Prison Study Groups: Finding Space for Success

By Christopher Zoukis

In Bruce Michaels' book College In Prison: Information and Resources for Incarcerated Students, he presents the positive reasons -- along with the potential negatives -- to forming a study group for prospective incarcerated college students.  I like a number of his ideas and would like to explore the concept of forming institutionally-approved study groups with the PrisonEducation.com community.  Image courtesy survivingstudenthood.wordpress.com

Truthfully, at first glance, this concept seems like an inherently bad idea.  I say this because I am a prisoner and I see what the average prisoner does when given freedom.  Sadly, most will abuse leeway to its fullest extent.  This principle applies most stringently toward the average prisoner, not necessarily the incarcerated college student.

I can also see tremendous possibilities, too, when considering a room where students can meet to work on school work, utilize typewriters, and enjoy the company of other intelligent and motivated incarcerated students.  For this group of prisoners, I don't see any problems with entrusting them with a quiet room to study and work.  Even the concept would be a hard one to refute since it is focused on pro-social growth, a growth which fosters following the rules of the institution and that of society.

What is clear to me is that with proper management and staff supervision, a study group with a private room could be a Godsend for incarcerated students.  As I say this I am visualizing a room in the FCI Petersburg Education Department which is not being used and just large enough for this purpose.  Anyone?

If this sort of idea is plausible for your institution, I implore you to contemplate it.  Speak with a few of your currently enrolled college students and inmate educators to see if they would be open to this.  Perhaps they have ideas as to where there is room or what kind of regulations would enable its success?  After all, these are the boots-on-the-ground personnel who would not only be utilizing the room's service, but also see much more of how the institution operates -- successes and failures -- than staff do.  They live in the prison after all.

If I were to manage such a college study room, I would concentrate upon four areas of concern.  These are as follows:

Management of Location

The idea of having a privilege governed on the honor system is fine when dealing with honest incarcerated students, but not when the location is accessible to the general population.  So, at all times, a trusted inmate educator should act as the room's trustee.  This means ensuring it is clean, stocked with any supplies and that all that enter are on an approved list.  Because of the level of responsibility, this person should be trusted and above reproach.

In fact, it might be worth the effort to set up a committee -- composed of incarcerated students who will be utilizing the room -- which governs the room's policies and procedures.  This committee could vote upon the proper trustee and come together to discuss other room-related concerns periodically.  This would allow for inmate involvement in their success and future.

Staff Supervision

Throughout the day a staff member should swing by the study room to ensure that only approved students are utilizing it.  They should do so once or twice an hour when it is open.  Any inmate caught in the room who is not approved to be there should be issued an incident report on the spot.  This is vital.  Policy without teeth is no policy at all.  By enforcing a strict authorization policy, the room and its approved participants will both be able to fulfill their purpose going forward and the sanctity and regulation of the room will be sustainable for a significant period of time.

Supplies

This study room should be furnished with a large table, several smaller tables, a number of chairs, and typewriters.  The last item -- typewriters -- are absolutely essential.  Students need to be able to type their school papers.  If possible, this study room should also have a door on it so that noise and visitors from outside it are not encouraged.

While pens and paper would probably be too much to ask -- since budgets and expectations are what they are -- it wouldn't hurt for prison administrations to look for small ways to assist incarcerated students with their studies.  For example, perhaps lined paper, typing paper, or other needed supplies could be furnished.  If a prison's Education Department has a surplus of funding for a particular quarter or year, they could even purchase a supply of typewriter ribbons and correction tapes so that indigent incarcerated students would be able to type their school papers, too.  The concept here is what is possible, not what necessarily has been done in the past.

Environment

The goal of this college study room should be to be as friendly and academic as possible.  By resembling a public library's lounge or war room, study and growth will be facilitated.  Also, as with a study hall, the room should be as quiet as possible.  This very well could be its greatest asset.  Many incarcerated students, the author included, would utilize a mop closet if it had a chair, desk, light, and was quiet.  Prisons are notoriously loud places.  This could all be tied back in with the concept of a governing council for the room.  As such, regular users of the study room would see any problems that arise and be able to rectify the matters via council meetings.

With proper institutional management, a study room for college students to congregate and work in would be a tremendous asset to any prison's Education Department.  Such a room would facilitate college-level studies, provide a place of sanctuary for incarcerated students, and allow prisoner-students to feel involved in their own future.  They key, though, would be in ensuring that it is used only for approved activities by approved students.

NOTE:

Naturally, if anyone from the FCI Petersburg Education Department is reading this, I am more than willing to assist with the creation and management of such a program.  I know just the room.