A Day in the Life, Inside CDCR Video

Plant operations keep prisons running

This video was recorded in November 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in California.

Plant Manager Catherine Lowas oversees 55 at Avenal prison

(Editor’s note: Inside CDCR takes a closer look at plant operations.)

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 population,” she said. “(Plant operations staff) go inside and make repairs to the Lethal Electrified Fence. We keep TVs on, which entertain the population, as well as educate via educational channels.”

Plant operations staff 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.

“Plant operations is not just (fixing) a lamp, then (sitting in the shop) all day. We are here five days a week, working eight straight hours a day to keep this facility up and running,” she said. “We are subject to call-backs on our weekends (to make repairs if something breaks). Avenal State Prison is almost 35 years old.”

The video, recorded in November 2019, is also available on YouTube (may not play on a CDCR computer.)

Woman wears cowboy hat, pink tie and sunglasses.
Catherine Lowas, Avenal State Prison Correctional Plant Manager.

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. Private sector pay is usually more than state employees earn. There is always something else to do, and never enough hours in the day to get it completed.

Do you work with the incarcerated population?

We work with inmates as a workforce. I have always had them working electrical with me, side by side. One of my guys paroled and joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). He graduated as a Journeyman Electrician five years later. That gives me a sense of great accomplishment, that I could share enough of my trade.

Anything else you’d like to add or think readers might want to know? 

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 scoff at me. A girl, wanting to be an electrician? I am sure this is all over the construction trades, not just mine. It’s not a ‘man’s world’ anymore. Pull your weight, do your job to the best of your ability, do it correctly, and any job can be yours.

CDCR Plant Operations nuts and bolts

  • 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.
  • Electronic Technician: Design, installation and maintenance of electronic security and communication equipment. Systems include fire and smoke alarms; emergency alarm; public address; audio visual; control consoles; site-wide paging; television; telecommunications and other electronic equipment.
  • Maintenance Mechanic: Inspects, maintains, repairs, and performs preventative maintenance on equipment such as heating and ventilation, culinary, bakery, and laundry. Inspect, maintain and repair plumbing, water, and sewer systems. Responsible for equipment rooms and maintenance upkeep of mechanical gear.
  • Pest Control (PC) Technician: Control or eradicate of and/or all pests including insects, rodents, birds, bats and snakes.
  • 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.
  • Stationary Engineer: Operate, maintain and repair turbines, boilers, heaters and auxiliary equipment including pumps, valves and steam distribution systems, oil and processed water.
  • The engineers are in two groups: Field engineers and the co-gen stander, who does shift work inside the co-gen plant.

Story Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Video by Jeff Baur, Director (Specialist), TV Communications Center
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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