As part of an unprecedented program at San Quentin prison, inmates have teamed up with NASA Ames to build "P-PODs," or orbital deployers to send up into space. Suzanne Shaw reports.
Tucked deep back in the tightly guarded machine shop of California’s oldest prison, well away from the muscle flexing inmates in “the yard," a select group of convicted felons has their eyes on space. They fabricate metal housing for miniature satellites designed to explore the heavens. That’s right. San Quentin inmates serving time for horrible crimes are given easy access to some of the sharpest metal humans can make.
They are, most likely, the only prisoners on Earth helping to develop products for space exploration.
Ariel Wainzinger, a man with ten months left on his sentence, said: “You come to prison and you think it’s gonna be all gloom and doom and you find yourself with a lot of different opportunities and you take advantage of it.”
Working under the strict guidance of NASA, Ariel and a handful of other skilled inmate machinists are making something most people have never heard of: P-PODs, Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers, essentially, aluminum boxes designed to hold tiny satellites known as CubeSats, which ride “piggyback” into space as secondary payloads. The devices are part of a new generation of low-cost, miniature launch vehicles developed for research used by more than 150 universities worldwide.
The inmates involved in this unique NASA-San Quentin partnership seem to break most of the stereotypes society has about men behind bars. Not only do they study chemistry, calculus, and trigonometry, they look forward to their work every day. Never mind that their wages are limited to between 35 and 85 cents an hour. There’s a waiting list for this prison job.
Out of a general population of more than 3,800 prisoners, machine shop instructor Richard Saenz has accepted just 27 men in his vocational education program; only five on the highly technical NASA project. A veteran government contractor on such aerospace projects as the space shuttle and the ICBM missile, Saenz is a stickler for precision. And he calls this job, training inmates to become skilled machinists, the best he has ever had.
“They have to be better than the average guy”, Saenz said in describing the felons under his watch. “It’s all about education, making them job worthy.”
Inmates punch a time clock and learn work ethics. No attitude, no discrimination allowed. Saenz knows how hard it is to convince employers to hire an ex-felon. He’s been at it for 12 years and when not working one-on-one with students in the prison shop, he’s on the phone recruiting companies to sponsor the program, donate machines, and hire the men who are eventually released.
When challenged by critics who complain inmates don’t deserve this kind of privilege, one felon, asking to remain anonymous, replied, “I understand where they’re coming from but… I’m a human too and I think I have a second chance of deserving to go get a job as well… I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life. Everybody makes mistakes but I think the difference is I’ve been able to learn from my mistakes, realize where I went wrong in the first place and change myself in a way through positive acts… to become marketable as a citizen in society.”
Except for one “lifer,” all of the inmates working in the NASA directed P-POD production unit will eventually be released. Supporters of the partnership, including NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden, share the perspective that inmates have a much better chance of succeeding in the outside world if, while incarcerated, they learn skills that will help them transition to an honest living upon their release.
Wainzinger has earned two NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) certificates during his time at San Quentin, which he proudly describes as the gold standard for the industry.
He argues that inmates “must be given a chance to reintegrate themselves into society” and for that, they need to develop skill sets. “It’s places like this that keep the recidivism rate down”, he says, “and without them, I don’t know how much worse off we’d be.”