By Christopher Zoukis
For five years, inmates haven’t even had the opportunity to obtain high school equivalency diplomas at the Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The GED program was scrapped during a county budgeting crisis in 2012 and has yet to be reinstated.
Still, positive changes are on the horizon at the facility, with three new programs recently added to boost the rehabilitative offerings for female inmates. It’s good news in a county where only 49 percent of inmates have their high school diploma compared to 89 percent of the general population.
While advocates are calling for reinstatement of the GED program, which would help inmates with job prospects after release, funding is an issue. One possibility is renegotiating telecommunications, which could include tablet-based educational systems, broadening educational opportunities significantly. Beyond this, basic programming currently offered includes Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and computer classes.
The new programs include a sexual assault education program, which will be run by the Women’s Resource Centre, and offered to 15 women at a time. The program assists participants to understand that being a victim of sexual abuse is not their fault, and facilitates making connections between trauma and behaviour — unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug use, for example.
The nationwide Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program will also be implemented at the facility. Established in 1997 and based in Philadelphia, the program helps to “facilitate dialogue across difference” and allows participants — inmates and college students — to meet each other as equals, providing learning across social boundaries and dispelling stereotypes. The program, offered as part of Keystone College’s Criminal Justice Programs, sees students and inmates learning side by side in a classroom setting, with the hope that barriers are broken down, students gain real-world exposure, and that inmates might gain the confidence and inspiration to attend college in the future.
A creative writing program through the University of Scranton’s Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice will also be offered. The program aims to provide a superior, transformational learning experience and to prepare students to make a difference in the world. Following Jesuit ideals of academic excellence, the importance of the liberal arts, and the education of the whole person, the Center for Service and Social Justice participates in numerous community and campus initiatives.
The creative writing program is offered to 10-20 inmates at a time, over a 5-6 week period, and is facilitated by student volunteers. Exercises have included blackout poetry, word mandalas and storytelling. Through writing, participants learn about themselves and each other, and how to express their emotions through telling their stories.
The program has spilled beyond the prison walls in the form of a theatrical play. Ten education majors and three former Lackawanna County inmates performed We Rise, written by internationally renowned playwright Nancy Hasty, who has conducted arts programs at the prison.
The play highlighted the various struggles of all of the performers, demonstrating both commonalities and differences. Personal experiences from childhood bedrooms, to stories of abuse, to decisions made later in life were shared, showing how surprisingly similar histories and experiences can be shared between educators and women imprisoned only blocks away from the university.
The play was also a means of raising awareness of the struggles the former inmates had experienced, and how unaddressed issues early in life affected their later decisions, and the ultimate consequences of those decisions.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.