Inmate Education Program: Everyone Deserves a Second Chance

No comments

CCA Task Force Makes Sure Faculty are Safe and Secure

The CCA Inmate Education Task Force started last spring when it became clear that many colleges had no contract language addressing the working conditions of faculty who teach in prison programs.

“Our charge was to develop model contract language for local chapters to negotiate if their college participates in an inmate education program,” said CCA board member and Task Force Chair Patrick Mitchell. The 15 member Task Force, representing colleges from across the state, produced model contract language and provides resources and other support.

“The #1 item in our model contract language states that teaching in a prison program must be voluntary. Faculty should not be assigned to teach in these programs unless they want to be,” Mitchell said. “Having said that, I’m told that the classes in the prisons are among the best classes some of my colleagues have taught. So, we want to ensure that as inmate education programs become larger and more common, and more faculty begin to teach in them, that those faculty have fair working conditions.”

Negotiators have found the model contract language ambitious, he added, but extremely fair. “We need to ensure that faculty are being fairly compensated for their extra time and expenses in teaching these classes.”

Extra time, says the Merced Community College Faculty Association member, means the time it takes to get in and out of the prison, to complete the requirements for working in the program and for preparing the classes. There are also extra expenses incurred with travel, fingerprinting, and biannual TB tests.

This is important for college faculty who believe inmates need an education if they’re going to earn their second chance: faculty such as Melissa Bowen, who teaches psychology at California Correctional Institution – Tehachapi and California City Correctional Facility, and Tony Anderson, who taught student success classes courses at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.

“I cannot express how much of an impact it has made on my teaching and my career,” says Bowen, whose courses include lifespan, research, abnormal, and physiological psychology classes for Kern Community College.
“I had a student who had been in prison for 31 years and was released. Without college, he would not have had the skills necessary to make a life for himself,” she said. “I had another student tell me that college classes are the only place where he is not labeled as a drug dealer, gang member or inmate, and that he now identifies as a student-athlete.”

Anderson says he believes “people who make mistakes deserve a second chance. As faculty, we want to educate them, but at the same time we must be in a respectable environment where students can learn and faculty are in a safe environment to teach. There were times I didn’t feel safe. When you go inside, you go in at your own risk.” Prison officials gave him a beeper with a personal alarm button. “It takes 7-15 seconds for security to get to you, but in that time, you could be dead,” he said.

That’s why teaching should be voluntary, Anderson noted. “Often, probationary faculty didn’t know they could say no. Faculty have a right to say no. Teaching in a prison is not for everyone.”

Bowen says her students are well-behaved, respectful and disciplined. “They consistently score better on assignments, tests and end-of-term grades than my traditional students,” she noted, while admitting that teaching in the prison requires thinking on your feet and being prepared for change.

“I was the first college professor to teach at CCI-Tehachapi, and that required learning the ropes quickly to provide the best instruction to my students. One of the biggest challenges that requires adaptation is when the prison is shut down for any incident, such as fighting or inclement weather,” she said. Inmates are not released from their cells if the weather is too severe. “Lesson plans have to be adapted, schedules revised” on a moment’s notice, she said.

Tony AndersonTime is a barrier when it comes to travel, lock downs and time for students to work on projects, says Anderson. He was away from campus for half a day, three times a week to teach one class. It was a 30-minute drive one way, and it took up to 45 minutes to get through security – coming and leaving the prison.

Anderson was rarely notified of lockdown days, “so I made the 30-mile drive to prison from Hartnell College and I can’t teach. That happened three weeks in a row. We have to make those days up so students get their hours and get credit,” he said, “but then, whose financial responsibility is it when you’ve driven there to provide a service and are locked out? You should still get paid for the trip. Issues like these must be taken into account.”

Internet access is not allowed at all prison facilities and computers are not allowed in some institutions, Anderson noted. “Students can’t always do searches online, so be prepared to teach like it’s the 1960s or 1970s.” Since there are no office hours, he provided extra time for students to get work done during class.

Bowen says she appreciates the networking opportunities the Task Force affords. “It is great to hear what other people are experiencing throughout the state and to get fresh ideas about how to handle difficult situations, such as how to incorporate technology into prison classrooms.”
“The Task Force and union have been instrumental in advocating for college professors in the prison,” says Bowen. “There is now a stipend provided for teaching in the prison as well as mileage reimbursement, thanks to the work of our union.”