From Incarcerated to In-Charge, Meet Jason Miles, C’92
This month we met with KCKCC/AVTS Alumnus Jason Miles, C’92. Jason is the Director of Welding for Zephyr Products Incorporated. He started with Zephyr, while he was in prison. He is now in charge of their welding program, a certified welding instructor, and helping those who started down his same path to turn their lives around.
What led you to attend KCKCC?
In 1991 I was incarcerated at the Lansing Correctional Facility and part of my requirement at the prison was that I learn a trade. Some of the other inmates I became friends with were already in KCKCC’s welding school. At that time, it was called AVTS, Area Vocational Technical School. That is what led me to be in that spot at that time.
How long were you incarcerated?
I was in for 5 years, 7 months, and 11 days, not that I was counting or anything (he says smiling).
How would you say the Lansing Correctional program with KCKCC has impacted your life?
Oh wow, I would say it was huge. I couldn’t have done anything without it. The company I work for now (Zephyr Products Inc.) employ people who are still in prison. They have a work release program, where prisoners go to their building during the day and work. The incarcerated employees run metal manufacturing, welding, break presses, lasers, shipping, and grinding- basically any of the jobs available. After the work day, they go back to the prison.
While I was still in prison and after I had gotten out of the welding school, I went to work for Zephyr and I worked for them for almost two years. When I got out of prison, Zephyr helped me get a job in Olathe, Kansas working for Webco Manufacturing. I went to work there for two years and then Zephyr came back and offered me a job as a supervisor. This was April of 1998; I went back as a civilian supervisor and today I am the welding manager. I also get to interview and hire all the inmates coming from Lansing Correctional Facility. In 2001, I took my Certified Welding Instructor test through the American Welding Society. I passed and am now a certified welding instructor with the AWS.
For me, the training provided by KCKCC is the foundation of everything I have today. All of it is tied to that decision to go into the welding school. It just goes to show you how life is. You never know what direction things are going to take you or where you are going to go. The kind of decisions you make can put you on a great trajectory toward success.
Did you have a favorite instructor during your program that helped inspire you?
Ray Price was one instructor I remember. He was great!
What advice would you give current students going into the welding program?
I had these mantras that I would say to myself when I was trying to learn how to weld. If I would get frustrated and struggle, I would say to myself, “if this was easy, everybody would do it.” Then I would run another pass or run another weld bead. I would say things like, “If this is a skill worth having, it is going to be difficult to obtain.” I had these mantras that I would tell myself to help me stay focused, because it is easy to get frustrated and quit. These mantras helped me push through the difficult times.
In your role now as a supervisor, you see other inmates come into the same path you were on. What is that like for you since you have been in their shoes?
In a sense it is kind of funny and I think it is kind of cool too. When the inmates first meet me, they don’t know my background. I really love to be around when they have their “ah-ha” moment. They will say things like, “you just don’t understand because this has gone on or that’s gone on” and then I think, “oh I don’t understand huh?” Then we start having a conversation about it, because I really do understand. I know what it is like. I know what they are trying to do. Then I tell them how it all worked out for me.
Now KCKCC is back in the facility with the welding program. It just started back up in August of 2021. I had an opportunity to talk with the students from KCKCC and told them my story. I told them that the welding jobs out on the street don’t care that you have been in prison or what you have done in the past. They care if you know what you are doing and if you are going to show up for work every day on time. I tell them this is a great opportunity and a great field to get into. People pay great money for welding. To me, I envision it as a huge tent, and it’s got room for a lot of people.
Why do you feel schools like KCKCC and programs like the one you are affiliated with through the prison system are important?
I am fired up and passionate about educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated, whether it is traditional education or hands on technical education. Obviously, I am biased toward the hands-on technical education, because I see the enormous opportunity there.
I would describe programs in prisons, like KCKCC’s, as a win-win-win. It’s a win for the person who is incarcerated. A lot of times these are individuals who have fallen through the cracks of society. They may have come from a broken home, in the system through foster care, or in the system as far as juvenile jail or prison. To me, when you talk about second chances, this is a huge second chance. This is where the community is making an investment in an individual to help them better their life.
I had an opportunity to talk with Governor Kelly recently. I explained to her the money that the taxpayers spent to send me to the KCKCC trade school is now being paid back through my taxes. Without the welding program, I would have still found a job, but not one that paid me this much money. I wouldn’t have been paying as much in taxes either. So, I look at it as a win-win-win. A win for the person incarcerated in the program, a win for the system, and a win for the taxpayers.
What do you hope for the future of the KCKCC Welding Program and the partnership at Lansing Correctional Facility?
Oh I have a lot of ideas! My vision is that when someone comes into the correctional facility, they are given opportunities to put together a vision for themselves. See the problem is, you cannot give someone a vision. You can lay tools at their feet, but they have to pick them up. When they come in, I want them to hear stories, not only mine about welding, but all different kinds. Not even just stories about trades. They need to hear other stories about inmates learning through books, becoming technologically literate – anything. I want to share with them stories about people who came through the system, where they came from, what happened to them, and where they are now. When inmates hear these stories as they come into the system, they will think, “Wow, I can do that.”
Once they pick that vision up, we can lay out the path for them to connect the dots with that vision. My preference would be they relate to trade school and hands on learning, because that’s what is in great demand in the real world. My vision is that we provide them with education, help them through any mental health and substance abuse issues, and provide them with a “real world job” while they are still incarcerated. When they get out we are able to place them in jobs in the community, and they have all this experience and a great resume. I also envision having mentors for the students before they leave the prison, who will help them to be successful as they transition out of prison. Everything working seamlessly through the system. That’s my vision.
What other organizations are you involved with in the prison system?
I have been out of prison for 25 years and the funny thing is since I got out of prison, I have been trying to get back in as a volunteer. I volunteer for “Reaching Out from Within,” a prison led, volunteer, self-help organization. We have a curriculum with units, like anger, substance abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, bullying, setting goals, all these different things. The information is presented in the Socratic method, so we provide data and asks thought provoking questions. We all sit in a circle, go around and answer the questions, and talk about things.
I got involved with them while I was incarcerated, and when I got out I stayed involved. Eventually I got on the Board and became the Treasurer, then the President for three years. I was volunteering for Lansing at the medium security prison when I started, then we created a group at the federal prison and most recently at the women’s prison in Topeka.
I can relate to wanting something different in life and wanting to change and be a different person. It has been fun volunteering; I like being needed and going where I am needed. If there is somebody that needs help and there is work to do, you can sign me up.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Attending KCKCC was a pivotal moment, a defining moment for me. I would describe what Kansas City Kansas Community did for me as laying a foundation. It laid a foundation for me to get the job that I’ve got and the pay that I’ve got. Before, I didn’t have any of those things. I knew nothing about welding prior to getting involved with KCKCC. Like I said, it was a vision that the school allowed me to be able to create down the road with those skills. I would not have had that without KCKCC.
Learn more about KCKCC’s Welding Program at Lansing Correction Facility here.
Learn more about Reaching Out From Within here.
If you want to help more students, like Jason, turn their lives around, please consider a gift to the scholarship fund!