By Rachel Friederich
LITTLEROCK – John Lanell Fitzpatrick never went to high school. He got involved in the ‘gangster life’ when he was just a boy. In 2009, he was convicted of robbery, unlawful imprisonment with a firearm, and attempting to elude a police vehicle.
“It was like God opening a door for me,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was like, ‘Bam!’ Now I’ve got a plan for after I get out of here. I have something that’s real. It’s not an ‘I hope, I wish, I think.’ It’s something real and tangible. I got a plan.”
His plan is to use the scholarship to attend West Coast Training technical school in Woodland after his release date in 2018. He will be enrolling in the cranes, heavy equipment and trucks program.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, heavy machinery operators are projected to see a 10 percent increase in job growth through the year 2024, and have a median pay of $21.65 per hour.
“Before, all I was interested in was easy money. Fast money,” Fitzpatrick said. “I put my homies before my family. When I came to prison, it was like a wake-up call. I knew I needed to change. It’s a different priority now. This is how I’m going to make money for my family.”
Discovering a New Career
The mikeroweWORKS Foundation is a charitable organization that gives scholarships to people seeking job training in the skilled trades. It’s headed by actor Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs, which profiles occupations most people would consider unpleasant.
According to the foundation’s website, the number of skilled trades jobs are on the rise, but there aren’t enough qualified applicants to fill them. This year, the foundation raised more than $900,000 in scholarship funds from corporations and public donations. Fitzpatrick was one of 245 people in the country to receive a scholarship.
Fitzpatrick says incarceration was one of the best things that ever happened to him because that’s where he discovered education and his desired career.
Like all inmates in Washington state correctional facilities, he was required to have a GED to participate in work programs at the prison. While taking the GED prep course, he discovered he loved learning.
“I got addicted to learning,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s so much more that I can get out of learning. Education is important because when we (inmates) learn something in here, we do better out there.”
In 2013, the nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation found inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not.
Fitzpatrick’s newfound thirst for knowledge led him to begin a college correspondence course to earn a certification in wastewater management and get training through the prison’s wastewater treatment facility. He was hoping to eventually work at a wastewater treatment facility after his release. However, Fitzpatrick found he was allergic to the latex in the gloves required for the job.
“I had to think of a new career path,” he said.
Fitzpatrick took a college readiness course at the prison through Centralia College. While taking the class, he looked over brochures for various schools and found the one for West Coast Training. When he saw the picture of the tall metal cranes in the brochure, he got excited.
“I fell in love with the skilled trades,” Fitzpatrick said. “One bad decision cost me 144 months of my life. I knew I had to change the way I do things, everything in my life had to change. Skilled trades is hands-on and I knew that hands-on experience is what I needed to move on.”
The Scholarship Application
Fitzpatrick knew coming out of prison, he would have no income, so he decided to explore the idea of scholarships. The information packet West Coast Training sent him had a flyer advertising a scholarship.
After some encouragement from Centralia College correctional education staff, he decided to apply.
The application process turned out to be long, arduous and involved several rounds of essay submissions. One of the essays required a 1,500 word count.
With each essay, Fitzpatrick looked to the prison education staff to help him edit and refine his work. Since inmates don’t have access to the internet, he had to rely on staff to submit his application materials.
“He showed incredible tenacity,” said Jacqueline Armstrong, director of correctional education for Centralia College. “It’s so satisfying to know that the community college system and my small role in that can give people a second chance to reduce recidivism, make our community safer, and help people and their families make a positive difference and change.”
About halfway through the application process he discovered the scholarship was from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and required a video application.
Per DOC policy, inmates cannot have video equipment. However, one of the facility’s employees had an agency-approved camera with video capabilities and Matthew Re, a volunteer with the prison’s Alcoholics Anonymous program, decided to help. Re, with the superintendent’s approval, shot and edited the three-minute video.
Fitzpatrick even began writing a journal to document his thoughts and actions for other inmates after his release.
Education staff submitted the video and final application documents by the application deadline, which was at the end of March. Scholarship applicants would find out if they received the scholarship in late July. August came. Still nothing.
“I still had a plan though,” ‘Fitzpatrick said. “If I didn’t get a scholarship, I could get a loan . . . because I got accepted to the school and I want to learn this trade.”
One evening near end of the month, Fitzpatrick was walking to the dining hall for dinner. He saw Erika Strong, one of the contractual program monitors, staring at him and tapping her foot. A couple of corrections officers stood nearby and Fitzpatrick thought he was in trouble.
Then she handed him a piece of paper.
“I look at it and just, ‘bam!’” Fitzpatrick recalled.
It was a letter from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation saying he’d been selected to receive a scholarship—in the amount of $12,000.
He said he was so emotional he almost started crying.
“I got a little moist-eyed, but I didn’t want to let them see it. So I headed into the chow hall and I’m sitting there and I can’t even eat.”
Fitzpatrick said the scholarship didn’t just open doors to a higher education. It also opened the door to communication with his three daughters, who are between the ages of 12 and 18.
His eldest daughter is about to graduate high school and wants to go to medical school to become a doctor. Fitzpatrick says they talk often about applying to colleges and looking for scholarships.
“I talk to my daughter more than I ever did before,” Fitzpatrick said. “It opens up a whole new world of conversations.”
As he counts down the months before his release date, he’s going to finish his journal about applying for colleges and scholarships. He hopes it might inspire other inmates that education is possible.
“When you go through something like this and you go through a whole bunch of it, it can seem like it hurts,” Fitzpatrick said. “But then it pays off and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I have the experience of going about something in the right way, instead of going out and robbing somebody or selling drugs for some quick money. Going through it the right way and have it pay off speaks volumes.”
View John Fitzpatrick’s scholarship video application on YouTube.