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Tony McGuire

Walla Wallan Tony McGuire is behind a basic carpentry skills class offered to inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary through Walla Walla Community College.

Students in his Construction Trades Apprenticeship Preparation course repurposed wood into furniture from century-old barns at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds that were razed because they were so run down. 

The fair office is sitting pretty these days with desks, credenzas, a reception counter and conference table the inmates assembled under Tony’s tutelage. An Etcetera column item on Aug. 30 incorrectly indicated the work and course are through the penitentiary’s Sustainable Practices Lab.

Tony’s one-year certification course goes well beyond how to run a saw and swing a hammer. 

Tony has incorporated education about Adverse Childhood Experiences, which have a tremendous impact on future violence, victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente ACE study.

Jane Stevens with the acesconnection.com staff in March wrote about Tony’s holistic teaching approach at the penitentiary with his WWCC inmate students at ubne.ws/2jZ5v63.

She said every single day he speaks to inmates about ACEs, trauma and resilience so they can learn to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted workers. 

“Note: Becoming a healthy, happy, well-adjusted employee is way harder than basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning,” Jane noted.

Four times per year he teaches the 14-week course to about a dozen to 16 medium-security inmates as if they’re working on a job site.

They’re divided into four teams who build four 8-foot by 8-foot houses while learning professionalism and how to install a plumbing system.

During the process the inmates learn how to understand, overcome and cope with their lifelong reactions of frustration, anger and other challenging behaviors as they build every element in those little structures.

“But it’s damn hard work. It’s stressful to figure things out. It’s frustrating if you do something wrong and have to do it all over again. It’s aggravating to work with someone who’s slower than you. It’s infuriating to work alongside someone who’s faster than you and always showing you up. And because the inmates all have ACEs and live in prison, often, at the beginning of the course, their tolerance for emotional stress lasts for no more than a couple of whacks of a hammer. They throw down their tools and start cussing,” Jane wrote.

“To get their attention — and a dose of what will happen to them in the outside world if they lose it — McGuire says (never yells), ‘You’re fired.’”

“When these guys are living so close to the breaking point all the time, they are functioning in survival mode,” he told her. 

“He’s teaching them to ‘problem-solve and do work confidently in a way that makes them employable.’” 

Teaching his students about ACEs goes deep. From a small library he assembled his students are coming to know the impact of ACES on their lives. Books such as “Emotional Intelligence,” by Daniel Goleman; “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline” and “Managing Emotional Mayhem: The Five Steps for Self-Regulation” by Becky Bailey; “Driven to Distraction,” by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey; and “The Body Keeps the Score,” by Bessel van der Kolk.

Tony grew up in Walla Walla and spent 16 years as a contractor before joining the WWCC faculty. 

After he learned about ACEs science, he incorporated it into his course. In five years time 236 people have completed his course. About 110 of those who participated in the course since 2016 have learned about ACEs science, Jane reported. 

Still to come is gathering data on how participating in the course is affecting recidivism, she said.

In 16 months, Tony made 40 presentations about ACES science, she said, including for community college students, members of the state board of community technical colleges and directors of all the housing authorities in Washington state. 

Find out more about his story by Jane and its impact on inmates at ubne.ws/2jZ5v63.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or afternoons at 526-8313.  

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or afternoons at 526-8313. 

Annie joined the U-B news staff in 1979 and since 1990 has written Etcetera, a daily community column. She was promoted to a copy editing post in 2007. She edits copy, designs and lays out pages, including the weekly arts and entertainment guide Marquee,