Prison Education: Self-Supporting Institutional Education Programs

As noted in the previous post titled "FCI-Petersburg's Education Department Problems and Innovative Solutions,” the idea of self-supporting programs is very intriguing. The primary concern of institutional educational programming is its cost-effectiveness. There is a set budget and every Supervisor of Education must use his or her funding to the best of their abilities to help as many incarcerated students as possible.

In the past we've seen innovative solutions, such as utilizing inmate labor. I'm a direct product of such a decision. As an Adult Continuing Education instructor, I am paid just $10 for two months of work. To add to this, I also created the very course that I teach. This means that in order to run my course for one year it costs $60 in instructor pay, around $100 in copying charges (to copy the student packets I created), and the cost of a staff member to be in the Education Department from 5:30 pm to 8:30 p.m. on Monday nights, a staff member who is already there because of the open library. As you can see, the use of inmate labor has tremendous potential.

With minimal labor and expense, inmate labor can be used at any institution to craft educational opportunities. This means that a more educated prisoner - say one with a graduate degree - could watch several of the already existing educational videos available in the prison's Education Department, divide the video viewings into lessons, create an assignment for each lesson (e.g. a series of 10 true/false questions per lesson), craft a pre-test and a post-test, and present it to their Education Department's administration for usage. The cost for such a program is almost nothing.

An even more powerful twist to this would be for a particular prison system to identify several of their best educated prisoners, offer these prisoners special good time incentives to craft such programs, and allow them to create standardized self-supporting courses to be offered in each prison in the particular prison system. This way when budgets come around each year, a set portion could be utilized to purchase the needed videos and TVs needed for the program to continue.

Another very economical practice to initiate would be for each prison to assign one educated prisoner to manage the program. This prisoner – like the one here at FCI-Petersburg – would proctor pre-tests and post-tests, grade each lesson and track students’ progress, inform participants of rules and regulations, and troubleshoot any problems that might arise. In most prison systems, the incarcerated population makes almost nothing. I, myself, make only $5.25 a month for 40 hours of work. By paying an educated prisoner, say $80 a month, a prison could retain a well-educated prisoner to coordinate the entire program. All that would be needed is minimal staff supervision and a staff member to print off Certificates of Completion and input completions into the prison's computer system.

The benefits of such a program are obvious and monumental. After each course is created, it can be used time and time again for those incarcerated students who wish to participate. After several years, so many courses could be created that in-person instruction could be replaced with these types of courses. Just think about the potential for educating large numbers of prisoners. Instead of my classroom holding 20 seats for prisoner students to utilize from 5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. on Monday nights, my classroom could house 20 TVs which could be used as long as the Education Department is open to educate students with such courses.

The other bonus to such a program is that students could complete programs much faster and ensure that the level of instruction is better since TVs and DVDs are used. This means that college-educated instructors on the DVDs would be providing the lessons, not a 25-year-old with bright red stars tattooed on his hands.  This is me by the way. I don't say this to put myself down, but to show that we could have professors teaching as opposed to college students. All it would require is the purchase of the DVDs and the creation of the pre-tests, post-tests, and lesson assignments. Also, the potential to expand this to college-level learning is certainly intriguing.

As you can see, self-supporting educational programs have almost limitless potential. The real question is: Are you willing to approach your Education Department's administration with such an innovative and cost-effective idea? If so, the possibilities are endless!