By Christopher Zoukis Prison might be the last place you would expect to see a great performance of Shakespeare. But for more than a decade,
Staff Report – Merced Sun-Star
Inmates at Valley State Prison last week took a step toward a brighter future.
On Nov. 6, 125 graduates from the Valley State Adult School at Valley State Prison walked down the aisle to receive recognition and their diplomas for their hard work and dedication. This is a big event in the lives of the inmates trying to benefit from a bad situation. Valley State Prison converted from an all-female facility to a level II male facility in January. It has been the focus of Principal Zack Patrick to provide a solid and successful educational experience for the new male population. From the beginning of the conversion, education and vocational training was a focal point for Patrick and Warden Ron Davis.
“Many of the inmates are tired of the negative lifestyle that landed them in prison and want to take steps to correct their behavior. Today 125 men took that first step to better serve themselves through education,” said Davis. “I want to thank Mr. Patrick and his team of quality educators for inspiring these men to succeed.”
The North Carolina Department of Correction works with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center for Continuing Education to provide a variety of tuition-free university courses and educational services to inmates. Only those incarcerated in the North Carolina prison system qualify for the Correctional Education Program.
Since 1974, 167 participants in Correctional Education’s on-campus study-release program have earned college degrees, including three doctorates and eighteen master of arts or master of science degrees. Many have gone on to thrive in professional jobs. The recidivism rate of study-release participants is only 7 percent.
Who is Eligible?
Incarcerated individuals must meet academic and sentence criteria for eligibility. The academic criteria are a GED score of at least 250, a WRAT reading grade level of at least 10.0, or prior college (or community college) academic credits. The sentence criteria exclude all Class A and Class B felons, as well as other adult offenders whose parole eligibility and discharge dates are more than 10 years in the future. The 18- to 25-year-old individuals funded by Federal Youth Offender Act grants must be within five years of parole eligibility or discharge date.
Qualified inmates should contact a Programs or Education staff member, preferably their case worker, at their correctional facility
The New Mexico prison system takes a comprehensive view of prison education; their educational programs are governed by the New Mexico Corrections Department Education Bureau. The bureau works in conjunction with other agencies, organizations, and the community to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to obtain vocational and academic skills. The aim of their programs is to reduce recidivism and help inmates become responsible and contributing members of society.
Range of Educational Services
New Mexico offers many types of educational programs to inmates. Parenting courses, English as a Second Language courses (ESL), vocational classes, employment related classes, and college-level coursework are some of the main features of their overall programming. Placement exams allow bureau staff to effectively steer inmates to the programs that would most benefit them. There are also programs to address special needs of incarcerated individuals. Taking coursework while imprisoned allows the inmates to earn certifications, certificates, and even college credits.
Assessments Offered to Inmates
The bureau offers a wide array of exams that allow it to place prisoners in appropriate programs suited to both their level of education and demonstrated skills. Some basic tests offered by the prison system include the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) that measures basic skills in reading, language, and math. The test is standard in the education field and is suited to the diverse range of adult learners. Once an inmate has taken the exam, staff members are better able to determine which types of programs would be most advantageous for individuals.
The Employability Competency System Full Battery (CASAS) assesses skills for the bureau’s vocational and post-secondary programming. The Act WorkKeys exam also helps determine placement by assessing employability skills. The Choices assessment takes inmates’ own preferences for future employment into consideration while also helping them determine careers that best meet their skill sets at the time of their assessment. The Keytrain assessment relates to state employability and allows inmates to determine their eligibility for a range of employment options in New Mexico. These are just a few of the assessments offered through the bureau. There are others that determine college level placement, intelligence tests, and language deficiencies, for example.
In a recent post, I presented the list of new Adult Continuing Education (ACE) course offerings at FCI Petersburg, 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.
The prisoners report to the officer at the desk, then head into a room awash in sunlight in the visitation area of the Limon Correctional Facility. They murmur soft greetings to each other, squint into the brightness streaming through the windows, quickly choose their seats. For men without prospects, they seem oddly expectant.
And why not? On this day they have been granted a reprieve from an endless routine of tedium and tension. For the next two hours, at least, they are somewhere else. Not in their cells at a high-security prison – although the cells are never far away -but in books.
Today’s book is Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, the story of Lennie and George, two guys knocked about by the Great Depression, scraping by on migrant work and dreaming about having their own farm. Less than 30,000 words but packed with disturbing scenes of abuse, social injustice and murder, the 1937 novel is a staple of middle- and high-school English classes — yet still considered sufficiently offensive and even dangerous in some quarters to make librarians’ lists of the most challenged books of all time.
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.
By Christopher Zoukis
A friend approached me the other day and inquired as to whether I knew anyone at my prison who would be a good pre-GED instructor/tutor. As I thought about it, a few names came to mind, but they were all people from years past. They were the former MIT instructor who once toured China teaching engineering. Or the man who recently died — Rick Foster — who held a master’s in education. Or even another good friend of mine who used to teach graphic arts at a small liberal arts college. But as I ran through the list of people who would be good candidates to ask, I realized that they all had either been released from prison, died in prison, or had transferred to a lower security prison. Thus, I was stumped.This conundrum bothered me since I figured that I would be a good person to ask such a question. After all, I’m more of the publishing guru in these parts (this has a lot to do with my past teaching of the Writing and Publishing Adult Continuing Education class). As such, those interested in a higher calling while incarcerated — regardless of what it might be since high achievers tend to write about their exploits — tend to come to me for advice and direction. This instigated the topic for this post. How would a prison educator locate qualified inmate instructors to teach in their classroom? Here are some ideas:
While many like to talk about correspondence correctional education as a viable option for individual incarcerated students, few understand the true costs associated with such education or the limitations involved. In an effort to bring the true costs and limitations to light, I present an analysis of 4 different regionally accredited college correspondence programs based upon my personal experience.
Correspondence Correctional Education Costs
Cost is often the paramount concern when selecting a correspondence correctional education program. While many profess that correspondence college courses cost “a few hundred dollars,” few know exactly what the term “a few” really means. Let me share a few current examples.