It's a Friday afternoon and the inmates of FCI-Petersburg -- a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia – are abuzz. Some are playing handball or basketball on the rec-yard. Others are watching ESPN and banging loudly upon tables and trashcans as highlights are shown. And still others are stealing food out of the kitchen or engaging in any other number of ‘hustles.’ This is typical of a federal prison.
What's not typical is a group of what appear to be students, hunkered down in room 105 of the Education Department. They sit quietly at their desks, pens in hand, taking notes. Their instructor is not a staff member or a guard, as one would expect, but a fellow prisoner by the name of Bill Batton. And these inmates are not students, but inmate instructors in FCI-Petersburg's Adult Continuing Education Program.
The Adult Continuing Education (ACE) program is an innovative solution to current budgetary restrictions and low educational staff numbers. The program revolves around educated inmate instructors teaching their fellow prisoners. This allows the inmate instructors to find a sense of meaning and purpose while behind bars, and at the same time provides the inmate students with the opportunity of increasing their knowledge about a variety of subjects.
The classes offered are surprisingly diverse. In the last year, FCI-Petersburg's ACE program has offered the following courses to interested inmates:
•Barber Science (informational, not hands-on)
•Business Management 1 & 2
•Commercial Driver’s License (informational, not licensure)
•Electronic Law Library Introduction
•Legal: Post-Conviction Remedies
•Military History 1, 2, & 3
•NAPA Vehicle Repair (informational, not hands-on)
•Pawn Shop Ownership
•Spanish 1 & 2
The amazing part of the ACE program is that it costs the prison practically nothing to operate. This is because the inmate instructors create the lesson plans, provide the required materials, and teach the classes. And for this, each instructor receives $10 per quarter. With 13 inmate instructors teaching approximately 260 students each quarter, the immediate cost is $130 plus making any copies which the instructor might need. (Full Disclosure: Inmate instructors also receive one dry erase marker, one pad of paper, and enough pencils and paper folders for each student to have one. Also, some classes have received textbooks paid for by the Education Department). Putting aside the ethics of paying someone $10 per 12 hours of in-class instruction and another one or two dozen hours of prep time, this is a remarkable program because of economical and efficient it is. Talk about utilizing existing resources!
This is an inspiring program. It shows how inmates – persons deemed too dangerous to remain in society -- can make a difference even while confined. The ACE program shows how prisons across the nation can offer low-cost, diverse educational programming which utilizes existing resources and classroom space. But most of all, it shows that even in the depths of a federal prison, compassion is possible and true transformational change is still possible.