CAMBRIDGE SPRINGS, Pa. (AP) - The orders were stacking up in front of her work station, but Ashley remained calm. With a practiced flick of her wrist, she dipped eyeglass lenses into pans of dye, watching the hue slowly darken to each customer’s specification.
The 35-year-old from Johnstown spends most of her days in this state-of-the-art optical lab, working alongside 20 other highly trained women who make all types of glasses. At night, when she’s locked up, Ashley writes letters to her five children.
“I needed to change, and this place changed me,” she said of her home for the last three years, the state women’s prison in Cambridge Springs.
Inmates at the correctional facility about 25 miles south of Erie make more than 15,000 pairs of eyeglasses a year, and a position in the optical lab is a coveted job requiring months of study. Prisoners who make the grade leave prison with the skills they need to start a promising career.
But despite calls for such programs from prison reform advocates and politicians, job training for female inmates is still treated as an afterthought, said Jill McCorkel, a Villanova University sociology professor who studies issues facing incarcerated women.
“Most women’s crimes are a function of poverty,” McCorkel said. “They have limited job skills and education, similar to men, but unlike men, there are fewer vocational and educational programs in women’s prisons.”
That’s why the program at Cambridge Springs - the only accredited prep course for opticians in Pennsylvania - stands out.
If I wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be alive....Ashley, an inmate who works in the optical lab at Cambridge Springs___While women in other correctional facilities find their job training choices limited to so-called “pink collar” jobs such as cosmetology and clerical, prisoners at Cambridge Springs can become certified opticians - a career with a median income of around $35,000 and a less than 2 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.In fact, many have jobs waiting for them when they get out.“When their resume lands on a desk, the employer says ‘wow,’” said Tony Rentz, the optical lab supervisor. “Their first question is, ‘Where did you learn all this?’”Like making Easter eggsFor Ashley, landing a position in the lab meant the chance to learn a skill that will pay far more than the waitress jobs she held before coming to prison in 2015. She’s already eyeing jobs in optical labs near her hometown.She and the other inmates in the lab make every type of eyeglasses, including sport and tinted lenses. The tinting station is Ashley’s favorite assignment. Dipping lenses into pans of dye reminds her of making Easter eggs with her children, ages 3 to 13.“My kids have seen me in some bad situations,” she said. “If I wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”Citing protocols, prison officials declined to release the last