We’re proud to post another blog note from our internationally known blogger, Minette. It’s an informative look at the program and educational choices available for inmates in some prisons.
Staying sane while doing your time in prison can be done two ways. One is to dull your senses enough, so it doesn’t hurt. The other is to make the time worthwhile.
Prisoners creatively make prison hooch or pruno, the prison wine which only requires water, sugar, a vegetable to ferment, prison pants or socks. Some prisoners become vintners to make a little extra money. A few ex-offenders I interviewed said they made wine. Obviously, an infraction of the rules, prisoners carefully hid it while fermenting. This provided job opportunities for guards and look outs. But it and drugs are popular among the population because numbing the senses help many prisoners get through the day.
In addition to work, school and meals, many interviewees attended religious services and sobriety meetings. Usually, there was nothing to do to get into these meetings, other than show up, so they were popular. Regular attendance at these programs along with supporting documentation about an individual’s efforts at introspection and change help at future parole hearings.
Inmates might attend classes led by outside volunteers. Volunteers teach living skills classes, creative writing and poetry classes, acting workshops as well as other programs. These creative programs are meant to help the prisoner explore and express their own issues that may have contributed to their incarceration as well as take a mental break from the daily confines of the prison. They say you can lock up the body, but the mind can escape at least for a while. This also makes reading a frequent pass time in prison.
Many of the poetry and writing classes publish the inmates work, adding a sense of tangible accomplishment. Betweenthebars.org, MarshallProject.org and other organizations allow prisoners to send in their writing, and have it published online. It’s a way to communicate to the outside world and not feel forgotten.
There is the Path of Freedom program, taught in many prisons, that focuses on meditation and mindfulness to build emotional intelligence. For those facing a long prison term, it helps them cope by enhancing their ability to stay in the moment and live day by day rather than be overwhelmed by the thought of a long sentence. There are other programs aimed at changing the way prisoners view the world. For example, the Bridges to Life program or the Insight Prison Program. These programs include interaction with survivors of violent crimes and are intended to create a cathartic experience for both victims and incarcerated participants. Inmates recognize responsibility for their actions, develop empathy, ultimately forgive themselves for what they have done and move forward. Parole reviews can include an assessment of the prisoner’s recognition and acceptance of the damage they did when they completed their crime. Understanding the impact of crimes on victims and their families is part of the process. This trend toward Restorative Justice started in juvenile courts and schools in order to keep younger people outside of the retribution programs in jails and prisons, and now it has made its way into the prison system.
There are several groups, religious and non religious, like GOGI.org, or Prison S.M.A.R.T. to help prisoners change the way they react and think. These programs are set up for prisoners who want to change their attitude in order to reduce tension on the inside of the prison and reduce recidivism once they are released. Some other standard programs offered by many states include: Thinking for a Change, Reasoning and Rehabilitation, and Moral Reconation Therapy.
There are classes organized by local colleges or universities where inmates interact with both teachers and students. This promotes a better understanding from both sides of the fence. Examples of these programs are Prison Education Project in California or Lipscomb Initiative For Education (LIFE) in Tennessee. Attendees at the Life classes cite benefits including increased self-worth and the hope that they will be a positive influence on their families rather than a source of disappointment that attendees sometimes say they feel they are now. They hope potential employers will take into consideration their efforts to gain a college degree while they were in prison. The coordinator of the program also noted that guards saw participants in the program created a positive influence in the general population of the prison. Teachers and outside students saw how receptive the inside students were to the opportunity to learn and interact with them. Outside students and teachers also had the opportunity to see the inside students as real people, not statistics or lost causes. Requirements to participate included a GED or high school diploma and at least two years of good behavior.
In 2017, there were 67 colleges and universities participating in the Second Chance Pell grant programs in over 100 state and federal penal institutions. One is associated with Bard Prison Initiative and another with Cornell University and Cayuga Community College. One teacher at Auburn Prison in New York, who teaches under the latter program is Alex Chertok. In his interview with a local paper, he said,
“I didn’t know much about the prison population and was just as intimidated as everyone else and wanted to break through that stigma … When I first started teaching, I looked around and I saw a classroom of criminals. As the semester went on the fear was replaced with a kind of admiration for them…
You learn to see the prison students as students as opposed to convicted felons… They’ve done some heavy stuff, but it doesn’t take long before we see them as students and in many ways they are far brighter and more engaged and more inquisitive than any Cornell or Ithaca College student… Teaching in the program presupposes a fundamental belief in forgiveness, second chances and redemption… In general, these inmates come from awful backgrounds. They were the victims of abuse, violence or neglect… Most of them come from upbringings that didn’t give them a fighting chance to be functional or contributing members of society… They were never given an opportunity like this before and everyone deserves an education and a chance to feel fulfilled and self-actualize. In many cases we are the first time these guys get that chance.”
He believes the program benefits the inmates and the instructors.
“Everyone who has gone through the program has called it varying degrees of life-changing. It’s edifying to see how similar these incarcerated guys are to us… That’s the first shock, that they have nightmares and dreams and fears and they are complex people, so that’s the first empowering realization as an instructor…
It’s a beautiful feeling to watch ourselves undergo the process of seeing these guys as humans… It’s empowering to know we are capable of meaningfully interacting with people we were afraid of in the beginning.”
In 2009, Bard College, started the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. There are over ten universities involved in the program in the United States. They attempt to make their education program the dominant feature of the inmate’s prison experience from the time they enroll to their release. Many continue their studies after release. One participant who went through Grinnell University in prison said, “… his entire way of thinking started to change. Part of that came from the diversity of the program’s curriculum and being exposed to perspectives and subjects he’d never considered before. And part came from little moments like the one he shared with professors … It was the way they kept talking to me… [they] basically convinced me that I was smart.” And he convinced himself that he could have a future that didn’t involve prison. He credits his Grinnell education with giving him the tools and patience to overcome the obstacles he faces daily. “The guy that went into prison wouldn’t have had the patience, the perseverance, the grit to get through that…A liberal arts education doesn’t just throw a lot of knowledge at you, it actually teaches you how to seek knowledge and use it to your benefit,” He cites his speech class as an example. Information from that class came in handy interviewing for jobs, communicating with his parole officer, landlords, and convincing the Department of Human Services of his ability to be a good father. Right after his release, he applied and was accepted to Kirkwood Community College, which accepted his Grinnell transcript.
In 2014, San Quentin set up a program called the last mile. Millions of dollars were spent by philanthropists to set up a mock internet so participants could learn coding, website development, and other technical skills. There is a focus on entrepreneurial skill development as well. The program is being rolled out to several other California prisons and is anticipated to be made available across the country. It has expanded to create prison jobs. None of the participants who have been released from prison, only about 20 as of late 2017, have come back to prison. Although a very small number, that is in the context of California’s over 44% recidivism rate.
But most prisons don’t have colleges and universities on the prison grounds. If the prison does not participate in any on site college education courses, there are correspondence courses available. These courses range from programs that address self-defeating behaviors like anger management, interpersonal behavior, and work preparation skills. One interviewee said he took classes with Rio Salado, a community college in Arizona. There are other accredited colleges and universities that also offer print based courses that can lead to a degree, for example, Adams State University in Colorado offers degree programs. That seems to be one of the most popular ones. Ohio University, and other schools, offer a correctional education program. These courses generally take longer than a traditional on campus class might take. Mail takes time. And, if someone is moved from one prison location to another, there may be breaks in the process. In order to find and sign up for these classes, incarcerated people may need to depend on outside assistance. It may be difficult to gather the documentation for the school application while in prison. Remember, prisoners have no access to the internet so research on the options may be difficult although the prison library probably has information.
Besides educational and artistic endeavors, prisons provide physical activities to alleviate stress and use time productively. Most prisons have weights available. Working out gives the inmates something to be able to control in a universe where they have so little control. Making evident progress on building a well-defined, strong body is an opportunity for someone to feel good about an accomplishment. Plus, it never hurts in that situation to present a strong image.