Stop, Stop, Now Go: Is it Ok to be Successful Now?

By Christopher Zoukis

Over the past several months a nagging inconsistency has presented itself.  This is of a generally stated goal of preparing inmates for reintegration back into society through education, training, and rehabilitation, but requiring them to wait until the gates open to actually practice any of the skills we ostentatiously are attempting to facilitate.  Is it just me or is this a crazy concept?

When I first started writing...well, I didn't first start writing.  I started by learning the alphabet.  Then, after mastering individual letters, I worked on understanding words.  From there I progressed to sentences, punctuation, paragraphs, letters, and now, research papers and books.  This is at least how the process of learning works for me; concept, specifics, practice, perfection (eventually).  Irrespective of my experience, common practice in correctional facilities would have you believe otherwise.

In the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmates are encouraged to learn new skills.  This is facilitated through GED classes, Adult Continuing Education Classes (ACE), vocational training courses (VOTEC), reading, and even college correspondence courses (if the inmate can afford the cost of them).  In my mind -- as one who has both taught and been taught in a correctional setting -- this covers the first two steps of the learning process: concept (academic or general knowledge) and specifics (specifically how to engage in the desired skill/task).  Yet, that is where the learning process ceases for most federal prisoners.

Let’s look at a real life example.  I fancy myself a writer.  Since I haven't been able to find an accessible journalist program (either via correspondence or in person), I have put together a program of study which I believe covers the basics.  This program started with earning a GED, then a real high school diploma, a few certificates and diplomas in subject areas which interest me, and now, a college program of study which includes both writing itself and business management components.  Thus, the concept and specifics stages of the learning process have been covered.

While still involved in academic studies, I've stepped into the realm of practice.  I've done so through writing articles, my first book Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security, and even founding and editing the Education Behind Bars Newsletter(EBBN).  Then, my world came apart.  I was being too successful with the newsletter.  In a rather absurd show of force the Federal Bureau of Prisons called the free newsletter a business, threw me in the hole, and cut me off from my family (for a significant period of time letters were my primary means of communication).

The problem appears to be that I had delved too far into the practice of journalism (what the prison administration of FCI Petersburg called a "business," I called a volunteer position since there was no financial incentive).  At the point in which EBBN was being mentioned in the prison media it became necessary to shut it down and go after the editors and contributors alike.  While this is an isolated incident -- one in which the contributors have been cleared of wrongdoing and I've been cleared of all three of the issued incident reports -- it shows an all too clear common belief and disconnect from rational thought.

Why is it that it's ok for the incarcerated writer or future entrepreneur or skilled artist to learn their craft (conceptually or specifically), but not practice it successfully?  How is it that we can expect them to succeed on that magic release date, without stumbling, when the shackles have restricted them from the true practice which they so desperately need?  Why can't those who are willing to work -- within the restrictions of incarceration -- do so?

While my situation is probably not typical -- and I certainly wasn't making any money from my editing of a free publication -- what bad could really come from allowing inmates to practice a vocation while incarcerated?  I already hear the argument: "So, you want us taxpayers to pay to incarcerate the offender and allow them to make money while in prison?"  No, that is not what I'm suggesting.  In fact, I'm proposing something much more radical.

I propose allowing prisoners -- "offenders" in industry parlance -- to be responsible.  Crazy, I know!  What if we allowed prisoners to learn a skill, practice a profession, refine their skills, and pay back the prison for their cost of incarceration?  By following a model such as this, the inmate could leave prison mid-swing in a career.  They could have the practice needed to succeed.  All the while, they would be paying back what they are taking from the system.

This concept is somewhat already in place in limited circumstances.  UNICOR -- Federal Prison Industries, Inc. -- comes to mind in the federal prison system and work release comes to mind in the North Carolina prison system.  Though those don't take it far enough.  It's not enough for the prisoner to be forced into some kind of remedial position which they have no interest in pursuing upon release.  Plus, to the best of my knowledge, these programs don't pay enough to be feasible -- or require -- participants to contribute to the cost of incarceration.

A hard look needs to be taken at the disconnection between education, training, rehabilitation, and that of practice.  While the idea I'm proposing is just that, an idea.  It does follow common sense.  We can't expect prisoners to magically be good at something (e.g., engaging in a profession) when we say "go."  We need to give them the time to practice.  We need to support them as they start out and we need to start treating them as erring adults, not invalids who are bound to fail (which, sadly, is what seems to happen to most).

Until we allow the incarcerated to learn new skills and practice them, we are dooming them to failure and ourselves to a never-ending cycle of paying for the exasperated enforcement of criminal law and the incarceration of those who continue to violate it.