The Commercial Diver Network
WEEKLY WORLD NEWS
February 24, 1981
Convicts are being taken out of their barred cells and given a chance at a better life - as deep-sea divers.
And the elite few who survive the grueling 10 - month training reenter society as highly skilled underwater experts who can earn as much as $100,000 a year.
"It's a great profession and they are making far more money than they did when they were pulling stickups or bank robberies," Chief Diving Instructor Bob Schelke told The NEWS.
Schelke has spearheaded the amazing program since its beginning 10 years ago at the California Institution for Men at Chino. He proudly boasts that it has the lowest re-arrest rate of any other program in the nation.
"The average rate of re-arrests is 50 to 60 percent for second-timers in California," Schelke added. "we have a rate of only 5 percent."
Schelke said that only the "cream" of the prison crop - convicts with no more than two years remaining on the sentences - are selected for training. The average number starting the first week is about 80.
"During that first week, we put the men through the basic requirements," he explained.
"They must do 50 push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, run a mile in under nine minutes, swim 50 yards underwater and swim four laps with a 10 - pound weight.
"That's when we get our first dropouts. If we end up with 30 candidates, we're very happy."
Convicts with "attitude problems" are weeded out early.
Fighting among themselves, arguing with the staff or the slightest dalliance with drugs are grounds for dismissal.
By the end of the rigorous demanding course, only half the original 50 will "graduate."
The course begins in May with top-grade instruction in diving technique, underwater welding, carpentry, photography, pipe fitting, rigging and salvage. The men also learn about electronics, explosives safety and oil technology.
"All the graduates have job interviews before they leave prison," Schelke told The NEWS. "Every year I have more job offers than I can fill."
And once they complete the course, the ex-cons prove to be top-notch divers and highly regarded employees,
"They've never been a problem," declared Bud Mills, diving chief for Sante Fe Diving Co., in Homer, La. "The ones I've hired show a lot of initiative. They really want to do it."
Tom Conner, operations director for Oceaneering International in Morgan City, La., has even higher praise:
"The people from Chino are some of the hardest workers you'll find." he declared. "We've hired 15 and we have no qualms about hiring more."