Providing College To Prison Inmates (Part 3)

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.

The idea of correctional education is not exclusively one of academic education. The same can be said of a liberal arts degree program at a university. Both contribute so much more.

While the liberal arts degree program ingrains participants with academic knowledge, life skills, and a certain work ethic, it assumes a healthy base – an individual who can function in American society with some level of normalcy. This means that the liberal arts degree gives already functioning individuals the luxury of knowledge and experience, a finishing touch which will allow the individual to think and reason at a more advanced level, and obtain potentially more desirable employment.

Correctional education, on the other hand, does not strive for luxurious refinement, but normalcy. The very concept of correctional education is based upon socialization and re-socialization. The prisoner receives an education so that certain fundamental values (e.g. honesty, moral principles, work ethic, pro-democratic leanings, etc.) and skills (e.g. reading, writing, basic reasoning, etc.) may be imparted to them. Hence, they can function in American society in a socially acceptable manner. These values are imparted in different doses dependent upon the level of learning (e.g. GED programs focus more on basic knowledge and skills, while college programs focus on higher level functioning and reasoning).

For a non-incarcerated individual, education is a refining activity, but to the incarcerated individual it is the laying down of fundamentals which were previously neglected. The incarcerated – in this light – can be seen as socially and, sometimes, intellectually stunted. Through correctional education they are attempting to catch up to their non-incarcerated peers.

With this distinction expressed, the concept of education as a means of facilitating transition back to communities is a terrific one. When individuals arrive at prison they are not in the best shape. From my personal experience, and the experiences which I've observed firsthand, new admissions are usually sobering-up, learning to live life without the aid of substances, and dealing with a severe role conflict and identity crisis. Everything the person knows is being questioned. They are no longer the person they once were, they are now a number.

For myself, I had a difficult time transitioning from a relatively safe and cushy environment to one of anger, frustration, and violence. I had to put away the idea that I was someone special, the son of my father. I had to step into the shoes of prisoner #22132-058. This was a challenging transition because of my upper class background. Though, the same is true of those coming from any environment to a prison setting. As Americans, we are encouraged to be our own person, an individual who has basic rights, responsibilities, and a voice. In prison – while this is still the case – one is expected to refrain from too much self-expression. One is seen and considered to be less than; whether this is a direct command or a personal internal reflection it matters not.

With this conflict comes the perfect opportunity for the prison's administration to step in and provide the identity which the offender is seeking. What if, when new inmates were incarcerated, they were greeted with the opportunity to grow educationally and intellectually, to gain a better life? What a difference that would have made in my own story. Instead, I was greeted by a very large man who slapped me around telling me that I was "at Polk" and that he "ran Polk." Sadly, this was not an inmate, but a guard. I say this not to slander or cause strife, but to contrast what is as opposed to what could be.

From the inmate's first day in prison an assessment should begin. The inmate should be tested for psychological stability and educational attainment. Then – from day one – a plan should be set in motion which aims at successfully transitioning the offender back into society. This means analyzing the results of the tests and placing the prisoner in the requisite programs. If the prisoner has a substance abuse problem, they should be placed in substance abuse treatment. The same should be true of other psychological disorders. Once treatment is completed, they should be placed in some form of aftercare, which is the industry standard in private facilities outside of prison.

As for the educational assessment, first the new intake's records should be reviewed to see if they possess a GED or a high school diploma. If not, they should be immediately placed in GED classes. Too often I have seen prisoners wait months or years before being placed into these basic adult education classes. There is no reason that a prisoner who can't read, but desires to, should have to wait years to obtain this skill. If it’s taking years for the academically deficient prisoner to become enrolled in basic adult education classes, then the process is skewed and needs to be fixed. It's just that simple.

After the prisoner earns their GED, or if they already possess a GED or high school diploma, they should be counseled as to what options are available to them at their facility (e.g. Adult Continuing Education courses, vocational courses, college courses, etc.), anything that is available to them on-site. They should also be counseled as to what options are available to them outside of their facility (e.g. correspondence courses, etc.) and the costs associated with them. It is only through a personal invitation that many will accept, or even know about, available educational opportunities. I know this firsthand because I regularly field questions from the inmate population at FCI-Petersburg regarding what is available. Often, those inquiring have been here for some time and still don't know what is available.

At this point, a maintenance schedule needs to be implemented. Most prison systems enact a custody review or program review once or twice a year. The prisoner should be alerted as to new programming opportunities and even encouraged to engage in them. This is a very real opportunity to promote healthy change and thinking patterns. After all, much of the prison experience is one of anti-social or anti-democratic encounters. Anything that can be done to pull the prisoner out of that existence should be done.

And last, as the prisoner nears release, their Education Department should assist them with advancing their education. This should include informing the prisoner as to what kinds of educational institutions are open to them (e.g. community colleges, career resource centers, etc.) and available sources of funding (e.g. Pell Grants or other need-based grants). Steps should be made during this meeting to assist the soon-to-be-released prisoner with enrolling in a specific institution and gaining financial aid. This could include finding their local community college and obtaining the required enrollment forms. This could also include assisting the prisoner with filling out the enrollment forms and even filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). All steps which could assist the soon-to-be-released prisoner to continue on with their education should be exhausted.

In this post I've discussed several levels of correctional education (e.g. GED classes, Adult Continuing Education classes, vocational education classes, and even college classes) and the different stages of the prisoner's incarceration (e.g. admission, duration, nearing release). It is important to not see these as simply activities to occupy the inmate's time, but as their path to a successful transition back into society as a law abiding citizen.

Every educational opportunity engaged in is another step towards a life outside the purview of the criminal justice system. Every Certificate of Completion earned is another motivational step toward a healthy state of mind. And every skill learned while programming is a skill which can be used to find viable, sustainable employment. Ideally, all of these steps will come together to be the released prisoner's plan for success – a plan which doesn't include returning to prison for another stay.

As you can see, every attempt needs to be made to assist the incarcerated citizen in a smooth transition back into society. In my eyes – and in the eyes of others who study correctional education—the classroom in prison is where this healthy transition starts, and the community college outside of prison is where the transition ends...and hopefully propels the ex-prisoner to more than they could have ever hoped for in the first place.