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Correctional Education from the perspective of the prisoner student.


Approximately two million men and women are currently incarcerated in the nation's penitentiaries (Butterfield, 2002). Ninety percent of these inmates will eventually be released from prison (Linton, 2004). The vast majority of these inmates enter prison without basic literacy skills or job training. According to the U.S. Department of Education (Linton), approximately 75 percent of men and women released from prison will commit an additional offense within three years. The lack of financial resources for correctional education, coupled by the negative stigma associated with being an ex-convict, contributes greatly to recidivism. This assumption is based upon previous studies assessing correctional education's impact on recidivism (Nuttall, Hollmen, & Staley, 2003; Slater, 1994-1995). Thus, the importance of education in the criminal justice system has not been given adequate recognition.

This study was an examination of prisoners' perceptions of adult education. Where many studies on correctional education focus on recidivism, this study attempted to gain the perspective of the prisoner on various aspects of correctional education, including previous educational experiences, teacher to student interaction, and ability to function in the job market upon release. Using qualitative inquiry methods, the study sought to discover prisoners' perceptions about attending classes, interacting with prison personnel in these classes, and how prisoners feel they would benefit from taking classes.


Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of correctional education as a means of reducing recidivism (Nuttall, Hollmen & Staley 2003; Slater, 1994-1995). These studies show that approximately 60 percent of ex-convicts return to jail at least one more time after release (Linton, 2004; Slater). According to Nuttall et al., 40 percent of young offenders aged 21 and under who earned a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) while incarcerated returned to jail within 3 years, compared to 54 percent of young offenders who did not have a diploma or complete a GED program while in prison. Similar results are reported when considering postsecondary education in correctional settings.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (1995) indicates the rate of recidivism for educated prisoners ranges from 15%--30% when students take college courses. Slater (1994-1995) not only concurs with this finding, but also finds that federal prisoners in general had a recidivism rate of 40 percent without college courses and 12 percent for those prisoner who were released having participated in some college courses. Additional studies also conclude that prison education programs significantly reduce recidivism (Slater; Turnbull, Lin, & Bajeva, 1997).

Chappell (2004) concludes that the higher the educational attainment, the higher the reduction of recidivism. Additionally, prisoners who are educated experience "beneficial effects on post-release employment and institutional discipline (p.149)." Further, Chappell states that correctional education programs are cost effective and provide "a substantial return-on-investment for society (p.149)." This study showed that inmates who possessed at least two years of college were re-arrested at a rate of 10% as compared to a rate of 60% for those who do not possess this level of education. Chappell's review of correctional education articles also showed that there is a positive relationship between education and recidivism. Similarly, Gordon and Weldon's (2003) study of correctional education and recidivism shows that of the inmates who earned their GED while incarcerated; only 4% were re-arrested as compared to the national rate of 65%. Finally, a 1992 study (Porporino and Robinson in Gordon) shows that federal offenders were tracked for a year after release to determine the effects of education upon recidivism. Of the prisoners released, those who completed the ABE program had a re-arrest rate of 30.1% as compared to 35.5% for those who were released before completion and 41.6% for those who withdrew from this educational program. Those inmates who completed vocational programs were re-arrested at a rate of only 8.75%; the recidivism rate for those who completed GED programs was 6.71%.

While the literature cites successes in adult education programs, some attention must be paid to the prior educational experiences of prison inmates as well. Mageehon's (2003) study of women convicts showed that the women who completed the GED program had experienced a strong academic connection in their kindergarten through twelfth grade education that fostered academic growth behind bars. This is important because, according to Mageehon, "correctional educators are in a unique position to be concerned about their students' pasts and futures ... the women's experiences prior to incarceration, the histories of abuse and addiction, and their relationships with the power brokers both within the institution and outside the institution, mediate who they are as students (p.197)." Therefore, correctional educators should be aware of the relationship between prior experiences and current experiences, as well as how other external factors influence prison classroom success.

The purpose of this study was to gain the unheard perspective of the prisoner student regarding prison education programs. Specifically, the study focused on those GED, adult literacy, and vocational training programs offered by the penal institution. Research indicated the current availability of programs, a listing of programs that were cut as a result of the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, and the dynamics of institutional influence. Since the Crime Bill has affected correctional education for over eleven years, the researcher sought alternatives for correctional education (programs implemented to serve prisoner students as a result of the Crime Bill). This study provided the researcher with an understanding of:

* what correctional educators experience in the classroom,

* what correctional educators feel prisoners need to accomplish in order to be successful after release,

* which programs prisoners perceive as effective in increasing their ability to obtain and retain employment, which programs they would like to see offered, and what academic and job-related/vocational knowledge prisoners possessed prior to incarceration.

Finally, the researcher compared the program preferences of prisoners with the programs currently available in an attempt to gain insight into the question: how do prisoner students perceive their correctional education experience?


When considering the correctional education experience, who are the major stakeholders? What does correctional education mean to a prisoner student? How does correctional education translate to post-release success? With little research on prisoner perceptions of the correctional education experience, there are many questions about the life of the prisoner student to be answered. Thus, the primary focus of this study was to determine which pre-incarceration factors contribute to the correctional education experience, and how the educational programming behind bars affects the future career, employment, and educational goals of prisoner students.

This study focused on three major factors:

* the previous educational and employment experiences of the prisoner student and how these experiences impact educational choices during incarceration,

* how the prisoner student perceived the correctional education course offerings, class environments and instructors, and

* how the combination of pre-incarceration experiences and the correctional education experience translate to successful re-integration into society.

Therefore, the primary research question guiding this study was: How do prisoners perceive their correctional education experience? Secondary research questions guiding this study included:

1. What motivates students to attend class?

2. How do prior educational and employment experiences affect student motivation?

3. What is the institutional culture of the prison as it relates to education, and how does that affect the students?

4. Is there a discernable difference between the perceptions of prison inmates and prison administration as they relate to correctional education?

5. What are the causes of this discernable difference, if it exists?

6. What are prisoners' perceptions of what a successful person does? What career and educational aspirations do prisoners have?

The research questions for this study were primarily focused on determining how prisoners perceive their correctional education experience with emphasis on the effect of this education upon post release re-integration/success. The researcher thus searched for a sampling strategy that would provide me with participants capable of providing insights into the correctional education experience. To fully understand the correctional education setting, and the experiences of prisoner students in that setting, the sample for this study was ten prisoner students (N=10) and two prison administrators (N=2). The prisoner students were required to meet the following criteria in order to be included in the study:

* Incarcerated males

* At least 50% of the samples have the possibility of parole.

* Participants must be currently enrolled in one or more of the pre-college adult education programs offered at the prison.

* Any other participants were therefore excluded from the study (with the exception of the assistant warden and the educator).

Data collection consisted of an open-ended questionnaire designed to gather the perceptions of prisoner students, as well as fully understand the correctional education process. The interview is best used when soliciting information that is personal, lengthy, and that cannot be structured as multiple-choice items. The personal experiences of prisoner students both prior to and during incarceration were the focus of the study, and the interview method best captured the participant responses. To fully portray the perceptions of prisoner students of the correctional education experience, the participant words had to be a key part of the data collection process.

Additionally, brief observations of classes in session were recorded using field notes. These field notes enabled the researcher to draw sketches of computer labs where classes took place, to describe the appearance and demeanor of the participants and administrators, to describe the interaction between researcher and other prison staff, and to document personal reflections upon the interview process. Many of the field notes were written onto Observation Protocol sheets; the field notes made the collection of extraneous data convenient and effective.

Data was collected through pencil and paper as well as mechanical and electronic means. Interviews, observations, and field notes were manually recorded on paper. Ten prisoner student interviews were audio recorded as well (and transcribed verbatim by the researcher). Email was used to conduct follow-up inquiries with prison administrators. The researcher then carefully reviewed each document and labeled the text with abbreviated themes, or codes. The coded sections were then copied from the primary documents and pasted into thematic and time ordered matrices. The process of coding, categorizing, and grouping was continued until there were no more documents to be analyzed. Ten themes emerged as a result of this analysis. Through the quotes of the prisoner students and the written notes of the administrators, three major themes surfaced: success, regret, and rethinking the correctional education experience.


First, success is a concept that has a distinct meaning and achievement path that goes beyond the acquisition of a job that pays the bills. The prisoner students' perceptions of success influenced their study habits, their motivation to attend and persist in the classroom, and their future educational and employment plans. The second theme, regret, is an exploration of how the life choices and experiences of the prisoner inmates impact the correctional education experience. A third and final theme, rethinking the correctional education experience, reveals prisoner student perceptions of the previous and current GED programs at SSP.


Many respondents felt that the ability to care for self and loved ones was an indication of success. Other participants felt that "making it" and taking care of one's responsibilities was a strong indicator of success. When asked to give an example of success, a student named Darren cited Bill Gates:
 Bill Gates, for example. Bill Gates was a bookworm. All he did was
 read books when he was small. But as time got on, the books ... he
 learned so much from those books that, look at him now ... the
 inventor of Microsoft. I look at him as like, he's successful.

Darren attributed Gates' dedication to books to his success. Still other students attributed success to individualism, being content with who you are and being motivated to study. Motivation was a significant sub-theme of success.

Participation in the GED program at SSP was a prerequisite to participating in any other vocational program at the prison. Therefore, many students in the study were motivated to continue with their studies/earn their GED in order to move on to other classes that could potentially earn more money for their families. Jarvis, for example, wants to get his GED so he can find a computer class to participate in. Randall wants to be a cook and he knows that getting a GED is the first step in the process.

Some participants were motivated by their family members. Jared had the following to say about his son:
 That's my motivation--my son. I keep a picture of him everywhere I
 go. That's really my heart racing right there. I really made a vow
 to ... I'm gonna still be there for him even though I'm in here.

Jarvis also hopes to obtain an education for his children and mother:
 What made me attracted at first ... I was out in the field. So my
 next move was to get in school and get my GED. Everybody in my
 family got it but me. I wanted to get that for my mom and me too.

Paul, who appeared to be the least motivated student, stated he came to class because his mother and daughter did not want him sitting around "doing nothing."


A major theme that emerged from this study was regret of prior decisions. After incarceration, each inmate began to reflect upon his life and the mistakes he made to end up in prison. Each participant expressed regret for disappointing their children, their parents, and/ or their loved ones. They also regret dropping out of school, engaging in criminal activity, and being confined in prison. Two sub themes that were consistent with all of the participants are prior educational experiences and prior teachers. The participants regret the behavior and lack of effort they exhibited up until they dropped out of school. Each participant was able to identify at least two teachers who positively impacted their lives for at least a short period of time; they regret the fact that those teachers' attempts to intervene in their lives were unsuccessful. Past Experiences

A recurring theme in the data was regret of past experiences or decisions. The decisions made in elementary and middle/high school and external influences were most discussed by the participants. Each participant shared at least one regret he had in his pre-incarceration life.

The participants of this study described school as a place where they were either influenced by what they called the wrong crowd, or they simply acted out and ended up in trouble. Seven of the ten participants admit that hanging around with the wrong crowd was the cause of much of their trouble in school. Five participants admit that selling drugs led to their dropping out of school (as well as their incarceration). Michael, for instance, saw no purpose for going to school:
 I dropped out in the eighth grade after I started making so much
 money at a young age. I felt I didn't need school anymore ... It
 went to ... it didn't matter no more at that particular point
 because I guess I got bigheaded with the money.

Several participants described the allure of street life and how that led to them selling drugs. All of these participants expressed regret for this behavior. Nathan, who lost both of his parents by the time he was seven years old (his mother died and his father was incarcerated), was forced to sell drugs by his aunt who struggled to maintain her extended household. Despite Nathan's self-proclaimed passion for learning, he had to focus on selling drugs to help his aunt pay the bills.

Jared's experience with drugs began in the fifth grade and ended at age fifteen when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to do hard time at SSP. Thus, drug sales took the focus away from school and placed the priority on making money for the participants in this study. The choice to sell drugs is one that the participants regret.

The prisoner student perceives success as both a set of occupations and a set of behavioral characteristics. These characteristics include motivation, which brings the prisoner student into the classroom and keeps him there. Studying is also a behavior that indicates a desire for success. In order to realize this success, however, the prisoner student must also make a plan for the future to bring him to success. When asked about success, the respondents offered definitions that ranged from the spiritual to the practical.



For the participants of this study, success had different meanings than the literature suggests. The literature on successful reintegration simply states that a prisoner who is able to gain employment and remain out of prison is successfully reintegrated (Drakeford, 2002; Gehring, 1997; Hrabowski & Robbi, 2002; Silva, 1994). In previous studies, successful reintegration is measured using recidivism statistics (Drakeford; Gehring; Hrabowski & Robbi; Silva). The prisoner students from the present study indicated that success was more intrinsic in nature than being able to find a job. To truly be successful, the participants felt that they had to be "making it," doing something that they enjoyed as opposed to having a job to pay the bills. Only one participant ever mentioned money when talking about success. According to the participants, success comes from:

* Putting God first,

* Taking care of business,

* Having no worries,

* Working,

* Not depending on no one else,

* Learning,

* Contentment, and

* Being able to overcome obstacles.

The similarity between the literature and the participants' definitions of success is the fact that a return to incarceration would be an indication of failure. Each one of the participants, at some time during the interview, expressed a desire to "get outta here." This sentiment was even shared by those who were not eligible for parole. Alvin, for example, expressed a hope that he would be granted clemency or that he would someday become eligible for parole through an appeals process. Thus, the prison environment, though much more humane and "free" than it had been historically, is no place that any man wants to be. Success, then, is freedom from incarceration. Successful reintegration into society means finding a job and relating well within society; for prisoner students, however, this concept of success is much simpler. This is not to say that finding and keeping a job are not realities to prisoner students. However, the job is the means to the end that is a sense of self-worth and belonging to the society. These participants realize that success as they define it is only possible through educational attainment/learning a trade. Thus, the participants are motivated to attend classes by their goal of becoming successful men in society. Motivation, a sub-theme of success, is the next focus.


Pelissier's (2004) study focused on inmate motivation to change. This form of internal motivation is initiated by the inmate and serves as a driving force for participation in an educational or treatment program. External motivation, then, is pressure or incentives from an outside force such as the criminal justice system, prison administration, or even family members. Pelissier states that since most correctional education classes are voluntary, it is important to possess internal motivation. According to Pelissier, older males who planned to return to a home with children tended to possess internal motivation to participate in programs.

The participants of the present study were both internally and externally motivated to change. The majority of the participants expressed a desire to impress loved ones (Nathan wanted to impress his father; Jarvis wanted to get his GED for his mother) and children. Of the participants with children (N=8), all of these men mentioned their children as a motivator. For some, it was the ability to show their children that being in school was a good thing for everybody. For others, the motivation came from the thought of being able to get a good job and take care of their children.

Those participants who were externally motivated were few. Paul, for example, has no ambitions for a career because he is not eligible for parole for another 40 years. He is attending classes to satisfy his mother and two children--to show that he is not just sitting around doing nothing. According to Pelissier (2004), this type of external motivation may not be sufficient to sustain Paul to the completion of the GED program. And, since Paul has no real plan for the future, he sees nothing beyond getting up and going to school each day. In the case of motivation, then, the literature is consistent with the findings of this study without fault. The next major theme, Regret, is the focus of the following section.

Study Time

The literature on correctional education does not mention study time. However, this study found studying to be an indication of desire to change. The majority of the participants studied when they got a chance, not as a daily routine. This is due to a lack of instructional material to bring back to the dormitory, scheduling conflicts, and noise/distractions in the dormitory. What each participant indicated, however, was that studying could take the form of reading a law book, spiritual material, or even making precise calculations in the hobby shop. For these prisoner students, the material on the GED test could be replicated using everyday texts such as newspapers, books, and religious material. The participants may not be able to take the GED preparation material back to their dormitory, but they are able to make each reading or calculating experience a GED preparation exercise. This indicates that the majority of the participants (with the exception of Paul, who did not appear to be very interested in doing his best in school) were motivated to study in order to achieve success. If given no materials to study, the prisoner students find a way to study with what materials they do have at their disposal. The following section addresses future plans for prisoner student success, the driving force behind motivation and studying.

Future Plans

The literature on correctional education does not mention the future plans/goals of inmates; instead, there is a focus on obtaining correctional education to "get a job" in order to stay out of prison. This study, then, contributes to the literature as it reveals prisoner students' descriptions of what they hope to do upon release, and what preparation must take place to realize that goal. The voice of the prisoner student here is very different than expected. This voice revealed that, in most cases, much thought has been put into what will happen after release. The future plans of the prisoner students are unique in that they match the prisoner students' interests as well as his desire to make a good living (and stay out of jail as a result). Further detail on this significant contribution to the literature follows.

The participants were asked to define success and to define their future career and/or educational aspirations. The assumption was that the prisoner students would give the names of particular professions/trades offered by the prison. This was the case for some participants. Nathan, for example, aspires to become a welder. Randall would like to be a welder and a cook. Alvin aspires to become a cook like his mother and sister. These careers represent vocational classes offered at the prison. The participants heard about these classes and/or saw a fellow inmate working in these professions and then decided to pursue that career. Other prisoner students, however, expressed career aspirations that were a combination of vocations/trades or simply not offered at SSP. Alvin wants to write raps for others to perform and he hopes to be a poet. These career goals are consistent with his status as a lifer. Though he will never be released into society, he will be able to have a career within the micro community that is SSP. Jarvis and Jared wish to take computer courses. Jarvis' goal to work with computers, as his mother does, may call for a correspondence program (the prison only offers graphic arts on the computer). However, Jared researched the available programs at SSP and learned that there was a graphic arts program that fit his future plan of designing and detailing cars. Jared also includes the Body & Fender course in his future plans as a means of accomplishing his goal of becoming an entrepreneur.

Other aspiring entrepreneurs--Arnold and Darren--show that future plans drive the prisoner student's course choices. Arnold, a flooring installer by trade, aspires to take the carpentry course so that he can establish his own carpentry business upon release. Darren hopes to establish his own clothing store; he may even want to design some of the urban wear sold in his store. This goal of entrepreneurship may call for correspondence courses in business and design/fashion. Key to the participants' future plans is the fact that they hope to move beyond the jobs that are stereotypically held by ex-convicts (i.e., dishwasher, sanitation worker, and welder). The type of success that the participants aspire to will not be accomplished through such menial work (in most cases). These men want to own businesses and to climb the ranks of society ... their goals are realistic and attainable through correctional education. Most important is that every participant acknowledged that to achieve their goals, education of some kind is the first step.


Though the literature does not directly address regret, the participants in the study indicated that they regretted their past educational experiences.

Parkinson and Steurer (2004) find that most prisoners have encountered some sort of academic difficulty in the past. Mageehon's (2003) study of incarcerated women showed that the prior educational experiences of the prisoners impacted the type of learner they became in the correctional education classroom. If we assume that all prisoners have experienced some degree of negativity in their past educational lives, does this mean that they all experience some form of regret as part of the change process? Surely, the participants in this study indicated that they wished they had taken advantage of the good teachers that were in place. They wish they had made wiser decisions than selling drugs or participating in gang activity. They regret being unable to raise their children due to their incarceration. This is similar to the literature on correctional education and background characteristics. The literature (Chappell, 2004; Gunn, 1999; Newman & Beverstock, 1990) identifies prisoners' background characteristics that determine motivation and academic ability. This background information is uniform; it includes prior educational and employment experiences, family socio-economic status and level of education, and history of substance abuse. The prisoner student brings these background characteristics with him into the correctional education classroom, and they are often the cause of his regret. Coming from a poor home and being forced to drop out of school and sell drugs like Nathan, for example, is an example of background characteristics leading to regret. Thus, the findings are consistent with the literature that states that prior educational experiences impact the learner. The prisoner student is motivated to change/attend classes primarily because he regrets the fact that he did not graduate or did not pay attention in class when he could have gone on to college. However, there is more to regret than education. The background characteristics and patterns of thinking of the prisoner are so intertwined that it is difficult to determine what prompts a student to want to change. However, we can assume that where regrets are many, the desire to make a change is natural. Given that the correctional facility is a place of many regrets, we can assume that the desire to change abounds. Therefore, despite the fact that motivation is a sub-theme of success, the motivation to change and attend classes is also tied into the prisoner's regret of past events that led to his dropping out of school and/or incarceration. Additionally, the interactions with teachers that the prison students missed out on are lost; without teachers in the correctional education classroom, that experience will never be replicated in this GED program. Thus, instead of having an opportunity to experience the teacher-to-student interaction now that they can appreciate it, the prisoner students are left to learn independently (with the assistance of inmate tutors). Motivation to apply oneself fully to his studies, then, is a possible result of this missed opportunity that most participants expressed. The following section is a discussion of the GED classroom as perceived by these prisoner students, so desperate to change. The following section is an explanation of the changes that were made to the conceptual framework (Figure 1) as a result of the study findings.


Rethinking the Correctional Education Experience

The study findings reveal the participants' desire to possibly revise two parts of the correctional education experience: the new GED program and the use of inmate tutors. The following discussion places the inmate tutor within the context of the new GED program and argues for an evaluation of the program's use as it is.

The Inmate Tutor

A main focus of the interviews for this study was the inmate tutor. Geraci (2000) mentioned the use of inmate tutors who were first trained to play this role in the correctional education classroom. This training does not take place at SSP, however. Rather, to become an inmate tutor, the prisoner student must pass the GED test. The participants had mixed feelings about the use of inmate tutors in the GED classroom. They felt that the tutors did not help as much as they were supposed to, and, those who were fully equipped to help others were overwhelmed by the 10:1 ratio in the GED classroom. Researchers have recommended that correctional educators take some set of specialized courses for dealing with the needs of prisoner students (Moeller, Et. al, 2004; Wright, 2001). According to Ms. Drake, the principal of the GED school at SSP, there is no formal curriculum or training for correctional educators. This was also confirmed by the literature (Moeller, et. al, 2004), which states that though there are some general understandings about correctional education, there is no prescribed curriculum. Instead, the researchers state that the adult education and literacy classes should include the basic skills (including speaking, listening, and problem solving), some sort of individualized instruction, accommodation for deficient students, and a school-to-work transition system. The majority of correctional educators are certified high school teachers from neighboring towns. These teachers have not been, through their secondary education training/education, trained to serve this type of population. Neither are the inmate tutors trained to provide services to the prisoner students. Thus, the use of inmate tutors is something that has not been evaluated for effectiveness. Further, the GED program using inmate tutors in place of teachers is only being used in two other places in the state thus far. So are the inmates who complain about the lack of support from inmate tutors making a valid point? Does the program need more time to work well? Do the inmate tutors need more training? Further, do correctional educators in general need a training program tailored just for this population? The research has not fully examined this phenomenon, nor has prison administration evaluated the effectiveness of its use. However, it is evident that some sort of training program should be considered to serve the correctional population.

Study Implications

This study will benefit three facets of American education: elementary and secondary education, higher education, and correctional education. The prisoner student affects each of these areas. Elementary and secondary teachers have an opportunity to impact young and impressionable students at an early age. Though the teacher cannot take the child out of the home environment, the infusion of caring and encouragement into the classroom, by the teacher, may increase student engagement and decrease the desire to rebel/misbehave. Higher education and United States prisons have been connected since the late 1800s. This union should be strengthened and funding should be increased for higher education in order to provide more opportunities for prisoners to earn college credit/degrees while incarcerated. The further the educational gain, the more likely the prisoner student will leave the prison and successfully re-integrate (Chappell, 2004). Finally, correctional education is able to hear the perceptions of prisoner students pursuing their GEDs. This information, along with the future career goals of these students, will assist prison administrators and policymakers in deciding which programs to offer to their prisoner students. The following is a more detailed description of each section.

Elementary and Secondary School Teachers

Given that the background characteristics and prior experiences of the prisoner student influence his attitudes about school as an adult (Mageehon, 2003), the information in this study may benefit teachers in elementary and secondary schools. The participants of both the pilot study (N=5) and the current study (N=10) found that they were most engaged in school when they had teachers who treated them fairly, with respect, and who encouraged them to do good things. Teachers who put forth effort beyond the call of duty (stopping by a student's home, taking time to pull a child aside in or out of school, for example) were most fondly remembered. These exemplary teachers were not isolated to either elementary or secondary school. Prisoner student responses indicate that teachers who care and encourage exist from kindergarten to twelfth grade. So how can these teachers influence prisoner reintegration into society? There are two implications for K-12 teachers: the prevention of future crime commission through reaching out to at-risk students, and accommodating the needy child of an incarcerated parent.

As a teacher, the researcher is able to identify behaviors that indicate a child's disposition toward criminal activity. This student may resist authority, ask to leave class often, and slouch in his desk (or go to sleep in class). He may also live with a single parent or custodial parents who do not offer supervision and support for learning. The student whose test scores and participation are low, whose attendance is poor--these factors send up a red flag that the child needs intervention. Many schools have begun using positive behavior programs to redirect the troubled student. Those who cannot be reached through these means are often sent to juvenile detention centers; this is quite often the precursor to incarceration.

What if teachers found a way, while in class and on the school grounds, to reach out to students they feel are at risk? Though each prisoner student was able to name at least two teachers who positively impacted their lives, is this enough for a 12-year school career? Is it that these children slip through the cracks unnoticed, or do we educators witness a child's downfall and refuse to get involved because it is too much trouble or, worse yet, we just don't like the child's attitude? Most important to teachers is the need to recognize these undesirable behaviors as a cry for help--and to act on them.

So what about the student who has been in a fifth period History class for twelve weeks with a teacher who does not pay attention to his sleeping in class because 'at least he's not disturbing anyone'? Other than the school counselor, does anyone pull his cumulative folder and examine his family history? Has anyone called home to find out whether there is a medical condition or tragedy that occurred in the family that may have prompted this behavior? Quite often, when teachers do get to know their students' histories, they find an absent parent due to death or incarceration. However, just as Nathan described, many times the teachers are not aware of the personal tragedies of their students. Instead, the teacher dismisses any thought of helping the disruptive or antisocial and nonconformist child in order to save the children who came to school to learn. This ideology has one flaw--the disruptive child is still a child. And every child, regardless of how disruptive they may appear to be, needs and craves the attention and direction of adults he looks up to.

The literature shows that the child of an incarcerated parent exhibits these behaviors, and that they often do not have a stable home life (Johnson & Waldfogel, 2004; Nurse, 2004). Perhaps it then becomes the teacher's responsibility to nurture and provide structure for that child for at least the seven hours a day when they are at school. Educators must have a different outlook on that apparently needy student who causes teachers to roll their eyes as he strolls carelessly down the hall. To be truly effective as a teacher, educators must extend their reach beyond the students who comply with the rules and actually participate. On his first day as an administrator, the new principal at one high school asked that each teacher try to impact at least two students per day. Why not extend that positively to the students who need it most?

Higher Education

The field of higher education has been participating in correctional education since the late 1800s (Glaser, 1995; Warburton, 1993). Typically, the community college or university offered courses through correspondence. Later, professors began to travel to the prison to hold class. Today, the most recent innovation in the prison--higher education connection is distance learning. The goal for all of these methods is to provide a college education for incarcerated men and women. Given the need for job security to successfully re-integrate into society (Hrabowski & Robbi, 2002), more course offerings are essential to this successful re-integration. Jared and Jarvis expressed a desire to go into computer-related career after release. The program offerings at SSP, however, are limited in that graphic arts is the only program in the computer field. Through correspondence and/or distance learning, the career options and/or opportunities are greater, increasing the likelihood that prisoner students will have an opportunity to pursue a career that they enjoy and that is profitable. Thus, this study benefits higher education as it provides a description of available programs and establishes a need for community college and university sponsored degree programs, specifically in the medical and computer technology fields. If such programs were available, prisoner students like Jared, Jarvis, and Ralph would have an opportunity to realize their goals prior to release and get off to a great start at a new crime-free life. Perhaps, if more programs/courses are offered through the community colleges and universities, more federal and state funding would be allotted to higher education institutions to run/staff these programs. The following is a discussion of the implications for the field of corrections.

Correctional Education

Research shows an increase in funding sources for U.S. prisons and correctional education (Wilkinson & Rhine, 2005). The amount of funding has not increased significantly, however. Given the budget cuts that occurred as a result of the recent hurricanes, SSP was faced with laying off its educators and switching to a program using only inmate tutors. With a new computer- and tutor-based program, teachers would ease the transition for the prisoner students. Ms. Drake expressed regret over the teachers (N=3) who were laid off as a result of the budget cuts following the hurricanes. She would rehire those teachers (or other certified teachers) if the funding became available. Therefore, funding adequate enough to hire certified teachers to oversee the educational programs is needed at this time.

The participants of this study indicated a desire to have teachers instead of inmate tutors because of the perceived lack of professionalism of the tutor and the tutor's inability to effectively assist the GED students. Geraci's (2000) study indicates that inmate tutors are those who have completed the GED program, passed the GED test, and completed a tutor training program. This type of training is necessary for inmate tutors to be able to assist the unique prisoner student population. This is also true for teachers of middle and high school who come to the prison to teach. Just as these teachers had to learn pedagogy, and just how higher education instructors learn andragogy, correctional educators from every background should be given, at minimum, a seminar on teaching the prisoner student. The training would better prepare inmate tutors and certified teachers from outside the prison for dealing with learners with diverse needs, substance abuse problems and mental disorders, and learning disabilities. Additionally, a course or seminar on teaching prisoner students would equip teachers and tutors with the tools needed to adapt to changing inmate schedules, transfers in and out of class, and new arrivals to the class. The GED program is individualized, but having a well-trained teacher and/or inmate tutor in the classroom would make it easier to administer one-on-one time for academically needy students. Thus, correctional education could benefit from the results of this study by recognizing the need for training for inmate tutors and teachers. This training, and possibly a handbook for one the job reference, would enhance the quality of correctional instruction. It is therefore important to correctional education to find a way to ensure that this limited resource--the inmate tutor, is being used properly and in the best capacity.

Future Research

The prisoner students who were interviewed for the pilot study (N=5) and the current study (N=10) expressed gratitude for being asked to share their experiences and perceptions. Alvin, for example, states, "Nobody comes to talk to the population." By population, he meant those prisoners housed in the general population. Alvin felt that if attention was given to correctional education, that attention was geared toward the Bible college students. It is therefore this researcher's opinion that future research should focus on interviewing more prisoner students about their correctional education experience.

Research involving prisoner students could take many forms. This study actually could have been broken up into a series of more focused studies to provide more in-depth data. First, the post educational and employment experiences could be a study within itself. By interviewing prisoner students about these experiences, the researcher could possibly determine characteristics of school-age children that predict possible incarceration. Just as teachers of K-12 are able to identify the need to nurture and encourage from the information in this study, a study focusing solely on past experiences would provide teachers with a starting point for identifying at-risk behaviors from a unique source--a former at-risk student/child.

The study of the inmate tutor would also provide valuable information for correctional education, since the program is a new one and there are only two prisons using the program at the time. An evaluative study would enhance the ability of correctional administrators to utilize inmate tutors in place of certified educators. Perhaps inmate tutors themselves may have concerns that they wish to share that could then be addressed by administrations as a means of program improvement. The use of a training seminar for inmate tutors (focusing on adult learning theories and inter-personal relations) could be a topic of discussion in a focus group of correctional educators and/or administrators. In all, an examination of the inmate tutor would benefit this newly implemented GED program.


This study was an attempt to discover the correctional education experience from the perspective of the prisoner student. Through one-on-one interviews with ten (N=10) males at Southern State Penitentiary, the researcher was able to shed light on what it means to attend classes in prison. The findings indicate that the prisoner student is filled with regret over past educational experiences and life choices. This regret is then a motivator for change--an impetus for attending class and "making something out of myself." The motivation to attend and persist in class also comes from both internal (friends, family, self) and external (judges, parole boards, prison administrators) sources, and this motivation may or may not result in persistence in a GED course. The field of correctional education could benefit from this study by examining the GED program and its use of inmate tutors. Providing a training course for correctional educators could enhance the quality of instruction of both certified teachers and inmate tutors. The field of elementary and secondary education could benefit society at large by reaching out to at-risk students before they have a chance to be incarcerated. Finally, the field of higher education could benefit from this study's findings by finding ways to provide additional program offerings for the prisoner students. Perhaps, by introducing new courses and programs of study, the federal and state governments would find a way to provide more funds for the field of correctional education. In all, the study changed this researcher's perception of the prisoner student. Rather than focusing on the crime and the hardened criminal who was incarcerated, it is important to remember the person behind the prison identification number--the man who merely wants to "make it."


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Renee Smiling Hall, Ph.D.

Jim Killacky, Ed.D

RENEE SMILING HALL is a teacher of English and Journalism at the Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology School in Jefferson, Louisiana and an instructor of Research Methods and Written Analysis at ITT Technical Institute in St. Rose, Louisiana.

JIM KILLACKY is an associate professor in the department of Educational Leadership, Counseling, and Foundatiions at the University of New Orleans.
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Author:Hall, Renee Smiling; Killacky, Jim
Publication:Journal of Correctional Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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