I spent this morning consulting with a fellow prisoner — a recent GED graduate — at FCI Petersburg, a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. The consultation concerned the man enrolling in a college correspondence program. The problem was that he had gone to the FCI Petersburg Education Department’s leisure library looking for some type of book or resource guide on college correspondence programs for incarcerated students, but left empty handed. The only relevant text available was the second edition of the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada by Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D., a book published several years ago, which has since been updated and published again by Prison Legal News in 2009.*
Luckily for my prospective student friend, I happen to be the author of the text Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012). It’s a prison education reference text that profiles various correspondence programs which inmates can enroll in. The problem is the FCI Petersburg Education Department will not stock a copy of this text. I’ve made a number of inquiries with the current FCI Petersburg Education Department Assistant Supervisor, but I never gain any traction. My Inmate-to-Staff emails are never answered — and have never been since the email system was installed several years ago — and I neither receive any approvals nor denials. Does this mean that higher education is dead at FCI Petersburg?
Since I’m now used to students needing the information contained in my book, information not made available to them by the FCI Petersburg Education Department staff, I always keep an extra copy of my text in my cell. The would-be student and I had a very productive morning. I explained to him about how the application process works, accreditation, the correspondence course modality, and we even settled upon a few schools which he was going to write to for more information (i.e., Upper Iowa University, Adams State College, and Ohio University). We ended our consultation with me writing out a sample letter which he could send to each school. As I walked away, he had pen in hand and was writing copies of the sample letter to send to each school.
Teachers often receive credit for taking part in a profession that ensures a more prosperous future for young people. Educating children is seen as an investment for tomorrow, even if modest teachers often laugh at the idealized perception of their chosen career.
Educators engaged in nontraditional forms of teaching, however, can sometimes be forgotten. Since 1930, the Correctional Education Association has sought to change that. This U.S.-based nonprofit organization is an indispensable resource for prison educators both domestically and abroad. It’s a group made up of educators on the front lines in making for a better tomorrow, but who often face even greater challenges than their K-12 counterparts.
Providing prisoners with an education, according to most analysts, is a way to positively change both a prisoner’s character and abilities. Prison educators are a critical component in the rehabilitative process and in the criminal justice system overall. The problem is that many of these educators don’t receive the same level of pay or benefits as traditional teachers, and it’s very difficult for them to network, collaborate and advocate their own positions.
The Correctional Education Association is a membership-based organization with the initial purpose of uniting prison educators. Once educators join, however, they quickly discover that uniting prison educators is only a small component of the services offered by this organization.
The Correctional Education Association advocates legislatively for increasing the prevalence of education in prisons and jails. One of the stated goals of the organization is “representing juvenile justice and adult correctional education to broader educational, political and social agencies.” In addition to this work, the organization also attempts to inform broader audiences of its goals through a number of different avenues.
The prisoners report to the officer at the desk, then head into a room awash in sunlight in the visitation area of the Limon Correctional Facility. They murmur soft greetings to each other, squint into the brightness streaming through the windows, quickly choose their seats. For men without prospects, they seem oddly expectant.
And why not? On this day they have been granted a reprieve from an endless routine of tedium and tension. For the next two hours, at least, they are somewhere else. Not in their cells at a high-security prison – although the cells are never far away -but in books.
Today’s book is Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, the story of Lennie and George, two guys knocked about by the Great Depression, scraping by on migrant work and dreaming about having their own farm. Less than 30,000 words but packed with disturbing scenes of abuse, social injustice and murder, the 1937 novel is a staple of middle- and high-school English classes — yet still considered sufficiently offensive and even dangerous in some quarters to make librarians’ lists of the most challenged books of all time.
A rule in prisons, though I know it has become more of an issue in all schools, is “no touching is the best policy”. It is a prison rule all inmates know, and it can lead to a write-up for them. They cannot touch any of the staff.
Occasionally, I have given a professional handshake. When a man is on his way to be released and he is thanking me for helping him pass his GED, or he is thanking me for being his teacher, or coming to say goodbye, I will shake his hand.
Trust is a big issue. It takes time for me to earn it, and it never happens automatically. They see me as the “police”. They don’t trust anyone, including themselves, and they will tell me that.
Sometimes I acknowledge this to them, because they think I don’t understand them. I’ll say, “I know you probably see me as an old lady who doesn’t know anything, who’s just going to give you trouble. And given a little time, you’ll find out that’s not true.”
I try to encourage them to stick with it for at least one month. “Let’s go a month at a time.” Ninety percent of the time, if they stick with it, they calm down and life in the classroom is fine.
This is the sixth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.
“Students are more likely to succeed in a place where they feel known and cared about.”
For those who have passed through some level of higher education this statement can be attributed to common sense. Unfortunately, education in general – and prison education specifically – tends to forget about this.
This is the fifth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.
“Just because doing x raises standardized test scores doesn’t mean x should be done.”
In Kohn’s piece he notes a number of flaws and – even more important – questions which should be asked of any test. While I agree with all that he voiced, I’m going to take this post in another direction, a direction closer to home and the prison educator.
This is the fourth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.
“Students are less interested in whatever they’re forced to do and more enthusiastic when they have some say.”
As discussed in the third post in this series, incarcerated students have very diverse interests. I also noted that students retain more of the information presented when they are interested in the topic than not. Now it’s time to build upon the idea of student interest with the option of student choice.
This is the third blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.
“Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.”
The truth of the matter is that people are individuals and have personal likes and dislikes. As such, different persons will have different interests and desires. The trouble is finding ways to incorporate students’ diverse interests into a standardized curriculum or standardized testing method (e.g. GED, High School Diploma, ESL, ABE, etc.).