The Prisoners’ Legal Education and Advocacy Project

By Christopher Zoukis

A major pro bono initiative of Penn Law, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the Prisoners’ Legal Education and Advocacy Project (PEAP) has various components that include educational outreach for prisoners.  With a curriculum developed by Penn Law professors, teams of law students actually prepare and deliver individual class lessons and deliver them to the student prisoners.  The mission of the program is meant to instill empowerment among prison populations as well as to advocate for the prisoners by better understanding their issues and needs.  The program is also meant to instill better understanding of prisoner issues among Penn Law’s legal students.

The Prisoners’ Legal Education Program   Image courtesy https://www.law.upenn.edu/probonoprojects/plea/

PEAP is one of those rare in-prison projects that is as important for the prisoners that receive instruction as it is for the instructors themselves.  The law students that participate in the program are grouped and led by an upperclassman.  Team members develop lesson plans and are, of course, under the guidance of professors, but the teaching experience is meant to provide Penn Law students with insight about “how the criminal justice system treats those charged with crime.”  Teaching also helps the students understand the material better themselves as they work with student-prisoners. 

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Evaluating Applicants for Inmate Instructor Positions

By Christopher Zoukis

Effectively evaluating inmates who are interested in becoming classroom tutors or instructors is a challenging — but — essential task.  This is because the health of your very classroom depends on finding the right fit, an inmate who is experienced enough to teach the subject at hand, motivated enough to continue putting in the time and effort day after day, and passionate enough to be patient with incarcerated students who might not be very accessible, friendly, or open to learning.  You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.  But with several concepts in mind and a roadmap in hand, this process can turn from a tumultuous experience to one of certainty and clarity.

What follows is that roadmap.  These are some of the components you should consider when evaluating applicants for inmate instructor positions.

Prior Experience: In my mind, prior experience is the top selection criteria.  Teaching in the prison context is not an easy task, and inmate learners are not always the most willing of students.  As such, an experienced hand is usually best.  If an inmate has had a positive prior teaching experience in the correctional setting, this person brings those prior skills with them to the table.  Likewise, those who have taught outside of prison are a tremendous resource since most people don’t go into the teaching profession for the money.  As such, they likely had, and might still possess, a passion for teaching.  This can only be a plus for your classroom.

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Location, Location, Location

By George Hook

Unlike in the States’ prison systems where a prisoner is confined to a single State and the choice of where to “do time” is limited to the few facilities in that State, in the federal system a prisoner may wind up in almost any of the federal prison facilities in any of the 40 States where such facilities are located.  Even though the mindset and function of the Designation and Sentence Computation Center (“DSCC”), located in Grand Prairie, Texas, which is responsible for initial designations is far from those of a travel agency, its mission is to make the best placement of prisoners possible, given all the different factors at play. 

Security level is the most determinative.  That limits where an inmate may go based on the nature of offense, whether violent or not, sentence time, affiliations, target characteristics, and, unfortunately these days, location overcrowding.  These factors are beyond the control of the prisoner.  But the prisoner can affect the DSCC’s decision by providing input as to such matters as DSCC would not otherwise be aware.  The DSCC will be aware of family ties and try to accommodate family visitations so that won’t be necessary for the prisoner to address unless unusual circumstances necessitate an accommodation other than the obvious. 

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The Elijah Network

Creating strong family bonds to prevent domestic violence and ensure a peaceful community is what The Elijah Network strives to accomplish. The Elijah Network partners with churches, schools and government agencies to help youth grow in a positive, supportive, faith-based community. 

One of the programs that The Elijah Network is involved with is the Dare to be You program. This program helps to empower adults and youth from diverse communities by focusing on positive development of youth through training, curriculum and technical assistance. 

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The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program

Mediation for victims of crimes, their families and the offenders is a large part of finding restitution for the crime and from having that crime reoccur.

The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, based in Fresno, California, is a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides voluntary, non-fee mediation services to victims of juvenile crime and theirr offenders.

The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program began in 1982 in Fresno County and is based on the Biblical Vision of Shalom (Whole-Making Peace). The program sees this as existing when there are right-relations between fellow human beings, and between people and God.

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Security Threat Groups

A rule in prisons, though I know it has become more of an issue in all schools, is “no touching is the best policy”. It is a prison rule all inmates know, and it can lead to a write-up for them. They cannot touch any of the staff.

Occasionally, I have given a professional handshake. When a man is on his way to be released and he is thanking me for helping him pass his GED, or he is thanking me for being his teacher, or coming to say goodbye, I will shake his hand.

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Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series (Part 6)

This is the sixth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.

“Students are more likely to succeed in a place where they feel known and cared about.”

For those who have passed through some level of higher education this statement can be attributed to common sense. Unfortunately, education in general – and prison education specifically – tends to forget about this.

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Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series (Part 5)

This is the fifth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.

“Just because doing x raises standardized test scores doesn’t mean x should be done.”

In Kohn’s piece he notes a number of flaws and – even more important – questions which should be asked of any test. While I agree with all that he voiced, I’m going to take this post in another direction, a direction closer to home and the prison educator.

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Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series (Part 4)

This is the fourth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his “Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring” published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.

“Students are less interested in whatever they’re forced to do and more enthusiastic when they have some say.”

As discussed in the third post in this series, incarcerated students have very diverse interests. I also noted that students retain more of the information presented when they are interested in the topic than not. Now it’s time to build upon the idea of student interest with the option of student choice.

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