Prison Education – What no one talks about

The problems with Inmate and prison education – What no one talks about.

Prison Education Why bother spending tax dollars and investing time, resources, and energy in educating incarcerated felons?  It’s easy to lock people away as degenerates and forget about them.  I know I never gave inmates in general much of a second thought…That is, until I entered the system as a teacher and became acutely aware of the big picture:  Prisoners who receive their GEDs and/or vocational certifications have lower rates of recidivism than those who do not.  Inmates who are actively engaged in education are also less likely to riot or engage in individual violence, whether inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff.  Plenty of studies support these assertions.  So you see, what goes on behind bars is as critical to society, communities, and prison staff as it is to the inmates themselves.

Recently, I voluntarily left a job as an academic instructor in a privatized prison.  I had been in that position for 28 months.  While that doesn’t sound long, in my experience that is practically considered longevity: During that relatively short time, out of a total of 5 academic classes and 6 vocational classes, 4 academic teachers (not including myself), 2 vocational instructors, and 2 substitute teachers left.  In fact, even more relevant, all of them except for one sub QUIT of their own volition.  This does not include the 3 vocational instructors who retired in that same amount of time.   Turnover is a huge problem.  Not only did I witness the multiple issues with inmate education first hand, but I have also explored it in depth as part of my doctoral program as I am planning a thesis in prison academics. Although my personal experiences are limited to one state, my research has revealed that the challenges I faced are pervasive throughout the United States.  And the same challenges permeate both private and government-run prisons.

Prison education is unlike any other instructional environment.  Prison teachers “must face a challenge that few, if any, other educators face.  It is the challenge of not only introducing new knowledge where the need for it is resented but also of integrating it so that the wish to change may be ‘inspired and developed’” (Sofferr, S., 2006, Corrections Today).  Most public, private, and higher education school mission statements address, in some form, such things as: social, moral, emotional, physical, and intellectual values, stewardship, character, self-esteem, independent thinking and learning, and respect for diversity.

Other school mission statements include the goal of escaping the generational cycle of poverty and freeing the mind (www.missionstatements.com); these missions greatly overlap prison educational goals.  However, unlike public and private schools, the prison education at privatized facilities and state-run facilities is governed by the general mission statement of the prison rather than any specialized set of educational core values.

Prison education may be considered a rather simplistic system to change if taken at face value.  Inside prison walls, there are rather closed systems regarding education as there is only a principal, an assistant principal, an administrator and a handful of general education and vocational teachers, at least at my former facility.  There is not even a specific written mission for prison education, just an implicit one that education shall serve as a vehicle for rehabilitation.  Beyond that, in my studies and in my own experience, the teachers decide the rest, even creating (and often funding) their own curriculum and materials.  However, at a deeper level, correctional institution education becomes complex; it involves answering to multiple entities including federal, state, and local mandates as well as incorporating Department of Education requirements and standards.

Inmate student learning is hindered by somewhat antiquated materials.  To walk into a typical prison classroom is to step back in time.  “Public opinion will believe that educational issues will be settled by simply providing inmates with CD-ROMs and other such tools for them to study by themselves” (Maeyer, M. 2001, Education in prison.  Convergence).  Given this pervasive attitude, it is surprising to find classrooms almost entirely devoid of technology.  Books are aimed at middle schoolers and date back to the 80’s.  Encyclopedias are dated and worn.  Many books are stolen or defaced. Wall decorations and posters appear designed for elementary and middle school children.  Desks are old-fashioned and built for kids, not adults.  Occasionally enrollment outnumbers available seating.  The most horrifying impediment I had to face immediately upon starting work was that while I was hired on the understanding I was an English teacher, about halfway through on-the-job training I was informed that I would be responsible for math instruction as well.  Me?  Math?!  I was a deer in headlights.  I was also not told the hours of the job, and which I didn’t think to ask – 6:15am to 2:30pm!  It made no sense to me then, and it doesn’t now, to have sleepy, irritable inmates in class at 6:45 in the morning (not to mention their sleepy, irritable teacher!).

Prison education classroomLet me give you an example of how “inside” the current system actually works: Once, at a facility-wide meeting at my former place of employment, staff was encouraged to approach key members of the corporate structure who were present for this open ‘town hall’ with our comments, needs, and issues.  I immediately went to the regional coordinator for educational programs and voiced my concerns in polite, clear, constructive, and articulate terms – I did not whine, nor was I negative.  In fact, I ate lunch with the person I addressed.  The entire time, this man watched everyone and everything else in the room, making little to no eye contact with me and uttering only the most basic of responses.  I told him that we often had students who already have their GEDs or high school diplomas; therefore, they had no motivation to be in class, nor to cooperate with educational rules.  He sounded surprised and said he was unaware of that (Really? He didn’t know that?) – Progress, I thought!  I discussed other issues, including our worn, outdated textbooks.  His only response to everything I’d said was that he’d immediately ensure new academic textbooks; in fact, he’d go to the assistant warden with that right away.  ….Unfortunately, my feeling about this purely cosmetic “meeting” and about the interest level of this executive was correct: Nothing whatsoever came of this meeting.  No changes.  No books.  No further dialogue. No follow up.

This proved typical of the entire corporate structure of the privatized (and, I strongly suspect, state) prison system as far as inmate education is concerned.  Teachers are encouraged to go with the status quo – Don’t question. Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t challenge authorities and norms.  Don’t jump chain of command in order to get anything done.  Keep your head down (figuratively speaking), do your job, and go home.  We often felt that we were little more than adult babysitters.  No wonder correctional teachers get discouraged.  Not only are they putting their safety in jeopardy every single day they go to work, but their voices are silenced.  Even society doesn’t recognize these teachers – Teacher recognition and teacher incentives, discounts, etc. are almost always limited to K-12 teachers.  At best, they’re extended to college professors (of which I was also one, teaching part time nights at a local college to supplement my meager prison income).  Prison teachers are even paid less than brand new teachers in the public school system.  For example, after 2 years of teaching in a correctional facility, my salary was still $1,600 per year lower than the lowest starting pay scale for public school teachers with my educational background in the same county.

Contrary to popular belief (and, admittedly, what I thought when I walked into the job) , most of the inmate students do not readily embrace education.  They’re not there because they chose to be, and if they are, it is often for reasons other than self-improvement.  Teachers have to be very imaginative when adapting to various learning styles (Sofferr, 2006), particularly in this kind of a setting.  It is valuable to remember that “enforcement yields obedience, not cooperation or a desire to change” (Sofferr, 2006).

Several prisons throughout the country do not have any sort of centralized educational initiatives or even a core curriculum (Maeyer, 2001).  In fact, in my own experience, there is no curriculum whatsoever.  Teaching, from materials to content, is entirely defined by individual teachers and is geared towards TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) testing levels.  Even students who already possess high school diplomas or GEDs are generally forced into academic classes in order to make “numbers” as required by the Department of Corrections, the guiding force in state prisons.  Even in a room full of students who ostensibly TABE test at roughly the same grade levels (they undergo mandatory testing when they enter the prison), some students function at a third, fourth, fifth, or sixth grade level while others in the same classroom may be at 11th, 12th, or even college levels.  How does an instructor effectively teach to all of these levels in one room?  Teachers have the almost impossible task of helping lower functioning students, frequently with undiagnosed and/or unrecognized learning disabilities, to learn and improve without getting frustrated and giving up while challenging the more advanced students to keep them from getting bored.  Additionally, students frequently are enrolled in class or disappear from class (re-classified into other “job” assignments) without warning or apparent reason.

Where I worked, classes are ongoing and cycle about 90 days, the length of time between TABE tests.  Unlike traditional schools and colleges, there are no quarters, terms, semesters, or grade levels (although student knowledge is measured by grade-level testing through TABE scores).  There are no percentages scores, A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, or F’s. All of these factors combined merely add to the problem of most students as reluctant learners, often highly suspicious of authority figures.  The instructors also face the challenge of strict adherence to rules.  In this culture, “rules of the game” (Marion, R. 2002,  Leadership and education: Organizational theory for the practitioner) take absolute precedence over everything else, much more so than in any other type of educational environment.   While that is an understandable practice within prison walls, it can be frustrating for teachers when students are allowed out of class for a multitude of unworthy or conflicting reasons.  For example, I had two “slow” students who had 2 excused absences per week in order to attend anger management classes.

So, out of 5 classes per week, these men were missing a full 40% of class time on a regular, ongoing basis, yet I was charged with improving their grade levels with the eventual goal of having them earn their GEDs.  Of course, these anger management classes are critical, but why schedule them in conflict with academic courses?  It makes no sense.

Perhaps the worst part of running an adult correctional facility classroom is that the teachers have little control over who the students are in their classes; if a student is considered mandatory, he or she is almost impossible to get removed from class on a long-term basis.  Most inmates know how to skirt the system just enough to be difficult and unpleasant for the teacher to work with, and often disruptive to the entire class, while not necessarily committing specific infringements which can get them written up, sent to confinement, or even transferred.  Teachers have to pick their battles in such an environment.  If I had been able to choose my students based on their drive, motivation, goals, and behavior, I could have had a great experience as a prison teacher; however, that was not the case.  Vocational teachers, on the other hand, can interview their students and have a much easier time getting uncooperative students removed.  Academic teachers have no such luxury.

The parameters of this experience are vividly shaped by the harsh realities of prison and the high emphasis on “making numbers” where criteria is strictly set and enforced, and by cost effectiveness (Maeyer, M., 2001).  State and private sector contracts define education, not some outside force or curriculum which is consistent with a Closed Systems Theory of education.  Coercive pressures dominate (Marion, R., 2002). The correctional facility I worked in does applaud student successes although hard work among the teachers does not seem to be particularly recognized nor, oddly enough, even encouraged.  In fact, teachers are not allowed to stay past the last class to complete any work.  At a certain time every day, classes are dismissed and teachers must be out of Education immediately afterwards.  The doors are locked and instructors are usually rushed out of the department.  While this does have its advantages, it can be very limiting for teachers as planning periods are mixed in with lunch breaks, and anything a teacher wants to accomplish beyond this must be done on his/her own time outside of the facility.  Teachers are allowed assistants, but these aides are inmates, not professionals.


So what do we as a society do about all of this?  What works?


Prison educationAn Open System (Marion, 2002) would mean that correctional education departments would be open to outside influences and have an active partnership with stakeholders that would involve meetings and open communication with a view to giving the isolated system that exists now a much needed makeover.  Hopefully, as a result of these partnerships and open, consistent dialogue and clearly expressed prison school needs, the textbooks and materials of the education department would be replaced by more modern texts and technology to meet the changing needs of today’s society, most especially the job market directly because of stakeholder buy-in.

The staff should feel some ownership in the entire change process.  The teachers and administrators who are, at this time, inclined to be negative would be a part of the change, understand the change, and would benefit from feeling ownership of the process and from feeling more connected with the stakeholders rather than just answering to what they perceive as unknown, unseen entities.  When employees feel like they are listened to, they feel more accepting of change (Johnston, B., 2010, Empowering Employees to Implement Change). The entire staff would feel the benefits of increased awareness and even of competition with other privatized security providers.  Morale would almost definitely improve as the process unfolds.

Effective change in any educational environment involves “a clear, strong, and collectively held educational vision and institutional mission,” (Peterson, K., 1995, Critical Issue: Leading and Managing Change and Improvement. University of Wisconsin-Madison.), committed prison educators,  a positive learning environment which supports achievement, continuous professional development, and a healthy partnership with organizational and institutional stakeholders and the community (both the immediate prison community and the community of other Corrections Corporation of America prisons). It may also be helpful to bring in outside “change experts and facilitators” (Peterson, 1995).

Lastly, I believe studying successful prison education systems in other countries would be beneficial to the American structure.  We need to know what works and why, and what measures would translate well with regards to United States correctional programs.  What models can we implement here?  What adjustments could be made? Only after we examine the successes and failures of our own inmate education programs, address them honestly, and prepare for a complete overhaul and restructuring of such systems nationwide, can any of us even begin to feel safer when convicts are released back into our communities.  Only then can we as taxpayers be assured that we are funding quality programs.  And only then can we become a more responsible, engaged, productive, and aware society.

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About the Author

Nancy Hall
I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but I now reside in Florida. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Masters in teaching, and am currently studying for a doctorate in Educational Leadership. I had the privilege of studying one summer at Oriel College, Oxford University, England -- I concentrated on British Art History. I love to travel both domestically and internationally, and I enjoy studying religion and other cultures -- I've visited 11 countries and have lived in 2 of them (almost 3 and a half years in England and a short summer in Crete). I absolutely love fashion, yoga, animals, art history, philosophy, and the study of Christian apologetics. Writing is my calling! Follow me on Twitter @HallofCouture and HallofCouture.blogspot.com