Selection and Retention of Inmate Instructors

Many in the world outside of prison wouldn't believe that talent lies behind bars. The thought of a prisoner possessing a professional doctorate, being an English major, or even managing an advocacy network would be much too taboo to contemplate.

Luckily for us, we know the truth of the matter: that there are a number of highly qualified inmates which can be put to good use in leadership positions. The question then becomes how to find them and how to maintain their interest.

Beginning this discussion on the fundamental belief that qualified prisoners do exist, a number of steps can be taken to interest them in making application to leadership positions.

One, make the inmate population aware of open positions. This can easily be done via posting flyers in the various housing units. On these flyers announce either an opening for a specific position or announce a meeting to be held for anyone interested in being an instructor, tutor, or manager.

Two, conduct the meeting or discussion as you would a job interview. Ask pertinent questions regarding the applicants' educational history, work experience in the specific field, and people/instructional skills. Make sure to write down this information or even create an application form to be filled out. This allows you – the staff member – to make the best selection and the applicant - the prisoner - to practice much needed job skills.

Three, review all applicants and select the most qualified. After all, Person A will not be as good as Person D if Person D is more qualified and more determined. Push the idea of "prison" out of your mind and think "community college" or "training center." It might not be the worst idea to even solicit a recommendation from an inmate you trust. They will see more than you do.

Four, call your selection(s) in and inform them of their acceptance. If more than one new position is being filled, hold a meeting to alert and inform everyone involved as to any changes, expectations, and benefits of the said position.

Five, during this meeting/personal discussion, emphasize an "open door" policy where your instructors and leaders can speak with you regarding not only problems, but successes, insights, and even suggestions.

Once qualified instructors are selected and notified, the other half of the relationship must be supported: retaining the qualified instructors. After all, the cream of the crop will not stand for a dysfunctional work environment. Because they are more educated and more intellectual, they too will require a nurturing environment, an environment more akin to employment in the real world.

A number of steps can be taken to increase the odds of instructor retention and contentment. As you read these suggestions, don't think of your instructors as inmates or as easily replaceable, this is because the whole relationship will then be tainted and the quality of instruction will decrease. Do what you can to see your inmate instructors as qualified professionals. You did hire them after all.

One, always treat your instructors with dignity and respect. If you don't, they will become disheartened and gradually stop caring about their work product. On the other side of the coin, if they don't treat you with dignity and respect, fire them. Conflict has no place in a correctional education environment. Just do remember that this is a two-way street.

Two, keep your instructors in the loop. If this means weekly, monthly, or quarterly meetings, then do so. I can't tell you how much the quarterly meetings we hold here at FCI-Petersburg matter. They make the inmate instructors feel appreciated and keep us informed of changes and such. They allow for a sense of community and camaraderie.

Three, give your instructors the tools they need to succeed, if and when feasible. If your instructor needs copies, make them. If he needs new textbooks, see what can be done. If other staff members harass your instructors, speak with the staff members to see if the issue can be resolved. There is nothing like feeling de-valued to turn an instructor sour. After all, I make $5 per month for my teaching; an amount which doesn't even begin to cover my own class expenses, much less my time. So, if I request copies, please make them. It's the least that can be done.

Four, include instructors in the decision-making process. While policy dictates much, when choice or preference enters the equation, call for instructor input. They are your front line, they know what is going on and what changes will help or hurt their work.

Five, when feasible, give your instructors responsibility and limited powers. I know when I teach my class, I like to be able to use whatever formats work the best for me. At times this means Q & A sessions, group discussions, homework, and lecture. If it works, allow it. Also, as a gesture of respect, allow instructors to participate in the student selection/sign-up process. By including the instructors as much as possible, you are reaffirming their worth, allowing them control of their classroom, and promoting professionalism.

While this is just a small list of suggestions, I implore you to utilize them whenever feasible. Every suggestion will not work in every setting or situation, but many might. Every little thing you can do to improve the quality of instructors directly enhances the quality of education being provided. And when you retain qualified instructors, you retain quality instruction and education.