Magazine article Techniques

Teaching Hope Behind Bars

Magazine article Techniques

Teaching Hope Behind Bars

Article excerpt

Some lessons change lives. For prison inmates, education can be the key factor in stopping a cycle of crime on the streets and jail--by offering a whole new way of life. In the fight against crime, the state of Virginia has embraced vocational education as a way to break the destructive pattern.

At first glance, it appears much like any adult classroom: students in Bonnie Cutwright's optical technology course are questioning their teacher on the proper method of creating lenses for glasses. The class is clearly interested, motivated and eager to learn.

Yet a closer look reveals that this is no typical adult school or training facility. The students in this classroom are all women, all dressed alike and the lesson is punctuated by frequent "tool checks" where every item they are using--down to the tiniest screwdriver--must be accounted for.

Cutwright's students are inmates serving prison sentences at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Virginia. For these women, like many other incarcerated adults across the nation, vocational education offers more than the opportunity for a career change or job enrichment. In fact, what these inmates are learning may be their very best chance for starting new lives and becoming law-abiding, productive members of society.

According to Cutwright, many incarcerated students do realize the incredible opportunity they have before them. She recalls one of her students blurting out her appreciation during a lesson.

"She thanked me," says Cutwright, "and marveled at how she would never have gone to school to learn optical technical skills when she was on the street. The only jobs she even thought of as options for her were bartender or country music singer."

"It is tremendous to see the change in self-esteem these women can experience when they learn new skills," says Cutwright. "It is just so important."

A Better Way

Correctional education is important, and statistics clearly reveal why it should be a major priority in our system of incarceration:

* The adult correctional population is primarily poor, unskilled and unemployed or underemployed. Approximately 49 percent of the prison population have not completed high school or a GED, compared with 24 percent of the general population.

* The incidence of learning disabilities among inmates has been estimated at between 30 and 50 percent, compared with 5 to 15 percent of the general adult population.

* Over half the offenders released from institutions each year will return within three years.

* Inmates who undergo correctional education average up to a 20 percent reduction in recidivism rates from that of the general prison population.

Most states have some type of correctional education programs in their prisons, which can include academic, vocational and life/job skills training.

Findings from a recent survey of prison inmates conducted by the National Institute of Justice indicated that approximately 400,000 inmates in state correctional facilities had participated in some type of education program--representing 57 percent of all inmates incarcerated in state facilities.

Nineteen percent of those had taken vocational courses, 45 percent had enrolled in basic education courses and another 36 percent had enrolled in both vocational and education courses.

Inmates are clamoring for the opportunity to learn while behind bars. More than 75 percent of states responding to a survey on correctional education reported that there were waiting lists for their programs.

Focus on Education

The state of Virginia has embraced the concept of "fighting crime through education" with its Department of Correctional Education (DCE), a separate executive branch agency providing educational services in adult and youth correctional facilities throughout the state.

The Department has a current annual operating budget of $44. …

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