Having spent weeks learning to manipulate metal through the application of extreme heat, 10 inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison graduated from the prison’s introductory welding program on Wednesday night in an emotional ceremony that suggested something else had been forged in the workshop.

“I know I can succeed because I’ve seen the success. I've seen success on the faces of the other inmates in the program” Erin Gravelin, an inmate and program graduate, said during the ceremony. “I can show you the success in my weld.”

The course began in late October and involved multiple four-hour lessons a week, many taught by Great Falls College Montana State University instructor Bob Baker. Inmates learned a variety of welding techniques, including oxy-fuel cutting, gas metal arc welding, flux core arc welding and shielded metal arc welding.

The pilot program was a collaborative effort between Montana State University Billings City College, Great Falls College Montana State University, the U.S. Department of Labor and Industry, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Montana Correctional Enterprises, Billings Adult Education and the Montana Women's prison.

At the program’s conclusion, welds were examined and all samples presented by inmates passed inspection according to industry standards, Baker said.

"They just put their helmets down and went after it,” he said. “They were a great class, they really were. They really wanted it.”

One of his students, Misty Cockrill, said that the ability to go out into the workshop trailer and focus all her thoughts on welding allowed her to forget her status as an inmate and feel a sense of freedom.

“You feel like you’re actually doing something good for yourself,” she said.

Cockrill said the physical labor brought back positive memories of her youth growing up on a farm and said she hopes to continue her education in welding through a pre-release program. 

For Gravelin's part, she said she never saw herself learning to weld before the class and ultimately went into it thinking she could use it to make jewelry. She said she's now less interested in jewelry and more interested in learning more about the craft. 

"A person's weld is like their signature, it says a lot," she said.

Both she and Cockrill said they hoped the class would be offered for other inmates in the future because of the personal growth and feelings of self-confidence they experienced through the class.

As Gravelin described it, welding is a complex process that requires lots of information processing and problem solving. "You definitely have to be able to see as a whole," she said. 

As he stood up to deliver a speech to the graduates, Baker began to tear up. "We made it," he said. "I was hoping I could get up here and not get emotional...I wouldn't trade it for anything, seriously." 

Baker told the audience — made up mostly of inmates — that he believed the key to the class's success was the women's ability to feel good about themselves. "They had to start feeling good about themselves. All the books, the things we gave you, weren't going to work unless you began to believe in yourselves. That was the greatest thing I saw," he said. 

"Now when you get out, you can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say 'There's one amazing woman right there.'" 

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General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.