Providing College To Prison Inmates Series (Part 4)

This is the fourth 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.

"Accept both limitations and possibilities when considering how to provide correctional education." –Contardo (pg. 155)

In the prison environment, utilizing innovative solutions for correctional education is not always an easy task. One might think the common sense path to fruition would be the most efficient route, but because of policy or politics, the path is closed. So, when hypothesizing about programming implementation, reality and experience are necessary elements. This is because, at times, rules and regulations are arbitrary, lacking any perceptible rhyme or reason. They are because they are and that is the way it will continue to be.

The truth of the matter is that it is difficult to start new programming opportunities in a correctional setting. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, prisons are institutions of security. As such, everything must be viewed in the light of: does the program violate existing safety parameters? For example, even a Geology course which contained certain rocks could be a security concern because of the rocks being considered weapons. The same is true of spiral-bound notebooks and three-ring binders. The metal binding is prohibited.

Other difficulties may arise based upon prison staff politics. If the program is to be implemented in the Education Department, then you'll need the support of the Associate Warden over the Education Department. Though, if the Associate Warden over Education is more of a supervisor, not a true administrator, then you'll need the support of the Supervisor of Education or Assistant Supervisor of Education. The same is true if your proposed project utilizes space in a classroom already being used for something else by someone else. In this circumstance, you would need to seek approval from the individual teacher or person utilizing the classroom. Do note that in a prison setting authority is based upon a hierarchal basis. Hence, approval from the Warden, an Assistant Warden, or the Supervisor of Education may be all that is needed. Or, everyone might need to be consulted. This is probably a local issue, not a global one, dependent upon the staff at each institution, not the prison system as a whole.

When looking at implementing educational programming, you should first view the possibilities. This means to explore the idea intellectually. Think of what could work for the particular institution. Consider current programming and how improvements can be made. For example, if a college program is already in place, perhaps you can brainstorm ways to improve it or expand it. If the highest level of academic instruction at your institution is the Adult Continuing Education program – as it is here at FCI-Petersburg – perhaps there are other locations where more classes could be held. Or, perhaps there is a way to improve the quality of the courses being offered. Dream a little and see how much good you can do. After all, if you aren't dreaming, then who will?

While dreaming is nice, we do have to keep an eye on the reality of the situation. With this being said, take into account any absolute limitations. These could be in the form of budgetary limitations, local educational providers, security limitations, or even offender limitations.

If your Education Department only has a very specific dollar figure per year or quarter, see what can be done within those limitations. Look where fat could be cut. Perhaps there is a single program at your institution which is not very economical, depleting all funding on a regular basis. Perhaps modifications could be made to it to improve its efficiency, hence allowing for other educational programming. While a tough road to travel, this avenue might be the most fruitful because many decisions are based upon budgetary restrictions in a correctional setting.

Another limiting factor to consider is the availability, and willingness, of local educational providers. For all intents and purposes, you should be considering community colleges and perhaps universities if they have a good record of educating diverse groups (e.g. Boston University). These local institutions are your best bet unless you can find an institution at a distance which has a program which could be implemented at your prison (e.g. New Mexico's computerized distance learning program). Though, prison administrators, and the educational institution themselves, will probably be more open to a local solution as opposed to one at a distance.

As for security, look at the security of the institution. For example, if you're attempting to implement a new program at a low security prison, much more will be allowed than at a medium security prison or a maximum security prison. The same is true regarding the inmate's housing. Implementing educational programs at a general population institution would be much easier than at a Security Management Unit or Special Housing Unit. This is because the general population is free to walk to the Education Department, while those in a SMU or SHU are confined to a cell for approximately 23 hours a day.

And last, offender limitations must be taken into account. Some prisons cater to a specific demographic of inmates. Examples are drug offenders, mentally deficient offenders, juveniles, violent offenders, terrorist offenders, and so on. If your prison is demographic-specific, take a hard look at any content that you'd like to cover. This is because prison administrations at these kind of institutions are hyper-sensitive about the content that these offenders may access. If the prison has a Psychology Department, confer with them regarding what is appropriate.

To put it succinctly, inject the reality of limitations into the devised and perhaps impractical possibilities to come to a realistic program model. This activity will temper your expectations and put you on a truer path. Complete your research first so that you aren't shot down later—or worse – become embarrassed by just not knowing. A little research in the beginning can go a long way toward program approval and/or saving you a large amount of time working on the program or a facet of it.

It's also important to realize that the most ideal way of implementing your program might not be the most possible way. This goes back to the very bureaucratic prison regulations and politics. So, be flexible and open. Be willing to alter your plans so that they are more agreeable to the prison's administration and those in positions of authority. Always be willing to modify, but not sacrifice. This means that if a certain component won't work, see what you can do to replace the component, without necessarily cutting it out completely.

Implementing educational programming in a prison setting is a tough task. Many problems can ensue and answers may be tough to come by. Often one will hear "no," but no real justification. Or, they might be dealing with someone in charge who would rather relax than put in the hard work required to make a real difference. Don't let any of this discourage you. Push forward, work hard, and persevere. When something doesn't work, make modifications until it does. Don't stress out about any denials that you might receive, but celebrate the approvals and the successes that are still to come.

And above all else, remember that you're doing what others have failed to do. You're the one bringing the torch of education into the prisons, the very depths of despair in American society. You are the one making a difference!