Getting Out with Surveying


Christopher Golding, FL PSM, CTE, stands in his classroom at the Green Rock Correctional Center (Va.), where he’s taught inmates surveying for more than 12 years.

“When I first started, I didn’t think it was going to last because the first time you go into a prison and the doors close, it’s not an easy feeling. You’re in prison with everybody else.”

So says Chris Golding, Professional Surveyor and Mapper (FL PSM6090), Career and Technical Education (CTE) Instructor for Survey/Geospatial at Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) Green Rock Correctional Center in Chatham, Virginia, which is located in the southwestern area of the state.

“But once I got used to it, I realized that these guys are somebody’s brother, father, son,” he added. “They’ve made mistakes in life but they’re just normal people.”


Normally (pre-COVID-19), Golding’s classes can also be held outside within the prison grounds. It gives his students a grass area where they can lay out roads and drainages, stake houses, and do the hands-on work.

Golding, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a surveyor, has been teaching land surveying skills to those incarcerated at the prison for the past 12 years, noting that once he got the class going, he has really enjoyed the job.

Providing education to help offenders re-enter society is a big part of why Virginia has had the lowest recidivism rate in the country for the past four years. According to a report from CBS19 News in Charlottesville, Va., “Among 42 states reporting three-year recidivism rates tallying the number of offenders re-incarcerated within three years of their release from prison, Virginia’s recidivism rate remains the lowest.”

The report went on to quote Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran in the release, “Today, offenders are re-entering society more prepared than ever to lead productive lives… re-entry preparation now starts on day one of incarceration.”

Classroom teaching

Golding teaches two four-hour classes per day over four days with 12 students in each class. During this coronavirus safety period, he’s been sending homework packages each week for his class to work on in their housing units. “Normally we have our own room for classes plus an outside grass area space where we can lay out roads and drainage and stake houses and do the hands-on work,” explained Golding.

The classroom situation differs in several ways from the way that Golding learned surveying as he notes that he was mentored by many people as he worked his way up and learned as he went.

“Surveying is an industry that is built on ‘best practices’ and passing down knowledge,” said Golding, who started surveying in 1987 in Port Saint Lucie, Fla., as a rod man with Mitchel and Associates Land Surveying. “My father was a construction superintendent doing mostly high-rise condos and commercial projects in south Florida where I grew up and I had worked on those construction sites every summer. Plus, I took vocational drafting in high school,” he said.

While working as an apprentice drafter, he dropped off house plans to Clint Mitchel and was immediately offered a job, which was paying a full $1.50 more per hour than he was making.

“I was fortunate with the timing and was put on a three-man crew and the party chief literally coached me in the art of measurements,” Golding explained. His next job was with Joe Lavestky, who then mentored him in all aspects of surveying including legal descriptions, calculations, drafting and more. “They gave me a solid foundation,” Golding added.

“There have been many who have inspired me,” he said. “One of my students once commented that he was amazed that I would share all my knowledge and create competition for myself, but that’s what surveyors do.”

Unique challenges

Most of the men who are in Golding’s classes are starting from scratch.

“Some of the guys have gotten into trouble when they were 17 or 18 years old,” he said. “So, they get a 10-year sentence and have never had a real job—they’ve only known life on the street or selling drugs.”

Plus, Golding also notes that he doesn’t get to just take a class from start to finish over the year.

“My students come and go on a regular basis because they are subject to living in prison and are often moved or they are sometimes restricted due to discipline,” he explained. “So, I end up with 12 students in two classes, morning and afternoon, with all 12 at different points in learning.”

As a result, Golding has had to develop detailed, step-by-step lessons for the Carlson SurvCE software and Surveyor data collectors, which he had not used before starting this program, and for the Carlson Survey software they use in the program. He attended a Carlson User Conference, where he got to meet and talk with Bruce Carlson, founder and president of Carlson Software. “I took the opportunity to tell Bruce about the program I was starting and he took a strong interest,” Golding noted. “I told him I only had two seats for a class of 12 and he immediately offered to donate the remaining seats I needed.”

Following the User Conference, Golding prepared his detailed lessons utilizing the Carlson tutorials that they have in the software. “They are good lessons,” he explained, “but they’re written for people who are already exposed to the industry.” He also provides That CAD Girl’s self-study manuals and Rick Ellis’ “The Practical Guide to Carlson Survey” books to the students.

Augmenting the lessons with more detail—explaining what they are doing and why they’re doing it—has been one of Golding’s challenges. “While Carlson software uses the language of surveyors, we have to explain what a TIN file is and how it creates a surface or what bearings are before we expose them to the software so that they understand it better,” he said.

“Surveying is both an art and a science—you learn the best things from different crew chiefs and different instrument men,” noted Golding. “But my guys can’t do that, so I’ve tried to break it down in their written instructions.”

He’s even put in some competition to make it both fun and challenging for the men, developing eight steps to set up a total station, for instance. Right now, the record for a student setting it up is 42 seconds. “That’s pretty good,” Golding said.

And to add to the challenges is the fact that the classes don’t have access to the internet—there are security concerns with the technology that is commonplace for surveyors to use such as Bluetooth, radio link, and WiFi and security and public safety are the highest priority inside Green Rock, Golding notes. So he spends a lot of time downloading webinars and training videos to further help his students.

Small successes equal big rewards

One of the most gratifying things of the job to Golding is passing on his love of surveying. “Most of them like it,” he said. “Some are afraid of the math but I explain that we break it down for them. Some gravitate more toward the field work and some are more interested in the CAD aspect.”

The other is showing the men that there are jobs that they might actually enjoy doing. “I’ve had many of them come up and say, ‘You know, this is the first time I ever saw myself doing a real job,’” Golding explained. “When they get into actually doing the work they realize that they could make a living doing this. It opens up their eyes to a whole different way of life.”

And then the absolute best aspect of Golding’s job is finding out that they’ve been able to put their new knowledge to good use once they have gotten out. “While I’ve had some feedback about hiring a former felon from business owners, most have been willing to give someone a second chance,” he said.

“I’ve had several that have called me once they got out and said, ‘Hey, I got a job,’” said Golding, adding, “And they’re getting good jobs. As one person’s boss told me, his new hire knew what he was doing but just needed a little experience working in the field.”

That is what makes all the extra effort worthwhile to Golding. “It’s really the most tremendous feeling to know that you’ve helped get somebody on the right track.”

Now retired, Karen Cummings became familiar with the surveying world when she served as marketing director for Carlson Software from 2007-2017. She still writes about it when she hears an inspiring story.

A career becomes a reality

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Reynolds has found friendship with his co-workers like Dee Outlaw (left) shown here in an office at Bateman Civil Survey.

Anthony Reynolds is one of the graduates of Christopher Golding’s land surveying class at Green Rock Correctional Center. He is currently employed at Bateman Civil Survey Company, which describes itself on its website as “a leader in providing surveying, construction, environmental, and engineering consultation services to North Carolina and throughout the East Coast.”

“I’m employed as a CAD tech, but I mostly do field work,” explained Reynolds. “I love field work. This company does subdivisions, plus utilities are big here, so are elevation certificates and as-builts. They’re pretty strict about measuring inverts and setting sewer or drain manholes or inlets—it’s pretty exciting stuff,” he added.

Reynolds notes that those at Bateman have also been very helpful in providing the tools and opportunities for him to advance, with staff generously helping him to continue learning.

In addition, Reynolds has nothing but praise for Golding as well as for surveying in general. “I learned so much from Mr. Golding and not just in the science of surveying,” noted Reynolds. “The techniques he taught me have enabled me to hang with these guys who have experience. That class gave me a way to escape prison—it was the opportunity I’d been looking for my whole life.”

Adding that Golding never backed down from a question and worked hard to make sure that his students completely understood, Reynolds acknowledged that Golding helped make his current career a reality. “I love math, I love the outdoors, and I love to learn,” he said, adding, “It’s perfect and Golding helped me mold my knowledge and make this a reality.”