Here at FCI Petersburg the Education Department offers several programming opportunities. These include GED classes, English-as-a-Second Language classes, and Adult Continuing Education (ACE) courses. With the exception of the GED program, none of these programs offer outside recognition of course completion. None of the courses — outside of the GED program — are accredited or recognized as formal educational endeavors.
I’m all for learning for learning’s sake. As a matter of fact, I’m not only on the testing crew for the new self-paced ACE program here at FCI Petersburg, but I even take a different traditional ACE course each quarter. I do this because I enjoy taking classes and find it helpful to analyze other teachers’ methods of instruction. I feel that both my own knowledge base and teaching skills can be enhanced through these courses. This is regardless of program accreditation. Though I would certainly be interested in a program which I could add to a resume; something to help my employment prospects upon release. Sadly, a Federal Bureau of Prisons’ educational certificate is not going to do the trick.
Prisoners as a whole are an under-educated class. When they attend classes on resume writing or job interviews, they are at a loss for what to do with a resume and what to tell an employer. This is because many only have a GED; not even a real high school diploma. Some lack even a GED. Something needs to be done about this. If a prisoner is at a loss for how to explain their lack of an adequate work or educational history while in a classroom setting, which is designed to prepare them for job interviews, then the actual interviews will almost certainly be total failures. As correctional educators, we should not accept this. We should strive to prepare our students for success, not probable failure. In my mind, when my students fail, it is really me failing them since it was they who put their trust in me to prepare them for success.
Federal Bureau of Prisons’ policy states that programs can be accredited when feasible. Yet, the vast majority of programs are not. There is not a single program here at FCI Petersburg that an inmate could take that would award credit at a local community college. There is not a single program here that a released inmate could add to a resume and use for a job in construction, electrical work, planning, real estate, hospitality, or even landscaping. Sure they could note their experience sweeping floors, cutting grass, or painting cells. They could also present a certificate from a completed ACE course. Unfortunately, these will not cut it. This is because persons in the traditional employment market can easily surpass these experiences with minimal effort. And they don’t have a criminal record to contend with.
The only hope a prisoner has is to cut grass, fix broken toilets and lights, perhaps cook or wash dishes, or sweep and mop floors in order to gain work experience. Mind you, experience, not credentials or certifications. And experience within the confines of a correctional context, not real world experience. Listing such experience might even predispose an employer to a negative view of the ex-prisoner since the very experience cited highlights their previous criminality.
Even the carpentry program does not award anything of substance. And let’s clarify. A piece of paper with the title of a course and the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ logo in the background does not count as something in the job market. Sadly, outside of earning a GED, this is the height of academic and vocational success in most Federal Bureau of Prisons’ facilities. If this is the Holy Grail, then a significant number of federal prisoners are in serious trouble.
Every prison should have at least one program which allows inmates to either become certified in a trade or receive college credit which leads toward a vocational or academic degree. This should be a blanket, department-wide policy. In the world outside of prison, this kind of policy would facilitate hope. Inside prison, it would facilitate dedication and adherence to institutional policies. And within the prisoners themselves, it would facilitate a winning attitude.
While bureaucracies are slow-moving mechanisms, they don’t even consider moving at all without a staff supporter who has an idea. So, seek an idea. Take a look around your facility and see if any existing programs could become certified or accredited as is or with minimal revision. The first step is to learn what is available, then think about what is possible.
If there is no easy answer, perhaps a call could be made to the local community college’s programming director to see if he/she has any ideas. The faculty at community colleges are used to providing education — both academic and vocational — to underserved populations. It is almost their mission to help in cases like this. Thus, think of them as a valuable asset, not merely an option or avenue of pursuit.
From where I sit — at a cold, hard, metal desk with a swiveling metal stool — nothing will happen without staff involvement. Dedicated and passionate staff members are needed to effect meaningful change in an institution’s programming opportunities. To start the wheels of change turning, one must step up and be the first to present an idea.
I ask you: Are you this person?