Plant Manager Catherine Lowas oversees 55 at Avenal State Prison
Story Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Video by Jeff Baur, Director (Specialist), TV Communications Center
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Every day, CDCR and CCHCS employees maintain public safety through incarceration, supervision and rehabilitation. To accomplish these goals, staff require functioning infrastructure.
That infrastructure is kept running thanks to the efforts of those working in plant operations.
At Avenal State Prison, 55 people are assigned to plant operations. Their duties range from supervisors to office staff and those working the trades.
Plants operations is a vital part of the state prison system, according to Avenal Correctional Plant Manager Catherine Lowas.
“Without the staff who operate from Plant Operations at every facility, over time things would cease to operate favorably or totally shutdown. We keep the lights on, water running, toilets flushing, showers and sinks operating, and maintain all the kitchen equipment for cooking and serving the inmate/ward/patient population,” she said. “We are the ones who go inside and make repairs to the Lethal Electrified Fence (LEF). We keep TVs on, which entertain the population, as well as educate via educational channels programmed-in for viewing.”
For plant operations staff, they are serious about their jobs.
“We are the maintenance of everything from safety and security to health and welfare. In a few words, if it’s broke, we fix it or replace it,” she said.
According to Lowas, there are many misconceptions surrounding correctional employment and plant operations.
“Plant operations is not just the guy who goes and fixes a lamp, then runs back to the shop and sits all day. We are here five days a week, working eight straight hours a day with no lunch break to keep this facility up and running; safe for both custodial and free staff and the inmate population as well,” she said. “We are subject to call-backs on our weekends, which means, if something important breaks on the weekend, my staff will answer the phone and return to the prison on our days off to keep ‘the old girl’ running. Avenal State Prison is almost 35 years old, as of opening to receive inmates. But we are a couple of years older if you count the two years of construction too.”
The video, recorded in November 2019, is also available on YouTube (may not play on a CDCR computer.)
Q&A with Catherine Lowas
What are the common misconceptions regarding plant operations?
“I think the biggest misconception is that we get paid a lot of money to do very little work. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” she said. Private sector pay is usually more than state employees earn, she explained. “There is always something else to do, and never enough hours in the day to get it all completed.”
Do you work with the incarcerated population?
“We work with inmates as a workforce. I have always had inmates working electrical with me, side by side, while I was an EL II. One of my guys paroled and, I later learned, joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union and graduated as a Journeyman Electrician five years later. That gives me a sense of great accomplishment, that I could share enough of my trade, this inmate, making 22 cents an hour, is now making about $33 an hour. And the job itself can be very satisfying as well.”
Anything else you’d like to add or think readers might want to know?
“Almost everywhere I go now, as well as in my past as an electrician, people cannot believe that is what I do for a living. All the way back to my first year as an apprentice in the five-year training program with the IBEW, I had guys look and scoff at me, a girl, wanting to be an electrician. I am sure this is all over the construction trades, not just mine. I want to say, it’s not a ‘man’s world’ anymore. Pull your own weight, do your job to the best of your ability, and do it correctly, and any job can be yours. And being competitive, the ‘one-up’ attitude, sure doesn’t hurt. That is me, always pushing to be better.”
The nuts and bolts of Plant Operations
- Carpenter: drywall, concrete, asphalt roads, windows, blinds, roofs, light construction, masonry, cabinetry, door hardware without locking mechanisms, door closures, install signs, hang pictures and bulletin boards, and similar things.
- Plumbers: install, maintain, and repair standard plumbing fixtures and its infrastructure, gas lines, water lines, sewage lines, fire control lines for fire suppression, test and certify back-flow devices.
- Painters: sand, fill, and prepare most typical wood-drywall-metal-masonry-concrete surfaces for paint, apply wall coverings where needed.
- Electrician: installation, construction, maintenance, designing and repair of electric wiring, switches, lights, motors, generators, transformers, switch gear and other electrical equipment. They also maintain and repair the lethal electrified fence (LEF). “This was me when I was first hired to CDCR, an Electrician II,” she said
- Electronic Technician: Design, installation and maintenance of electronic security and communication equipment. These systems include fire and smoke alarms; emergency alarm systems such as the Personal Alarm (PAR); public address systems; audio visual; control consoles; site wide paging system; television system (CCTV and MATV); telecommunications systems and other electronic equipment as necessary.
- Maintenance Mechanic: Inspects, maintains, repairs, and performs preventative maintenance on heating and ventilation equipment, culinary, bakery, and laundry equipment; and the inspection, maintenance and repair of plumbing, water, and sewer systems. Performs welding, cutting and fabrication. Responsible for equipment rooms and maintenance upkeep of mechanical equipment; maintains and repairs all security doors and gates, to include all entry gates at vehicle sally port and main pedestrian entrance.
- Pest Control (PC) Technician: the control or eradication of and/or all the following: Roaches, ants, snails, silverfish, spiders, mosquitoes, other insects as required; birds, bats, rats, mice, rabbits or other vertebra as needed. “He has trapped feral cats and worked with our local Animal Control. We even had a raccoon get snagged in the concertina wire at the vehicle sally port a few years ago, and our PC helped back then, with me and another supervisor. What a rodeo that was.”
- Groundskeeper: planting, cultivating, irrigating, and maintaining lawns, trees, shrubs, hedges, flowerbeds, lawns and various ground covers. Under direction, applies herbicides, calculates irrigation schedules, performs erosion control, and weed abatement. Also involved in the maintenance of institutional grounds, landscape, and roadways. Removes trash, green waste, and debris daily as needed. Prunes trees and shrubs, mows and fertilizes lawns and make minor repairs to irrigation systems.
- Stationary Engineer: will operate, maintain and repair turbines, boilers, heaters and their auxiliary equipment including pumps, valves and steam distribution systems, oil and processed water: repair and maintain water softeners; operate repair and maintain air conditioning, refrigeration, heating and ventilation systems; operate, maintain and repair air compressors; operate and repair diesel, natural gas and emergency propane equipment and systems; maintain, test and operate emergency generator; test, service and repair all types motors and engines used to power pumps, compressors and fans ; repair and maintain single and multiphase electrical circuits up to 550 volt; repair kitchen equipment steam kettles, dish machines, fixtures and appliances; bakery and culinary equipment; perform minor plumbing repairs.
- The engineers are in two groups: field engineers and the co-gen stander, an engineer who works shift work inside the co-gen plant; it runs 24 hours a day, every day.