Educational Series #2

Literacy classes are more commonly referred to as GED classes in the prison setting. This is because the literacy classes lead to the earning of a GED. A GED affords a person a basic adult education: the ability to read, write, and perform basic mathematical computations. But this should not be confused with the same level of education that one would receive through a traditional high school education. While equal in the law’s eyes, they are not equivalent in terms of practical attainment. To put it bluntly, four years of high school will always trump several weeks or a year or two of GED classes in terms of knowledge and experience gained.

According to the FCI-Petersburg Inmate Admissions and Orientation Handbook, “With few exceptions, inmates who do not have a high school diploma or a GED credential must participate in a literacy program for a minimum of 240 instructional hours or until they earn a GED credential.” These literacy programs are the GED classes. Prisoners here at FCI-Petersburg are required to attend classes 5 days a week for a number of hours a day. It is very much like normal high school in this manner.

After the student reaches a certain level of proficiency in each of the 5 subject specific areas, they will be allowed to take a GED pre-test in each area. If they pass the GED pre-test they will be allowed to proceed onto the official GED test. If they then pass the official GED test, they are done with the literacy classes. If not, they will be required to go back to class. Though, once the student passes a particular subject area test, they no longer have to study in that area. While some students come in and pass the practice GED and official GED right off the bat, others take years to pass, never pass and continue to go to class, or drop out after 240 instructional hours as is their choice according to the Bureau of Prison’s policy.

It is not uncommon to see a 60-year-old man who has been taking GED classes for five or more years still sitting in the classroom. In many cases, this is probably a psychosis (e.g. mental issue whichwon’t allow them to retain the information) or an alternatively motivated activity (e.g. they might just like to sit in a classroom with female teachers for years on end), not necessarily a true reflection of their ability.

To assist the prison population with motivation, the handbook notes, “For inmates to receive job pay promotions above the entry level, they must have a high school diploma or a GED credential.” This means that if the person wants to earn a decent prison wage (more than $5.25 a month), they will have to earn their GED. It should be noted that a decent prison wage is considered $15-$25 a month for 40 to 60 hours of work, a paltry sum indeed.

The other – and probably much more effective – method of motivating the prison population to earn a GED is that which the handbook states next. “In 1997, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) were implemented. The laws require inmates who lack a high school diploma to participate in a GED credential program in order to be eligible to earn and vest the maximum amount of good conduct time.” In other words, it is now required by law for all prisoners who lack a GED or high school diploma to attend literacy classes. To tell you the truth, I think that this is a very good idea. The second part though is the motivational phrase – the prisoner will receive good conduct time credit for participating in GED classes or earning a GED.

To clarify, this means that if the prisoner only has to do 85% of their sentenced time – as it is in the federal prison system – then they will have to enroll in GED classes or earn their GED.

On a final note, a GED, as with a high school diploma, qualifies someone to gain an entry level job position and gain admission to college. The GED functions just like a high school diploma. Every person who lacks a GED or a high school diploma should be motivated to pursue one or the other. With so many arriving in prison with neither, the literacy programs in place are a very good thing.After all, there is nothing more depressing than having to sit down with a 40-year-old man and read the writing on his deodorant stick to him because he can’t read it himself. This is something that I have personally done.