By Dianne Frazee-Walker

All odds were against “Frankie” Guzman growing up without a father in the heart of a California neighborhood known for gang activity and crack cocaine rings. His father abandoned the family when Guzman was only three-years old.  Guzman was raised by a mother who commuted to the affluent community of Malibu, cleaning houses to support her family. By the time Guzman was an adolescent his father was incarcerated in a federal prison for attempting to cross the Mexican border with a large amount of cash.  Frank Guzman, Jr. / Image courtesy vcstar.com

Guzman’s brother “Freddie” was arrested when he was 17 for shooting a gang rival at a party. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Guzman was enthralled by his brother and wanted to be with him even if it meant joining him in prison.

With no immediate male role model Guzman was on a downhill slope and going down fast.  His high school GPA went down to 0.8 and he was expelled from school for a fight in the boy’s restroom.

But Guzman’s troubles did not end there.   

Two weeks after being suspended from school, Guzman’s wish to be just like his big brother Freddie came true when he was arrested at 15. He and his friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store at gun point. Guzman was sentenced to 15 years at the California Youth Authority.

During incarceration Guzman had plenty of time to earn his GED — twice. He made valuable use of his time attending every class he possibly could while confined behind bars.

Just when Guzman was beginning to be inspired by education, events in the outside world crumbled his new found motivation for success.

 Guzman’s uncle, the only male role model he had left that was not behind bars, passed away after a long addiction to drugs and alcohol and his best friend was killed in a gang fight.

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By Christopher Zoukis

In prisons across the country a GED is typically the highest level of academic achievement that is facilitated by the prison administration. The administration’s focus, in terms of education, is almost exclusively upon how fast they can funnel their prison’s population through their GED programs. It’s a never-ending cycle that ends with each prisoner earning a GED and starts over with the next prisoner who has yet to earn one. While a good first step, it dooms many to failure. It does so by starting the prisoner on an academic tract, but stopping them upon attainment of the GED.

The single-minded focus of GED attainment creates a void for prison systems nationwide. This void is education above-and-beyond the GED. Some prisons offer Adult Basic Education or Adult Continuing Education (of which I am an instructor) courses, but rarely do any offer educational programs at the career or university level. This level of study, the credentialing level, is desperately needed by each and every prisoner because studies at this level translate directly into lower recidivism rates and jobs upon release.

For the prisoner who desires to advance their education above the level of studies offered by their prison

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Partakers College Behind Bars program provides opportunities for incarcerated inmates in the state of Massachusetts to obtain four-year college degrees while doing time in prison.

Their mission statement says that Partakers “works to help advance the rehabilitation of inmates and to bridge the divide that separates those inside and outside prison. Through it’s College Behind Bars mentoring program, inmates build trusting relationships, enhance skills critical to completing a college degree, and significantly increase their chances for success when returning to the community.”

Partakers has access to a number of Massachusetts state prisons, serving as a link between prisoners and society. They currently have more than 300 volunteers who enter prisons as mentors and tutors, supporting over 100 prisoners. These prisoners often take on leadership roles inside the walls, as well as outside when they return to their communities.  

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Imagine you are in a formal college and that you have the opportunity to take your classes within prison walls and that your classmates are incarcerated prisoners? The very innovative program The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program through Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study together, as peers, only the college setting is behind prison walls.

Once a week, for an entire semester, 15-18 outside college students attend class in prison with a like number of prisoners. All of the participants, both outside and inside, work together on projects, reading from the same texts, writing the same papers, being equal in all discussion groups and, in the final month of the semester, the students work as one to complete a group class project.

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San Quentin State Prison is known for hardened criminals. Sitting on a point overlooking the lovely skyline of San Francisco in California, San Quentin has a long history. And yet within these prison walls is the Prison University Project.

The mission of the Prison University Project is “to provide excellent higher education programs to people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison; to create a replicable model for such programs; and to stimulate public awareness and meaningful dialog about higher education and criminal justice in California.”

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For women inmates, reentry into society can be extremely difficult. Often women returning to society have little education, children and limited job skills. So, for the women incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, having the opportunity to receive a college degree can dramatically change the course of their lives for the better.

In 1996, the Bedford Hills College Program was founded so provide women inmates incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility located in New York State and a maximum security prison for women. In association with the Correctional Facility is Marymount Manhattan College who offers non-credited College-preparatory courses and credit bearing courses that may lead to she women inmates receiving an Associate of Arts degree in Social Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Sociology.

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This is the fourth blog post in the ‘Providing College To Prison Inmates Series.’ This series is based upon seven “Recommendations for Policy and Practice” presented by Contardo on pages 154 through 156 of her text Providing College To Prison Inmates.

“Accept both limitations and possibilities when considering how to provide correctional education.” –Contardo (pg. 155)

In the prison environment, utilizing innovative solutions for correctional education is not always an easy task. One might think the common sense path to fruition would be the most efficient route, but because of policy or politics, the path is closed. So, when hypothesizing about programming implementation, reality and experience are necessary elements. This is because, at times, rules and regulations are arbitrary, lacking any perceptible rhyme or reason. They are because they are and that is the way it will continue to be.

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This is the third blog post in the “Providing College To Prison Inmates Series.” This series is based upon seven “Recommendations for Policy and Practice” presented by Contardo on pages 154 through 156 of her text Providing College To Prison Inmates.

“Structure correctional education so that prisoners begin their transition while still incarcerated.” – Contardo (pg. 155)

In Providing College To Prison Inmates it is suggested that prisoners be prepared or primed so that they might continue on with college-level learning once released from prison. I wholeheartedly agree with this stance, but believe that this idea needs much more discussion.

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Educational Series #7

I am a huge advocate of prison education. Over the last 5 years I have earned a number of certificates, diplomas, and more – all from behind bars. Even now, I am pursuing my degree (English & Sociology) through Ohio University. I won’t give you a full account here – this post is about the technical elements of college behind bars – but I will point you in the right direction. The full list of my educational accomplishments from behind bars can be found at https://christopherzoukis.com/about/resume-and-published-works and ChristopherZoukis.com/about-me/.

First, what the Bureau of Prisons says about college behind bars. According to the FCI-Petersburg Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook, “General educational courses are primarily completed through correspondence courses. However, inmates must pay for their own tuition, books, and materials for all post secondary courses. Prior approval for all courses must be received by Education Department staff.”

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