Locating Qualified Inmate Instructors

By Christopher Zoukis

A friend approached me the other day and inquired as to whether I knew anyone at my prison who would be a good pre-GED instructor/tutor.  As I thought about it, a few names came to mind, but they were all people from years past.  They were the former MIT instructor who once toured China teaching engineering.  Or the man who recently died -- Rick Foster -- who held a master's in education.  Or even another good friend of mine who used to teach graphic arts at a small liberal arts college.  But as I ran through the list of people who would be good candidates to ask, I realized that they all had either been released from prison, died in prison, or had transferred to a lower security prison.  Thus, I was stumped.This conundrum bothered me since I figured that I would be a good person to ask such a question.  After all, I'm more of the publishing guru in these parts (this has a lot to do with my past teaching of the Writing and Publishing Adult Continuing Education class).  As such, those interested in a higher calling while incarcerated -- regardless of what it might be since high achievers tend to write about their exploits -- tend to come to me for advice and direction.  This instigated the topic for this post.  How would a prison educator locate qualified inmate instructors to teach in their classroom?  Here are some ideas:

Prior Academic Achievement: Many prison systems maintain a computer records keeping system where an inmate's prior academic achievements (if any) are recorded.  By accessing such a system, inmates who possess a graduate degree -- or even an undergraduate degree -- can easily be identified.  This would be a great starting point to locate qualified inmate instructors for your classroom.  Print off a list of those who hold academic credentials, ask them to meet with you, and evaluate the person as a potential candidate for a teaching position in your Education Department.

Ask Current Inmate Instructors for Recommendations: This method of locating qualified inmate instructors can be both a blessing and a curse.  On the blessing side, the existing inmate instructors ideally already know others who are similarly situated.  As such, they can speak with those they associate with and try to find a good fit for their classroom.  While this is a terrific method of finding qualified teachers, it also carries a potential curse.  The inmate might recommend a friend who is not a very good fit.  But since they will have brought an applicant to your attention, you might be more at ease with simply hiring them.  If you ask for recommendations from your current inmate tutors, ensure to vet their recommendations just as thoroughly as you would a walk-in candidate.

Ask Housing Unit Counselors/Managers for Recommendations: The Federal Bureau of Prisons utilizes the Unit Team model of inmate management and monitoring.  Essentially, every housing unit is monitored and managed by a team of three or more staff members.  There is a unit manager (who manages higher level unit issues), a case manager (who handles custody and paperwork issues), and a correctional counselor (who directly supervises front-line officers and manages housing assignments and other day-to-day matters).  These people oversee the inmates in their housing unit and, as such, have regular interactions with them.  The correctional counselor has the most interaction with the inmates in their housing unit and usually reviews pre-sentence investigation reports, which explains what the inmate used to do for a living and their educational background.  As such, an email to the various correctional counselors in your prison could do wonders.  They might have good ideas for inmates under their care who have the aptitude and patience required of good inmate instructors.

Post Signs Seeking Applicants: An effective way of locating qualified inmate instructors is to simply create a flyer and have it posted in your prison's Education Department, housing units, and Recreation Department.  On the flyer specify what you are looking for (e.g., an inmate instructor who preferably has teaching experience and an existing academic degree).  On the flyer you can suggest that interested inmates either submit an Inmate Request to Staff form (called a "Cop-Out" in the Federal Bureau of Prisons) or that they make in-person inquiries during your open house hours.  You should have several inmates show up or submit requests from which to choose.

Inmate Instructors From Other Departments: If all else fails, you could brainstorm as to which other departments utilize inmates to teach classes or lead groups.  Many prison Psychology Departments have a number of classes which are inmate-taught.  The same is true of housing units which sponsor Anger Management and other classes.  Even the Chapel has services and studies which are inmate-led.  These inmates could, with some direction, become terrific inmate instructors.  In fact, they might not even know of an opening in the Education Department.  Thus, a simple invitation to speak about the possibility could be all that is needed.

With budgets being what they are and prison educators being asked to do more with what they already have (or even with less), there is no choice but to find informed ways to reduce costs while increasing productivity.  The utilization of inmate instructors is a great option.  Here at FCI Petersburg, one staff prison educator will oversee two or three inmate tutors/instructors.  This way, as the teacher is teaching a concept to his or her classroom, the inmate instructors can assist students who are having a challenging time with the concepts at hand.  But finding qualified inmate instructors is the challenge.  Hopefully the advice contained in this post will help you to do just that.  This way you can step away from a budget conundrum and step toward a more productive, more promising week of teaching.