Prison Education: An Instructor Who Cheats?!

I am angry! Ok, I said it. I, a 25-year-old federal prisoner, who has bright red stars tattooed on his hands, am angry. I note my appearance and age because of the irony of the situation. The description that I just gave you of myself probably doesn't inspire a general feeling of moral behavior or ethics. But both are front and center in the issue at hand.

The other day Mr. Batton and Mr. Rigney (one of the GED tutors) brought a new man to me. They introduced the man as a "well-learned man; a man who educated himself from behind bars." He has salt and pepper hair, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and comes across as a decent guy. Moreover, he was inquiring about becoming a GED tutor in the Education Department. All of this seemed to make him a potential asset to the Education Department. But boy was I wrong.

Today I went to Dental...yet again. While waiting up there at 9:00 a.m., the man came out of the Medical Department wing and sat down next to me. We struck up a conversation about his educational past. After all, I was a familiar face and the last time I had seen him was in the Education Department, where we spoke about him becoming a GED tutor or ACE (Adult Continuing Education) instructor.

He explained to me that he had just done some time in Indiana State Prison. This piqued my interest because Dr. John Marc Taylor, the author of the Prisoner's Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, had spent a number of years in Indiana State Prison. Dr. Taylor had even earned a number of degrees while in that system. Furthermore, I had recently read an article from the Correctional Education Association's website which was on Indiana's prison education scene. The article was authored by Stephen Streurer, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association.

The man started to explain to me how great it was there. He explained that Indiana University offers courses to all of the prisoners. It is my understanding that the courses are free to prisoner participants. Although, I recently heard that they have since stopped providing free courses to prisoners (Editor's Note: This program is no longer offered as of 2016). Regardless, the man explained to me that for an Associate’s degree the Indiana State Prison System gives the recipient 1 year off of their sentence. This is to be applauded. It provides a tangible incentive to educate oneself while in prison. The time credit portion of this is verified by Stephen Streurer's article.

Here is where I took umbrage. He began to explain to me that he had not only earned an Associate’s Degree through Indiana University, but that he had helped a number of other prisoners do the same...by cheating. He explained to me that they would sign up for a portfolio course where they just had to write papers. They would give him the work to do, and he would do it for them...for a price. He even went to the extent of explaining how widespread his assisted-cheating was. He said that it got to the point where he was writing so many papers/business plans for people in a particular business class that he had to adjust his writing style accordingly. He said that he could even use a previously graded paper/business plan as long as it had not crossed the desk of the professor who had graded it the first time around.

I was outraged! How dare a man like this discount all of the hard work that I do in my studies! How dare he soil the reputation of the prisoner-student with this filth! How dare he jovially say, "Glad they never found out. If they knew of all the cheating I did on my own courses, they would probably take my own degree." The worst part was that he was bragging. He was entertained by all of this. He seemed to relish his ability to outsmart a system designed to educate the disenfranchised. To him, outsmarting the system implied he was smarter than the system. This rationale is formless, chaotic, and devious. It is sometimes referred to as ‘ethical pragmatism,’ a very popular doctrine, which always turns out to be the doctrine of self-interest. His unseemly crowing about his academic swindle left me feeling sick to my stomach. 

The truth of the matter is that I feel defrauded. I feel cheated for myself since I work so hard to make good grades without the aid of cheating. I feel cheated for Indiana University because this charlatan compromised the integrity of the degrees that they've awarded to prisoners. And as an educator, I feel as though this man is undermining the success of much needed programs like Indiana University's. As I said in the beginning, I am angry.

This blog brings forth three truths that need to be voiced.

One, I came to prison five years ago without a moral compass. Yet, through extensive religious and college study I have discovered a new path. I consider this a triumph. Just five years ago, I might have agreed with this man's philosophy on cheating. That’s a sad and sobering thought.  Yet the fact of the matter is that at the present juncture, I do not agree with it.  I have grown morally and socially responsible. 

Two, programs for prisoners like the one offered through Indiana University are needed and carry inordinate value. They help thousands of honest prisoner-students obtain an education and change the trajectory of their lives. These programs very much might result in the difference between returning to prison or living in general society, between poverty and prosperity.

Three, I have already stepped up and done what I can to make sure that this con artist doesn’t taint any more degrees. I have spoken to Mr. Batton – and I plan on speaking with Mr. Rigney – about this man. If I have anything to say about it, this man will not be in a position of power, authority, or accountability. To allow him to become an instructor would not only be unethical but would be disrespectful to the educator's profession.

I know that from where I stand one is not often commended for being honest or employing ethical reasoning. Moral and ethical pragmatism saturate the environment of the American prison system. It's just the way it is. But my hope – and the hope of millions now and in the future – is that through obtaining an education I can break the bonds that bind me, both mental and physical. I for one am in the race of my life. A race that I hope and pray will end with a college degree, an enlightened mind, and waking up to my mom cooking breakfast. God willing one day this will be my reality.

Editor's Note: The program at the University of Indiana is no longer offered.