By Ned Newton
Thomas Whitlock, a recovering drug addict, says learning how to weld while he was locked up in the Rockbridge Regional Jail has given him the second chance he needed.
“With the welding skills I have, a man could go out here and make a hundred to two hundred thousand dollars a year,” he said. “But I don’t care about the money. I’ve got to stay sober. I’ve got to stay in the recovery loop, and I want to be able to help other people. And I know what it felt like to be here.”
Whitlock, 41, who’s from Augusta County, used and sold methamphetamine beginning when he was a teenager. He went to jail six times over the course of nine years. During his final stint in jail, he says he found God, decided to get clean, and took classes on welding.
In September 2021, he began working for the jail as a welding instructor. He also teaches carpentry to inmates as part of the jail’s nascent industries program, which he says gives him the sense that someone believes in him.
“Self-worth, self-respect, credibility and accountability are where people will find growth,” he said.
The industries program began in January 2022. No more than 10 male inmates have completed the program.
Superintendent Derek Almarode said the program has been small because it didn’t have a classroom or workshop. But a 900-square-foot facility will be completed in the next two months.
“When we get this thing up and running, our classes will be offered to the general population, male and female,” said Lt. Chad Hamilton, the industries program supervisor. “Our goal is to give everyone the opportunity to take advantage of this.”
The program offers welding, electrical training, plumbing and cabinetry. Hamilton said the jail plans to add gardening, beekeeping and CPR training to the curriculum once the facility opens.
Whitlock credits Almarode with giving him the confidence to pursue his welding certification and to stay clean.
“He told me years ago when I was an inmate, ‘You take a few steps, I’ll take one with you,’” Whitlock said.
Many of the people who are at Rockbridge Regional Jail are confronting the same kind of addiction that Whitlock faced.
“You see cycles of generations of families coming into jail,” he said. “They’re all strung out and dying through the years.”
Whitlock says he wants to provide an example for them.
“If it’s just one that makes it out successfully,” he said, “it was all worth it.”