Educated Guess

Time well spent or wasted

I worked as a tutor in the GED program for nearly 5 years, under three different teachers at two different prisons.  There isn’t much that was more rewarding than when one of my students would point me out to his family in the visiting room and say, “That man is helping me get my GED.”  And there wasn’t much that was more frustrating than seeing a student who could get his GED fail to apply himself and leave prison with nothing to show for his time.  Unfortunately, the later occurs far more frequently than the former.  A significant percentage of the inmates in prison failed to graduate from high school and most tuned out long before they dropped out.  They put no value on gaining a formal education, the streets were their school.  Many are functionally illiterate, barely able to write their own name or complete simple arithmetic calculations.

While a few of these men may truly have a learning disability, more however have damaged themselves through drug abuse.  Some of my students had received Social Security Disability payments before the came to prison because at some point in time they had been diagnosed with a learning disability when they were in school out in the world.  Now they refuse to make any attempt at completing their GED because they would lose their SSD and have to go to work.  As adults they are clearly intelligent enough but lack the motivation.

Conditions such as ADHD go untreated in prison and these students are disruptive to those around them in the classroom.  Unable to focus they are constantly engaging others in conversation, sometimes even from across the room.  They don’t have an indoor voice or even the awareness of how loud they are.  More interested in what is going on around them than the assignments they are supposed to be working on, they are like bees buzzing around whatever attracts their attention for a moment before moving on to the next thing.  It only frustrates the teacher, the tutors, and the other students who are trying to learn to have them in the classroom.  However, only under extraordinary circumstances will these students receive an exemption from the requirement to attend school.  It is more likely that the teacher will write a ticket regarding their disruptive behavior and eventually expel them from the classroom.  This will almost guarantee that the parole board will flop them.  They will be put back on the waiting list to attend school, be assigned to another classroom where they once again be disruptive and repeat the cycle of expulsion and flop again.

There are critical shortages of text books and other teaching materials.  The result is that in most prisons the books must stay in the classroom making it difficult for students who do try to apply themselves to do homework and complete their GED quickly.  Textbooks are generally in poor condition.  One of my tasks was to periodically clean textbooks of graffiti and answers that had been penciled in.  I also made repairs to damaged covers and bindings in order to keep the textbooks in circulation for as long as possible.  Even after the new GED standard came out the decision was made to continue to use the old textbooks even though they did not contain the new concepts added to the curriculum.  The question formats and language changed significantly with the new standard and the result was that students taking the new test were not adequately prepared.

kentucky prison GED grad rates
I found this graph of graduation rates published by the Kentucky DOC which reflects the decrease in graduation rates that resulted from the implementation of the new GED requirements.  I could not find a similar graphic for Michigan but I suspect the results to be similiar.

To address the issues of test preparation for the new computerized testing format the MDOC did invest a significant amount of money into new computers and servers capable of running educational software.  After several false starts additional resources were allocated to fix the problems, and new programs were just beginning to be introduced around the time I left prison.  I don’t know for certain whether this made any improvement in graduation rates, but I suspect not.  We only had four computers in a classroom with an average of 18-20 students so relatively few had any significant opportunities to practice.  For some that had never used a computer this could actually influence how well they performed on the test.

At the prisons where I was a tutor the classes each ran one hour and thirty minutes a day, Monday through Friday.  There were four periods, two before lunch and two afterwards.  When I was at a multi-level facility the level IV students were able to mix with those from Level II or I in school.  This and in medical were the only places that inmates of the higher security level were able to.  The rest of the time whether in the gym, library, or yard separation was strictly maintained.  At level IV-only facilities I would have been able to serve as a tutor however, in the multi-level facility I had to wait until my security level was down-graded to Level II.

The qualifications for being a tutor were that you had to have attained at least a GED and achieved a grade level of at least 11.5 on a standardized test of Reading, Math, and Language skills administered to potential tutor candidates.  Most of the tutors that I knew held college degrees.  At one facility where I was, a certain well-known, disgraced former mayor of a major Michigan city was working as a tutor.  There were usually 3-4 tutors in a classroom.  The pay for tutors was one of the highest paying jobs for inmates.  With a college degree I made around $3.60 per day for 6 hours of work.  Duties and responsibilities varied depending on the teacher.  At times I had students waiting in line for help or we worked in small groups.  At other times I read all the books, newspapers, and magazines I could get my hands on to keep from being bored.

Some teachers tried to maintain a classroom environment that would be conducive to learning with library-like silence where students worked independently on assignments. It was in these classrooms that the disruptive students tended to be the biggest problem.  Other teachers ran their classes more like a daycare were students engaged in non-academic discussions and little if any learning occurred on a daily basis.  While I’m sure the statistics such as graduation rates or student progress on the quarterly standardized tests could be generated on an individual teacher basis, to the best of my knowledge teacher performance in terms of academic success is not a factor in their job performance evaluations.

Principles and school psychologists are generally overseeing schools at several facilities.  This meant that the principle was generally in the school office at each facility one day a week.  There was a school secretary and they generally over saw an inmate clerk to manage the day-to-day activities.  Inmates seeking to contact the principle unfortunately rarely got a response to kites submitted for a range of inquires from requesting a change of classroom into one that was more conducive to learning to requests to get into or out of school for whatever reason.  The psychologist was the one that could make an evaluation of whether a student was sufficiently impaired to qualify for an exemption do a true learning disability or whether students with learning disabilities qualified for more time or helps while taking exams.  The criteria they used was clearly different from the criteria used by schools out in the world because so many students had been previously diagnosed with a learning disability but were neither exempt from school or given extra time or helps on exams.

The school secretary and clerks were vitally important.  They maintained records on every inmate on the compound.  When inmates were transferred to another facility their school records also had to be transferred.  The Classification office would need to verify inmate records like whether they had a GED, high school diploma, or college degree to determine whether inmates met the qualifications for positions like tutors or clerks, and the pay grade associated with each level of education attained.  By records I am of course referring to paper files.  The MDOC is archaic in its systems.  I once had to fill out a paper form to request a college transcript to confirm my college education.  This form was then faxed to a phone number that was looked up in a large book listing the contact information of every school and university in the state.  It took three tries to get my transcript and it only happened because the teacher I was tutoring for was a fellow alumnus, who took it upon himself to follow-up on the request with the university.  An original certified copy of the transcript submitted by my family was unacceptable because it had not come directly from the school or university to the principle’s attention at the school office.  Since the certified copy of my college transcript had been accepted by the MDOC when compiling information for the Pre-Sentence Investigation report and placed in my permanent record this really made no sense.

While the classroom was supposed to be maintained as an environment where students could study, the same could not be said for the housing units.  The typical Level I housing unit is crowded, noisy and dark.  In the typical cubical setting what started out as one bed, locker, and desk per inmate in a four-man cubical has been changed to eight men.  To make room for the extra bunk beds some of the desks were removed leaving little space for someone to study even if it wasn’t noisy and dark.  In Level II the two-man cells provided each inmate with a desk and light.  By closing the door, you could get some quiet in order to study.  The problem being that in the higher security levels inmates were there for only one of two reasons, either they were serving long sentences with many years until their ERD or they were unmanageable in the lower levels.  In either case they were more likely to be at the bottom of the waiting list to get into school.  The number or inmates waiting to get into the GED program is greater than the number of students enrolled.  The waiting list is based on prioritizing those who are closest to their ERD.

Once an inmate is in school, he will remain there until he completes his GED, paroles or is kicked out due to behavioral problems.  I have known students who were fortunate to get into the GED program with many years to go before their ERD.  They got into school because the facility had a short waiting list at some point.  Once in the program they remained there because they couldn’t or wouldn’t put in the effort to study and pass the GED exams.  There is no time limit in which to complete the program except for parole.  I have known men who spent over ten years in school without making any progress towards or completing any of the GED test subjects.  Students take quarterly standardized tests to measure their progress or the lack of progress.  The teachers are supposed to write regular progress reports and generate educational plans for each student to monitor their progress and set goals to help them achieve.  Unfortunately, like so many other things in the MDOC it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.  The students most motivated and capable of earning their GED will do so in six months to a year.  The rest will be stuck in a form of purgatory, either hoping to win the lottery and pass the GED exams by luck or they are simply waiting out their time until they parole.

Students in the GED or Vocational education programs are paid $0.56 per school day to attend class.  Students aren’t eligible to hold other jobs except in cases of institutional need, which I never saw.  On average a student makes $12 a month.  Just enough to keep them above indigent status, but unable to afford even the basic necessary hygiene items in the commissary.  If a student gets expelled from school, he is not eligible to work.  So, unless the student has some form of family support he must survive by hustling, theft or simply try to survive on nothing but chow hall food and state soap.

Some men that were required to attend school had worked for many years without an education maintaining steady employment or even a career prior to incarceration.  I have also known older men who were over the age of 65 that would be eligible to Social Security retirement benefits out in the world that were forced to attend class.  Policy clearly stated that both of these circumstances made the men eligible for exemption, but as with so many other situations in the MDOC policy and procedure were not the same.

The prison GED classes are not like traditional primary or secondary school classes.  There is a mishmash of individuals at different places in their educational journey randomly placed into classrooms.  Teachers don’t actually teach but rather take attendance, process paperwork, and try to keep the peace while trying not to be stolen blind.  The GED program is a learn at your own pace, self-taught program where teachers and tutors work with students to develop a course of study, however it is solely up to the student whether or not they will do any work.  The tutors are available to help one-on-one for those who would avail themselves of the service.  Many students choose to attempt to go it alone and never seek assistance even though they have only elementary school grade levels in reading and math skills and are completely unable to be self-taught.  I think that in some cases it was pride.  Men who wouldn’t ask for help because they thought of themselves as “grown assed men” and not kids who could take care of themselves preferring to fail on their own than ask for help from anyone.

Only a small percentage of the students who come into the classroom with an early elementary grade level education will complete the GED.  Most students who complete the GED already score in the Middle/High school level on standardized TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) tests which are administered quarterly to all students in school.  These students may only be in school for 1-2 years and graduate.  The result is a very limited turnover rate and the accumulation of poor students clogging up the limited number of available slots in the GED program.

Just as a school must maintain a proper learning environment to encourage students to excel the MDOC needs to create a proper learning environment if they expect to have success with its educational program.  This goes beyond the school environment, if the home environment does not support and encourage education then no amount of school effort will be sufficient.  Likewise unless the MDOC addresses the environment in the housing units, no amount of programming effort will succeed.  Desks, lighting, noise, access to educational resources, distraction from non-students all are issues in the housing units.  At some facilities the MDOC has begun a program of placing vocational education students into designated housing units.  The intent is to create a better living environment that will compliment the learning environment.  The same should be done for ABE/GED students because they need to study outside of the classroom to be successful.  One and a half hours a day in class is not enough time dedicated to academics.  They need mandatory study halls equal to class time or at the least a housing unit environment in which they can study.  Classes need to be taught, not self-taught for Adult Basic Education (ABE) students with reading levels below the 6th grade.  Separate ABE and GED into separate classrooms.  Place more emphasis on reading.  Inmates can’t get anything out of the parole board mandated programing if they can’t read and write.  Do not disrupt class time with other call-outs to medical or other programs by blocking out times in the morning/afternoon for class/study.

While this may sound harsh coming from a former inmate, I believe the MDOC must stop playing games when it comes to inmate compliance with programming requirements.  Good faith effort must be demonstrated by inmates in required programming to achieve parole.  Flop a few guys for trying to skate on their education and more of them will get the message.  Anyone who resists cooperating with required programming is not fit to be released back into society.  While having a zero-tolerance policy for slackers, this must be balanced with the MDOC doing a better job of identifying the truly learning disabled and providing resources for their required programs.


(Update to this post on April 25, 2019)

The 2019 National Teacher of the Year was awarded to a Social Studies teacher who works at a juvenile detention center in Virginia.  He has been studying the school to prison pipeline problem for several years and has published a number of articles and educational curriculum through Yale University.  Among his discoveries he found that empathy not sympathy was an effective way to reach his students.  He encouraged the other teachers and corrections staff to help him create a positive learning environment.   He utilizes materials that include curriculum on race, culture and punishment to help his students understand the system and circumstances that led to their incarceration, and better understand how to avoid future incarceration.  For the next year he will be traveling the country advocating for students and teachers and is looking forward to share the story of his students.  The MDOC needs thinking outside of the box like this to address the deficiencies in its educational programming.

House Arrest

 

house arrestBeing on parole is not freedom.  Too many guys coming out of prison think that having received a parole that they have earned their freedom, that their sentence is complete.  But that is not the case.  While on parole you are still under the control of the MDOC.  Parole is prison without the razor wire.  You have a parole agent who keeps track of you, meeting regularly to monitor your compliance with the stipulations of your parole specified by the Parole Board.  They have absolute control over whether you stay out or return to prison for any parole violations.  On parole you must successfully complete some specified term living in the community, sometimes with severe limits on where you can go and what you can do.  This varies from person to person and is based on the crime committed and other factors.

A typical parole can last up to 24 months.  The stipulations of the parole generally require that the parolee maintain regular employment.  You must also pay a supervision fee and any outstanding debts incurred during incarceration in addition to any unpaid court costs, fines and restitution associated with the felony conviction.  Frequently programming such as AA or NA may be required for those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse.  Additionally, some receive their paroles with program requirements waved while they were in prison because they were classified as “low risk” to re-offend during a psychiatric examination but must now take programming from an approved vendor as a condition of parole.  Failure to successfully complete programming will result in a revocation of parole.

After the conditions of sever deprivation, loss of personal control and decision making in prison some are so focused on redressing the privations that they quickly violate the terms of their parole.  For some it is satisfying the urge to indulge in their addiction for alcohol or drugs.  For others it is about hustling to get the money together to resume their lifestyle.  However most of these hustles are illegal.  Once a person has been in prison the odds of them returning are greater that they will return to prison than the odds for a person who has never been going for the first time.

tether-e1552099483450.pngTo address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.”  All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance.  Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating.  At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison.  With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.

Housing itself is a problem.  Transitional housing is in sort supply and in many communities is non-existent.  Those coming out of prison may only have a matter of weeks to find employment and permanent housing before being forced to leave the Parole halfway house.  Then there is the problem of finding affordable housing for those with a felony conviction, especially sex offenders.  Many apartment complexes and landlords will not rent to felons.  In some places such as Oakland Co there are a few rental companies that will but not in every community and not in sufficient numbers to address the current level of demand.

Employment is not as much of a problem as it used to be given the present economic environment.  However more needs to be done to train felons for jobs that pay a living wage.  Many are forced to take minimum wage jobs without benefits or career potential.  The MDOC has made changes to its Employment Readiness initiative over the last few years by revamping their vocational programing but much more needs to be done to ensure that people coming out of prison are employable.  Movements to “Ban the Box” have gained traction in the last few years to at least give felons an opportunity to interview for a job before they are eliminated from consideration for a position in some places like the city of Detroit.

While commendable movements like this are just the tip of the iceberg.  So many are coming out unprepared to hold steady employment due a lack of a basic education or even basic literacy skills.  As a tutor I saw it every day first hand, the lack of interest or desire to join mainstream society.  The smug satisfaction on many of my students faces knowing that they could simply wait out any requirement to earn a GED let alone make satisfactory progress toward earning one and still get a parole.  No thought toward a living a life as a productive member of society.

For many who have served long prison sentences returning to society has significant challenges.  Technology has changed everything: smart phones, the internet, shopping, the workplace, even cars.  Nothing looks familiar to someone who last saw the free world in the 1980s or 1990s.  Life is far more complex than it was, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived a very simple and highly controlled life.  The ability to learn and adopt technology can have a very steep learning curve for someone who isn’t familiar with it.  Then to make it more complicated parole stipulations may prevent the parolee from accessing technology.  Sex offenders are prohibited from having smart phones or computers with internet access.  Some convicted of financial crimes are prevented from having bank accounts.  A convicted murderer on parole has fewer restrictions than many other felonies.

One thing that is certain is that no one really wants to go back to prison but for some it is easier than reintegrating back into society.  What is needed are advocates and mentors; either family, friends or strangers willing to help parolees make the transition.  There are faith-based organizations, church and para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations out there that have programs to help.  The problem is that there are not enough organizations, people and resources available in all the places that they are needed.  Secondly, the information available to prisoners preparing for parole is often out of date and incomplete.  Inmates aren’t able to communicate with these organizations easily or effectively to make the necessary arrangements.  Since many don’t have someone on the outside to make arrangements for housing or employment in advance when they are paroled it becomes an immediate crisis.  The last thing a parolee needs is more stress.

Many inmates when preparing for their parole hearing make a Parole Plan in which they lay out what support is waiting for them upon release.  Unfortunately for many it is ‘pie in the sky.’  What looks good on paper in order to impress the parole board may not be worth the paper it is written on.  For example, the employment opportunity that I listed in my Parole Plan was voided by one of the stipulations of my parole.  For some, they are forced to parole back to the county in which they were convicted rather than being allowed to choose a location with more access to resources because they don’t have family there.

Something else to note about parole is that the conditions stipulated by the parole board remain in effect for the duration of the parole.  There is no easing of restrictions based on the completion of certain milestones such as completion of required programing or finding gainful employment.  Parole agents may in some cases have fewer contacts with the parolee but can at anytime show up unannounced to check on you.  For the most part parole is stick and no carrot, there is no reward for cooperation and good behavior.  No graduated easing of restrictions to allow for a true transition back into society.  In some cases, parole officers will make it even more difficult for their parolees by denying requests to approve housing, employment or other activities for reasons that seem mercurial at best.  They may also actively seek to find reasons to revoke a parole or to at least scare the parole with threats of incarceration-the scared straight approach.

While there have been changes to parole in recent years to reduce the number of parole violators being sent back to prison, still more needs to be done.  The MDOC needs to do a better job of preparing the 95% of their inmates that will return to society.  There should be more Reentry programming that focuses on linking those soon to be paroled with agencies and organizations that will be able to provide access to services, programs, resources in the area where they will be paroling.  Access to employment services including in-prison hiring interviews, pre-enrollment for Social Security, Veterans benefits, and Medicaid would go a long way to preparing parolees for success.  Parole should be a transition, not more punishment.  A way to help put the parolee on the right track rather than a revolving door back to prison.

Education Connection

thebroken system

One of the strongest correlations in predicting whether or not a person will end up in prison is the lack of a high school education.  This fact has been known for many years and has been codified into a law that requires inmates without a high school diploma or a GED to attend GED classes.

Even before there was a GED program in the MDOC there were primary and secondary education programs with Jackson Public Schools at the old walled prison in Jackson that allowed inmates to earn a high school diploma.  In fact, until the Pell Grant for prisoners was eliminated under President Bill Clinton there were college classes taught by institutions such as Spring Arbor College, where inmates could earn a B.A. degree.

I worked as a tutor in the GED program for 5 years and had the privilege of working a long side two old timers who had earned their B.A. degrees from Spring Arbor College. They were bright, articulate, knowledgeable, and earnest in communicating their passion for helping men earn their GED.

In the MDOC the inmates who work as tutors are the key to the program.  The reason is both simple and shocking.  First is that peer to peer learning has been shown to be an effective adult learning tool.  Inmates teaching inmates removes the power dynamic from the situation.  Also, there is the ability to establish relationships that would be inappropriate for correction’s staff.

During my time as a tutor I worked directly for three different teachers at two different facilities.  I knew 10 teachers      well enough by interaction with them and their tutors to know about their classroom environments to say that what I am about to share is not atypical.

The first teacher I worked for knew my former employer from a previous career in medical equipment sales.  All teachers in the MDOC GED program are certified educators and all that I am acquainted with had worked in public schools.  My teacher, who I will not name, was no exception.  He worked in primary education for Detroit Public Schools.  In fact, he had been fired by them.  The old saying is “Those who can’t do, teach.”  In prison it goes a step further, “Those who can’t teach, teach in prison.”  Teachers like many others who work in prison are there because they couldn’t make it in the free world.  Like COs that couldn’t make it as police officers, there are those “teaching” in prison who couldn’t teach.  This isn’t the case for all teachers, just like there are good COs, it is just that there are more than a few bad apples.

The second teacher I worked for was the Felix Unger to my first teacher’s Oscar Madison. They were in appearance the “Odd Couple.”  One was nattily dressed and a stickler for organization, the other unkept and easy going.  But being a snappy dresser didn’t make up for his inability to manage his class.  I got along great with him until I made the mistake of correcting him in front of the class, when he incorrectly described how to solve a math problem.  I went from getting a perfect work evaluation to ‘barely meets expectations.’  I had organized his filling system, written standard operating procedures to ensure that all future tutors would be able to maintain the system.  The tutors took attendance, graded work, assigned student testing, maintained educational files, and worked one-on-one with students, while the teacher chatted with students and wrote more tickets than any other teacher.  He did not have the respect of his students and did not have control of the class room.  The result is that the class room did not provide a learning environment for those who wanted to learn.

My second teacher was the complete opposite.  Wild hair and sloppily dressed, but he had a kind and gentle demeanor that commanded the respect of his students. His class room was a quiet, stress-free learning environment, where men succeeded in earning their GED.  It was in this class that I earned my greatest compliment.  I was on a visit and one of my students pointed me out to his family and said, “That man is helping me get my GED.”  And he did.  Just as the COs set the tone for what goes on in the housing units, the teachers set the tone for the class room and it makes all the difference when it comes to educational success.

The third teacher I worked for was not like either of my previous bosses.  He worked for 20 years as a teacher in the MDOC, he had seen it all.  He held court in his class room.  He told stories in a folksy style.  Nothing got under his skin except students that squandered the opportunities given to them.  He wanted the best for his students and did more to help them succeed.  He also saw to the needs of his tutors who he didn’t treat as inmates so much as co-workers.  The respect was mutual.

Education is supposed to be a priority for the MDOC, yet year after year budget cuts to education have reduced the number of teachers in the class room and the resources available.  When the new GED standard came out in 2014 the MDOC was not prepared to change over until 2016.  Even then they still did not have the text books available in all subject matters in sufficient quantities for all students in all classes.  They had bought new computers that were supposed to run new educational software for the students to prepare them for the computerized GED exams. Unfortunately, the computers sat unused for two years and when the new programs were implemented the servers and other hardware purchased were inadequate.

Language arts Math Science Social Studies

Examples of GED textbooks used by the MDOC.

The old GED standard was said to be about equivalent to an eight-grade education. The new GED based on the new high school graduation requirements significantly raised the bar.  Many students who had passed some but not all subject areas were given several opportunities to complete their GED, but when push came to shove the lack of staff to administer the additional tests resulted in some students losing out and having to start over with a significantly elevated bar. This was a real blow to moral and I watched a number of students give up and throw in the towel, resigning themselves to the reality that the new GED standard was unattainable. The new GED was designed to be high school equivalent, while prisoners are anything but.

The old models of self-teaching by students with assistance from the teachers and tutors didn’t work that well under the old GED.  With the significantly higher educational requirements the MDOC needs to rethink how it operates its classes. Self-learning only really occurs after fifth grade because students up to that point lack the necessary vocabulary and learning skills to effectively study on their own. When all you were asking was about three grades of learning many could get by with their life skills to bridge the gap and earn their GED.  Under the new system it is asking too much for inmates, many of whom are functionally illiterate to self-study.  What is needed is a structured class room environment where teachers actually teach and students are expected to learn.

Participation in the GED program was a parole board requirement, but because there weren’t enough teachers or class room space there were waiting lists based on ERD at each facility.  The result was that inmates serving short sentences would go to the head of the list, but if they didn’t have an interest in learning thought that they could wait out their time.  The result was that those who actually wanted to earn their GED and would write kite after kite asking to get into school would have to wait.  And due to their longer sentences were further down the waiting list were prohibited from working in the interim.

In addition to the GED program the MDOC also offers vocational training programs intended to provide marketable job skills to aid inmates in gaining employment upon release. Programs like Carpentry, Electrical & Plumbing, Masonry & Concrete, Horticulture, and Food Service were popular.  These programs were available to those who had a vocational training requirement from the parole board because they had no prior history of employment before coming to prison.  These programs required a GED or high school diploma as a prerequisite.

I knew a guy who was hired to be a tutor in the Masonry & Concrete program as they were setting up the program.  He was a masonry contractor in the free world and knowledgeable in all aspects of the trade.  He was not impressed with the training curriculum and I would trust his judgement on this.  What he also told me made me sick and it should make you angry.  The facility where we were located was very limited in the available class room space.  In fact, the GED class that I was a tutor for was relocated to a much smaller classroom that had previously been used for other programs such as AA, in order to give the larger classroom to the Plumbing & Electrical class.  The room across the hall from my smaller class room was the technology room where the GED testing was held.  They were displaced to make room for the Masonry class. Before the masonry class could begin a secure tool crib needed to be built along one wall of the room to store the tools to utilized by the class.  When they brought the brand-new tools that had been ordered for the class to put them in the tool crib it was apparent that they would not all fit.  With no other storage options available the teacher had his tutors throw thousands of dollars of brand new tools in the trash compactor rather than deal with the situation.  After the class started one day I watched as they tracked cement dust all over the hallways in the school building. the utility closet was half way down the hall and they made a huge mess making mortar for a brick laying project.

The level of incompetence displayed is hard to grasp but it really happened.  My teacher saw it coming and tried to warn them but like every other good idea proposed in the MDOC it was ignored.  They tried to set up this program quickly and on the cheap and then forced it into a facility that could not accommodate it.

I understand that in recent years new programs have been introduced such as Asbestos Abatement for which I have no first-hand knowledge, just what I’ve seen on the news or read in the paper.  It makes a great sound bite but if it is anything like the vocational education classes I’ve seen first-hand then it will be worse than useless and potentially dangerous to the students.

Many of the inmates participating in these programs selected them based on availability at the facility they were housed at, not on what they saw as a potential career that they would actually be interested in.  They are just checking off a parole board requirement to increase their chances of parole.  Given how these programs are run it is a pretty obvious and safe to say that the inmates aren’t the only ones going through the notions when it comes to educational programs.

Disconnected

I was surprised by how many guys I met in prison paid no attention to what was going on out in the world aside from popular culture.  News programming was never on the in the day room.  The only current events discussed were the rumors regarding issues pertaining to the MDOC.  The only politicians that were talked about was the sitting governor and attorney general, usually in connection to a 4-1etter expletive.  In the classroom I encouraged guys to read newspapers and would cut out articles on various topics.  About the only ones I got them to read were the articles about crime or pop culture.  The reality is that the typical inmate was already disconnected from the greater society and only focused on their subculture.

When you are in prison you don’t get much say into who your cell, cube or bunk mates are.  If you don’t get along your option is to lock up.  In an ideal world people can work through the vast majority of their differences, however prison is not ideal.  The divide between an old white guy who never had a run in with the law before coming to prison and a young black man who started on a life of crime at age 12 when he caught his first juvenile case is vast.

There is no love lost between these two, the only thing they have in common is that they were convicted in the state of Michigan.  More than likely they look down on the other and their crime with contempt.  Without knowledge, exposure to others different from ourselves, and acceptance of the differences there will be continued strife.  Not a good thing is a place where might makes right, and violence is the first and, in some cases, the only alternative considered.

Inmates are a captive audience.  So what better place to provide diversity and civics training?  Education is the proven solution to bridging the gap that divided us.  More over by proactively front loading the training the inmates could be held responsible for their behavior in relation to the material.  Outbursts and incidents could be used as teachable moments and remedial training to reinforce the importance of applying the material.  The parole board would have more information to evaluate in regards to the expectations set out for inmate behavior. Raising expectations for behavior sets the bar higher.  Well behaved inmates make for better behaved returning citizens.

In Michigan while on parole, parolees have the right to vote, but most don’t.  They didn’t participate in the electoral process before, failing to engage in the basic rights and responsibility of the democratic process as the center of our society.

Programming in prison currently tries to educate inmates why committing crime is wrong.  What is clearly lacking is teaching inmates about doing the right thing. They hold you responsible but don’t teach you responsibility.  They say “ignorance is bliss,” but in this case we should make an exception.