So what do we teach in prison? We work on adult basic education skills for those who aren’t literate. The first goal is to reach 6th grade in reading, math, and language skills. Once reached, the next goal is to pass the GED test. Forty per cent of high school graduates in this country cannot pass the GED test. It’s not as simple as many think. So it is a major accomplishment for a man to move up to a level that allows him to pass the test. After the GED is passed, there are other educational opportunities, including vocational programs and Purdue University classes which can lead to certifications and degrees. Our vocational programs include classes in computers, marketing, horticulture, automobile repair, electronics, culinary arts, and construction trades. My colleagues and I are very dedicated to helping the men become contributors to society. This also lowers the possibility of them returning to prison.
The offenders do receive a time credit, sometimes known as a time cut, both for reaching literacy and/or for passing the GED test. They also receive time cuts for completing a vocational program, or for earning Purdue certificates, associate and bachelor degrees. These time credits allow them to be released as much as a year or two earlier than their original sentence. This saves the state thousands of dollars per inmate, which is another reason top administrators want more promotions and more completions.
We have what I would call the ultimate diversified, mainstream classroom. We have students with ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities, various degrees of hearing loss, depression problems, lack of sight, and epilepsy. We educate bipolar individuals, stroke victims, diabetics, and people with high blood pressure. Alcoholics and addicts are very common. Some of the men have brain damage as a result of accidents or shootings. I have taught several men with prosthetic limbs.
Lots of anger issues exist in our classrooms; most of the men are ticked off that they are even in prison. They’re mad at the judge, or whoever may have turned them in, or at themselves.
There are also relationship problems. Someone is always going through a divorce.
The death of a parent or spouse causes extreme stress. When a man goes to prison, he rarely thinks about the possible pain of missing his mother’s funeral. Losing custody of children, or even termination of parental rights, can be a reality. Some deal with sick or troubled children and with sibling problems, all of which cause much stress for the individual who is going through any of these traumatic situations.
And then, of course, there is the lack of control. They often can’t do anything about their problems, so it’s an understatement to say they come into class with a bit of anger and frustration on their plate.
Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at www.lockedupwithsuccess.com.