I spent this morning consulting with a fellow prisoner -- a recent GED graduate -- at FCI Petersburg, a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. The consultation concerned the man enrolling in a college correspondence program. The problem was that he had gone to the FCI Petersburg Education Department's leisure library looking for some type of book or resource guide on college correspondence programs for incarcerated students, but left empty handed. The only relevant text available was the second edition of the Prisoners' Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada by Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D., a book published several years ago, which has since been updated and published again by Prison Legal News in 2009.*
Luckily for my prospective student friend, I happen to be the author of the text Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012). It's a prison education reference text that profiles various correspondence programs which inmates can enroll in. The problem is the FCI Petersburg Education Department will not stock a copy of this text. I've made a number of inquiries with the current FCI Petersburg Education Department Assistant Supervisor, but I never gain any traction. My Inmate-to-Staff emails are never answered -- and have never been since the email system was installed several years ago -- and I neither receive any approvals nor denials. Does this mean that higher education is dead at FCI Petersburg?
Since I'm now used to students needing the information contained in my book, information not made available to them by the FCI Petersburg Education Department staff, I always keep an extra copy of my text in my cell. The would-be student and I had a very productive morning. I explained to him about how the application process works, accreditation, the correspondence course modality, and we even settled upon a few schools which he was going to write to for more information (i.e., Upper Iowa University, Adams State College, and Ohio University). We ended our consultation with me writing out a sample letter which he could send to each school. As I walked away, he had pen in hand and was writing copies of the sample letter to send to each school.
I can't even begin to explain to you the feeling of knowing that through small actions, such as having the information an incarcerated student needs to further their education, larger plans can be put into the works. That student, a federal prisoner who just recently earned his GED, might now have a real chance at life. While he still has 12 more years until release, he now has a productive activity to engage in and work at which offers him a ticket to something better. While an incarcerated student who has a GED is certainly better than one that doesn't, one with a college degree really has a chance at a life outside of the confines of the American criminal justice system. He or she has something really going for them. The mere potential of these small actions is positively thrilling and unquantifiable.
But by the same token, FCI Petersburg Education Department's inertia is demoralizing and frustrating. It is difficult to understand the raison d'être for such indifference.
But there is hope. Through my former teaching of the "Writing and Publishing" Adult Continuing Education class, and through my notoriety as a writer, I am helping incarcerated students however I might and whenever I can. When someone heads up to the Education Department in search for information about enrolling in college, and they don't find what they are looking for, they eventually find their way to my door. And once at my door, I do what I can to help them enroll in college and navigate the byzantine protocols of the FCI Petersburg Education Department.
Author's Note: PrisonEducation.com strongly recommends Dr. Taylor's Prisoners' Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada (Prison Legal News, 2009). This is a terrific text which would be of use to any incarcerated student who is interested in enrolling in a college or vocational correspondence education program. If you are a prison educator, an administrator in a prison's Education Department, or a person who knows someone in prison, I highly recommend purchasing this text and making it available to those who could use it: prisoner students. Likewise, my text, Education Behind Bars, would be a worthwhile addition too.