FCI Petersburg Education Department Fosters a Culture of Failure

By Christopher Zoukis

While I know you must be tired of hearing about the FCI Petersburg Education Department being closed -- trust me, the inmates of FCI Petersburg are tired of it, too -- but it is closed yet again.  In fact, it has been closed for most of the day.  While we should be used to this sort of disrespectful treatment, lack of notice, and loss of class time and legal research time, each additional instance when it is closed is like an additional slap in the face to those who yearn for the school doors to be unchained, and for knowledge to be accessible and allowed at FCI Petersburg.  A closed library serves no one.

I'm sad to report that the FCI Petersburg Education Department is closed more and more these days.  The culture of failure is thus reinforced.  In fact, a portion of the leisure library was closed from 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM for a shakedown.  Then, the entire Education Department was closed from 12:40 PM until 2:00 PM (plus the normal 10:30 AM to 12:40 PM closure) for an additional shakedown.  But I can assert that it is not being searched for contraband tonight because all of the lights are off and no one is home.  It was also closed last Thursday night (again, no lights and no one to unlock the door).  One is left to wonder if the administration of the FCI Petersburg Education Department even wants the inmate population to frequent their establishment of alleged learning.  God knows that the incarcerated students of FCI Petersburg want to learn, but if no one is there to unlock the door, no learning can take place.

To put today's various closures into perspective, this means that all leisure library services were cancelled from the hours of 9:00 AM until 10:00 AM.  During this time period, GED classes were halted since the teachers were busy shaking down the leisure library area.  The afternoon closure caused all GED classes, leisure library services, and law library services to be cancelled.  And the closure tonight (from 5:00 PM until 8:30 PM) causes leisure library services, law library services, and all Adult Continuing Education (ACE) classes to be cancelled.  This is a sad statement on the educational culture -- and the culture of accountability -- at FCI Petersburg.

Truth be told, the entire culture in the FCI Petersburg Education Department has been in shambles ever since former Supervisor of Education Ms. Morris and former teacher and Adult Continuing Education Coordinator Ms. England departed.  Almost immediately upon their departure the problems started.  At first, the Adult Continuing Education (ACE) program came crashing down.  The new teacher with the collateral duty of being the ACE Coordinator gutted the program.  She fired the inmate ACE leadership, slashed class times, and reduced course offerings.  A good number of inmate ACE instructors were either forced out because of these program changes or left because they couldn't stand for the deterioration of program quality.  They simply wouldn't allow their students to be insulted by frequent Education Department closures (thus unexpected class cancellations) or lack of needed resources to teach the classes.  They also wouldn't stand for the culture of disrespecting both students and inmate instructors which the new ACE Coordinator brought with her.

Exacerbating the gutting of the ACE program is the inconsistency of the new FCI Petersburg Education Department administration.  They simply close on a whim and without any form of notice.  This sends the message that they feel as though the incarcerated students of FCI Petersburg are not worthy of the education to be imparted or their time.  To persons already downtrodden, this can be devastating and irreparable.  After all, a large part of our jobs as prison educators is to sell the concepts of self-worth and education being a worthwhile pursuit.  These frequent closures are detrimental to both goals.

If the frequent, unexpected closures and gutting of educational programming isn't enough, even the feel of the FCI Petersburg Education Department has changed.  This is because Education Department staff is now harassing those who utilize the library.  The new ACE Coordinator -- and one of the other staff educators -- can be heard screaming about the level of noise (something at a much lower level than their yelling), interrogating library patrons about the reason for them frequenting the establishment, and frequent shakedowns which appear to be employed in an effort to dissuade library usage.  Staff are now even asserting that inmates are not allowed to sit in the library -- at any of the numerous tables -- to discuss political or educational matters, manuscript preparation (as in manuscripts being penned by inmates), or other non-legal or non-library issued material reading.  The ferocity accompanying these interrogations is quite disturbing.  I, myself, was confronted for sitting at a table with one of my former students and discussing writing.  All we were doing was quietly discussing his manuscript (a book he's in the process of writing) and the Education Department staffer attempted to kick us out of the Education Department for this most productive and pro-social activity.  It was very disturbing.  The message was loud and clear: We don't want you here.

The matter becomes more serious when you take into account that the Education Department doesn't only house the GED/ACE classrooms and the leisure library, but the law library (typewriters and copiers included) and the mailing label printers.  Thursday nights are particularly bad nights to have such closures since it is the last night of the week that mail is collected at FCI Petersburg.  In fact, as I write this, my cellmate is in our cell writing something out by hand which has to be postmarked by tomorrow.  Luckily he already has a label for the piece of mail.  If he didn't, the civil suit he's involved with would be dismissed as untimely, thanks to the FCI Petersburg Education Department's inconsistency.  It is very frustrating for all involved.

The long and short of this situation is that the administration of FCI Petersburg needs to step up and do what needs to be done.  The Education Department needs to be managed by competent personnel who are willing to act in a professional and respectable manner.  When the Education Department is scheduled to be open, it should be open.  And when problems present themselves, notice needs to be made to the inmate population.  It is unacceptable for 100 inmates to be lined up outside of the Education Department waiting for the door to be unlocked so that they can go to class, only to be turned away because a staff member didn't fulfill their responsibility by showing up to work.  Until problems like these are resolved, the FCI Petersburg Education Department will continue to foster a culture of abject failure.

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Editorial Note: This post was submitted on Thursday, February 28th, 2013 and concerns that date.