

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“Of every program that we do, I think that one has the highest employability because we literally have potential employers show up for graduation,” Godwin said. “That’s not new. That’s something that has been happening for the past several years.”

Julian Mesure, one of the graduating inmates, said the program taught him several valuable skills. Inmates learned how to operate equipment safely and do anything from digging holes to laying the foundation for a house. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity that they’re offering for inmates here," Mesure said. "We’ve been through a lot of different exercises and materials so it feels kind of good to be able to take that and move that on to something that will be more productive.”

More:Walton County prison reports over 300 inmates tested positive for COVID-19

"Not only are they learning how to use this equipment, but we’ve got the right guy doing it because they’re learning a lot about life out there, too," Godwin said. 

Several graduating inmates took a few minutes to thank the staff at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office for the opportunity. Although the program is not 100% successful, Godwin said he hopes the latest graduates make changes for the better. 

Five Walton County inmates graduated from the jail's heavy machinery operator course Tuesday.

"It's been an awesome opportunity. What I've learned I will take and use to get a job and better my life," graduate James King said. 

The program struck a personal chord with Mesure, who said he grew up in New York and was fascinated by heavy-duty vehicles as a young child. 

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“I was 3 years old. Everywhere we went there was construction all over the streets, and I was obsessed with the backhoe,” he said. 

Mesure said his 3-year-old self would be “smiling, beaming and just radiating positivity” if he knew that he someday would be able to operate a backhoe.

Learning to do so in prison was not in his plans, but Mesure said he still feels a sense of accomplishment. 

“I’m not always proud of all the decisions I’ve made,” he said. “I’ve messed up a few times in my life, but I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish here.”

Mesure has been incarcerated for more than a year for committing a financial crime, but soon will have a new lease on life. He is set to be released from jail in less than three weeks and plans to visit his family after he gets out. 

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The heavy machinery operator's course is one of many vocational programs offered to inmates at the Walton County Jail. Godwin said jail officials plan to combine the course with a Commercial Driver’s License program in the near future to further increase employment opportunities. 

A steady income helps ease many problems former inmates sometimes encounter upon release, Godwin said. It can help them secure housing, meet court-ordered financial obligations and even give them a higher sense of self-esteem. 

“We have three missions here," Godwin said. "One is obviously to protect the public. The next is to control the environment so that it’s safe for our staff and our inmates, and the last one is that we have an obligation to build better people. So we embrace that here in Walton County.”