Prison Education: Not Just a Desire, But a Willingness

I had a very frustrating day the other day! For several weeks the Education Department at FCI-Petersburg has been trying to get me in contact with a gentleman who recently earned his GED. He had expressed a desire to further his studies at either the career-level or college-level. But, he didn't have any funds to pursue a higher-level education. So, they called in me. After all, I'm now their go-to guy in terms of correspondence programs and prison education.

On Wednesday, I showed up and met with the man. At first I was open to helping him, but my interest c waned considerably after about 30 minutes. I greeted the man, introduced myself, and started asking questions. Surprise, surprise, he was uninterested. In an attempt to inform the man of my expertise in the field of correctional education, I told him about the book – Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security – being published in December. This seemed to pique his interest a little bit. Well, he was interested enough to actually look at me and pay attention.

We discussed his goals and aspirations. After some time, we settled upon paralegal studies at the career level. After settling on the level and kind of studies, I assisted him in selecting Blackstone Career Institute as a school. I directed him to write the school a letter requesting their enrollment information. This is when the problems started.

I guess he was fine with saying that he wanted to continue his education, but he didn't want to do any work. So, he asked me if I could write to them for him. I said no. After all, if he won't even write to the school to request the enrollment information, then he certainly wouldn’t do the work necessary to complete the courses. At this point the college coordinator overheard us and happened to have the enrollment information for Blackstone.

As we looked over the information, I explained the payment plan policy of Blackstone ($59 per month), and I attempted to get him enrolled. This was when the financial issues came about.

I explained to him his options. I first started by suggesting that he ask his family or friends for assistance. I suggested that he get all of his ducks in a row and send a very detailed – and compassionate – letter explaining exactly what he needed from them. This way they would see that he was serious about continuing his studies. He pondered this for a moment and exclaimed that he couldn't ask his family because he had kids and they needed the money. At this I inquired as to his extended family. What occurred next blew my mind.

He asked me to write to his biological father on his behalf. This was not something that I was comfortable with. I was willing to assist him in enrolling, finding funding, and even assist him in his studies, but I was not willing to write to his family for him. Upon me saying no, he turned to the college coordinator and tried to convince her. Needless to say, she too declined.

He then looked at me and asked what else could be done. I suggested that he could apply for "The Prison Scholar Fund," the only prisoner-specific scholarship program in the U.S. that I know of. I explained that he would have to write them, request an application, fill-out the application and enclose three essays, and wait to see if they accepted him. I also cautioned him that their funding was minimal, so even deserving candidates might not receive financial aid. After hearing this, he became discouraged. The real answer was for him to man up and write his Dad a letter. But, he continued to decline.

The next suggestion I made was to select a few religious, non-profit, and private organizations that he felt he aligned with ideologically. I suggested that he compose a heartfelt – yet detailed – letter to send to a number of these. This way he could attempt to gain funding for his studies. I even suggested that he not ask one single organization to pay for all of his studies, but a just a portion. That way he would be able to show them his report card to prove his determination. Hence, be able to secure additional funding from them in the future. Again, he was unimpressed with my suggestion.

Around this time one of the women from the Psychology Department walked into the room where we were sitting. Upon her arrival, he ignored me. Apparently, he was acquainted with her. They spoke and she sat down to try to help him. She offered him a few incorrect suggestions as to where to obtain funding for school, incorrect because prisoners aren't eligible for federal student aid. I tried to interject the truth of the situation, but he wasn't interested. He only wanted to speak with the woman from Psychology. Turns out he was more interested in looking at her than furthering his education.

After a few minutes, I went on my way.

While this situation was a big waste of my time, I was happy to do what I could. I'm a big fan of assisting anyone who wants to further their education. I just wish that those who aren't willing to do what it takes would not ask for help in the first place. Regardless, this showed me an important truth that I've been missing. This truth is that some are willing to say that they want to further their education, but aren't willing to do what it takes. Knowing such, I can better prepare myself for these meetings. I can go into them with expectations tempered by truth. Yet, hope for more.