Educational Series #3

The federal prison system does need to be commended for their efforts on diversifying educational opportunities. I remember back in North Carolina State Prison (where I served a short sentence immediately prior to my time in federal prison). All there was – educationally speaking – was the GED program and a brick masonry class. That was it. There were no classes for preparing to be released, there were no classes that really taught you any kind of trade (with the exception of how to lay bricks), and there were no classes for English as a second language. All in all, there was not much to do but sit around and smoke cigarettes waiting for our day to come.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a huge step up from what I experienced in the North Carolina Prison System. Here, they offer English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) courses and Occupational Education courses among a number of others that will be discussed in future blog posts. Both of which are free for the prisoner-participants. A person entering the federal prison system would be advised to see what educational opportunities are available and to pursue them. Participation in any program will make the time go by faster and will teach much needed skills. With this in mind let’s take a look at English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) courses and Occupational Education courses.

English-as-a-Second Language

As the FCI-Petersburg Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook notes, “The English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) program enables inmates with limited English proficiency to improve their English language skills. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 2009 mandates that non-English proficient inmates participate in an ESL program until they pass a competency skills test at the eighth-grade level.” There really isn’t much to say in addition to this. I know that there is an ESL program, but I don’t have any experience with it. Though, I have heard that the GED is only available in English, not Spanish. This is something that would be good to change. The way I understand it, non-English speakers are required to participate in ESL classes until they are proficient enough to enter the normal Literacy or GED classes. At that point, they pursue a normal GED.

Occupational Education

According to the handbook, “Inmates have access to a wide range of occupational training programs which provide the opportunity to obtain marketable skills. Course offerings are based on general labor market conditions, institutional force needs, and vocational training needs of inmates. Current programs include ‘live work’ opportunities, which contribute significantly to the operation and maintenance of institutions, and community service projects, which provide actual hands-on work experiences to the inmates. Courses offered include basic carpentry, cabinet making, computer-aided drafting, masonry, and machine shop vocational training. Additionally, apprenticeship programs which are registered with the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, United States Department of Labor are offered.”

Ok, some clarification does need to be made here. Here at FCI-Petersburg, there are a few decent occupational education programs. To my understanding, the two primary ones available are the Computer Aided Design program and the Carpentry program. In the carpentry program the students learn how to build a model house. It’s not clear if this is a whole huge structure or a single room. But it is something. The CAD program is another story. I’ve heard – not observed – that the CAD computers are always down. I also knew a person who only went to class when he felt like it. So, what I heard needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Both programs might be very beneficial to a student who really throws themselves into it, as is usually the case with whatever a person does.

The other ‘live work’ programs are not as helpful. For example, here at FCI-Petersburg there is a landscape program. Well, they cut grass by pushing mowers. There is also an electrical program. They fix the broken electronic appliances and replace burned out bulbs. And as for the plumbing program, they fix broken toilets and dripping faucets. Using the same criterion, they could call the unit orderly job “a Hospitality program”… though the participants only sweep the floor or take out the trash. So, perhaps a bit of skepticism is needed when discussing these occupational education programs.

Regardless of their flaws, any program that educates a prisoner in a trade, and teaches a prisoner to be accountable (e.g. showing up to work) is a good one. This kind of prolonged accountability through prison employment has been proven to lower recidivism rates and, depending on the program, can teach the prisoner a viable employment skill. Yet it remains to be seen how paying someone $5.25 a month for 40 hours of work might be beneficial. Perhaps it would be better to pay someone more, require more of them, and cut out the meaningless jobs that are just random busy work that serves no purpose.