What passes for vocational training in prison often amounts to little more than stamping license plates or sewing mail bags. But the California Institution for Men at Chino is experimenting with a unique program: teaching a handpicked group of inmates to be commercial deep-sea divers. It is a hard, dangerous occupation, but the lure is obvious—a prospect of honest work with pay scales that can soar up to six digits.
Candidates first have to pass muster with program director Robert Schelke, 35, a tough ex-Navy frogman. “Not everyone can be a diver,” he tells them bluntly. “There’s a macho feeling to it. This course offers glamor, a different world and, more than anything, adventure.”
Age 30 is the normal cutoff (35 tops). Schelke and his partner, Chuck Weaver, 39, require all applicants before they can qualify to do 50 pushups, sit-ups and deep knee bends, swim a quarter mile in less than 10 minutes and tread water for five (with both hands above the surface during the final minute). Of some 75 applicants for each class, two-thirds fail the physical test alone.
Those who remain undergo 1,600 hours of training over 10 months in such exotic subjects as offshore oil field technology and underwater photography. “We push them to the breaking point,” Schelke says. “I know they can jump up and punch one of us. But if they do, they blow it.” It doesn’t happen often. His students are all too aware that, after parole, they can readily find jobs in the Louisiana Gulf and North Sea oil fields—building rigs, repairing valves, inspecting pipelines.
Schelke, who started diving as a Boy Scout in Bad Axe, Mich., served in Vietnam and worked as a commercial diver before he was invited in 1970 to help establish the divers’ school in an unused prison cannery. Start-up costs were low, Schelke explains, because “the whole facility was put together by the inmates.” But even
on a stringent budget, the program costs California taxpayers $2,100 per student. Schelke argues that his well-paid alums (starting at almost $18,000 a year) more than return that amount to society in income taxes over the years. And while the recidivism rate in the general prison population is close to 60 percent, only six percent of Chino-trained divers wind up behind bars again.
Some successful graduates do return—but only to visit and inspire others. Schelke’s star pupil is Solo Tavai, who served three years for assault and is now a $100,000-a-year diver in Louisiana. Another success is Mark Sechrest, who served time for armed robbery. “Without this course,” he says, “I would have gone back to the only thing I knew—crime.”
Schelke’s prison duties are so demanding that he has little energy left for family life. “But I don’t think I’d be happy anyplace else,” he insists. “Guys come in here who have been in institutions since they were 10 and have nothing going for them. The best part of this job is seeing a guy like that turn his life around.”