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.
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.