CHINO, Calif. (KABC) -- It is a remarkably unusual site to see men in a distinctly military environment, operating in tandem and with precision, while also knowing they are inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
But that is what is happening at the CALPIA Dive School.
"A lot of times you're being talked to through another inmate who might be yelling at you, so those are the things that you have to overcome and that shows your growth as... rehabilitation," said Kenyatta Kalisana, the Lead Instructor at the CALPIA Dive School.
The California Prison Industry Authority dive program at the Chino State Prison is a 6 to 18 month program offering multiple certifications in commercial diving.
"I like it actually underwater better than up here. It's peaceful," says Henry Lopez, a CALPIA Dive School participant.
Each class has roughly 15 inmates who are chosen through a screening process and willing to meet the classroom component to learn dive medicine, physiology and physics. Ten hour work days Monday thru Thursday start with fitness training at 7 a.m., and a willingness to follow orders is mandatory.
The program was founded in 1970 by a former U.S. Navy Salvage Diver and the military element is still very much engrained in the program, even now under the direction of Kalisana, who left prison in 2008 after graduating the program and then had a successful career in the dive industry. He became lead instructor last year.
"What I bring to the table is a little bit of the commercial side, but I keep them with the Navy feel because that gives them the discipline and the structure to become great divers out there," said Kalisana.
As of 2020 about 50% of California inmates are reconvicted within three years of release, but with the commercial dive program, that number drops below 6%.
"All we hear are success stories about graduates that have left from the program. Whether they're diving or not diving they're all doing something that they started or learned back here at dive school at MTTC," said Jason Capitman, another dive school participant.
Hundreds of men have graduated from the program over the years having been trained in proper underwater tool handling, rigging and marine construction, welding and cutting. But the teamwork and leadership skills required in this industry might be the most valuable of all.
"I depend on them with my life," Capitman said.