MILTON — Dec. 20 was graduation day at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution.

Diplomas were awarded to GED graduates and certificates for inmate teaching assistants, law clerks and 45 inmates earned Commercial Drivers License certificates.

The CDL program has been so successful that Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections Mark S. Inch and his staff made the trip to attend the ceremony.

Inch accepted the position in January 2019. Working with Gov. Ron DeSantis, he has been able to get funding to start vocational programs like the CDL certifications.

Although SRCI has the only CDL program in the state, he plans to expand the program to other facilities.

“If you have good programs like this one you have better safety because the inmate is using their time productively,” Inch said. “The better we can train them the better for the community.”

Inch said creating an environment for higher education and having programs that produce licenses and certifications lowers the recidivism rate.

He not only wants to expand the CDL program he wants to add more vocation programs in the welding and electrician fields.

“The program is so popular there is a waiting list for the class,” said Brenda Powell-Roehrig, a vocational instructor.

There is a shortage of CDL-qualified drivers across the country.

Roehrig has 22 years experience driving big rigs. She still has her CDL credentials and sometimes accompanies her husband on his trips as a CDL driver.

Inmates interested in the CDL program must have a Florida drivers license without restrictions. Then officials check their classification and their behavior record.

Inmates in other facilities can request a Good Adjustment Transfer to come to SRCI and participate in the program. That is how inmate Roy Andrews got in the program. Andrews said he had have “one year clean” while in prison waiting for approval.

The CDL program is a minimum of 150 hours of instruction, 20 hours of academic work, 20 hours of hands-on training behind the wheel and simulator training for 3 hours a day for two weeks.

If an inmate fails a section or gets behind they can retake the failed portions of the program.

Upon graduation inmates receive typed cover letters and resumes from DOC employment specialist to submit to companies once released.

Roehrig has developed working relationship with local trucking companies. The Truck Driving Institute in Pensacola for practical testing and Waste Pro Management, who offers jobs.

An inmate can qualify for a Class A, or B CDL license, which regulates the weight of the vehicle they can drive.

Even with the certification the inmate will have to take a four-hour knowledge test and a pre-trip inspection of the vehicle they will drive for the road skills test. All this testing can cost $200 or more. The instruction the inmate receives while incarcerated can cost a private citizen $1,200.

Edward Jernigan has spent 10 years in prison and received his certification. He has 15 weeks to go in his sentence.

Jernigan said he realized that he should use his time in a more productive manner. His advice to new inmates is to make the best use of their time in a positive way to set themselves up for when they get out.