FCI Petersburg's ACE Course Announcement Highlights Program Shortcomings

By Christopher Zoukis

In a recent post, I presented the list of new Adult Continuing Education (ACE) course offerings at FCI Petersburg, a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.  These courses included GED Math, GED Writing, Marketing, Automobile Sales, and Bookkeeping.  While the FCI Petersburg Education Department staff should be commended for allowing the ACE program to continue, the downsized format and stunted offerings are strikingly more limited than what they used to be.  There is so much more that could be done.  There is so much more that used to be done and should still be done. 

While I've detailed the changes at the FCI Petersburg Education Department in previous blog posts, a succinct reminder is always of use.  Leading up to the early 2012 changing of the guard, the FCI Petersburg Education Department was in a period of expansion.  GED classes and library services were commenced as scheduled (for the most part), inmate leadership was accepted and allowed to thrive, and the Adult Continuing Education (ACE) program was in its heyday with traditional ACE courses being held Monday through Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons, too.  There was also a popular Self-Paced ACE program for those who did not make it into an ACE class (due to space limitations). There was also an inmate-led and envisioned FastTrack GED program -- which operated at the same times as the traditional ACE courses -- that was a resounding success.  FCI Petersburg Education Department staff were open and accessible.  The role they played was that of educators, not correctional officers.

But then came the changing of the guard.  The former Supervisor of Education, under whom the programs were a success, left, as the ACE Coordinator (and prison teacher) who built the ACE program to a level no one thought possible.  Once these two central figures departed, one for retirement (I believe) and the other for a promotion to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Central Office, everything fell apart.  After the changeover, staff accountability dropped and program offerings plummeted.  Complacency pervaded the scene, not an educational or innovative spirit to foster.  While times were tough, no one could have imagined what was to come.

As noted, in its glory days, the ACE program at FCI Petersburg held classes 5 days a week.  Courses were allowed to run for up to 12 weeks.  Two or three different ACE classes were offered every available night (or afternoon, in the case of Saturdays).  In addition to this, the inmate-pioneered and inmate-instructed FastTrack GED program -- a program designed to help a number of inmates receive additional, intensive tutoring in GED subjects -- abided.  Program offerings were supported by significant interest from the inmates in general population.  Signups for the ACE classes took three days, with lines stretching down the Education Department building for several days in a row.  Often classes would max out at the allowable 15 to 25 students and a waiting list of 30 students would be prepared for the following quarter.  Inmate instructors were besieged with requests to find extra seats for students.  For my class, I regularly had additional students show up, not for the credit of class completion or for a certificate, but to monitor it for the knowledge being imparted.

These days, the 5 days of class time have been cut down to 3.  Course lengths have been cut from a maximum of 12 weeks down to an allowable 6 to 8 weeks.  And the 10 to 13 offered ACE classes have been cut down to 3 regular ACE classes.  The FastTrack GED program has been done away with, and in its place are several ACE classes which attempt to cover some of the same materials, while taking up classrooms for the ACE program.  Less is being done with less.  Prior inmate leadership, which was the heart and soul of the ACE program, disappeared like smoke on the wind.  Even inmate ACE teachers, who teach for the passion of teaching and truly care about their students, view the new FCI Petersburg Education Department leadership as a skeleton of its former self, many have left.  One ACE instructor was fired for voicing a complaint concerning his classroom door not being unlocked in time for his class to start.  Another inmate, one of the ones who essentially ran the ACE program, was fired due to his job "no longer being necessary."  A day later, a new inmate was hired, one cowed by a lack of passion, drive, and initiative.

Looking at the current state of the FCI Petersburg Education Department is not an easy task.  Watching program offerings being cut and students left out in the cold hurts.  It pains me.  As a true prison educator, I empathize with my students and I feel their pain and frustration.  As an advocate, I try to do what I can to help fill their needs.  But as an inmate, there is nothing I can do when drastic policy changes are enacted, and the new policies staff don't foster a culture of professionalism and accountability.

I'm a true believer in educating America's incarcerated class.  I've been taught in the prison classroom and I've taught in the prison classroom.  I've administered an Adult Continuing Education program inside a federal prison.  And, now, I've watched all of my hard work, and the opportunities which helped me to grow be burned to the ground.  Pardon me if I'm a bit sour, bit it is lives we're talking about here.  If we don't help our students, who will?  If we allow ineptitude or apathy to stunt opportunities for growth and reformation, we're part of the problem, not the solution.  So while I might not possess the authority here -- at FCI Petersburg -- to change much of anything, I will not stop from trying.  For when I look into my former students’ eyes, when they bring their friends to me who are begging for some kind of educational opportunity which can help them become something more, I feel for them.  And I am one of them.

The schoolhouse doors are there, the classrooms too, but no lights are on and no one is home.