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Learning life lessons inside a correctional facility.

As I enter the facility where I teach GED classes two afternoons each week, I remember the words of a local preacher who told the story of a man who was robbed. When writing in his journal one evening, the man became determined to list reasons why he was thankful. He began this way:

1) I am thankful that I have lived all my life until today without ever being robbed.

2) I am thankful that, even though the robber took all that I had, he didn't take much.

3) I am thankful that, while my possessions were taken, I still have my life.

4) I am thankful that I was robbed, and that I was not the robber.

Like the man in the preacher's story, I recognize that I, too, have the capacity for good and evil. I am thankful that circumstances and "accidents of life" have given me options and opportunities that enable me to stay on this side of the criminal justice system.

My students have not been so lucky. They come to class enthusiastic for a break in the jail routine. I know they come for a myriad of reasons: some want to study for the GED exam and welcome the chance to earn a high school equivalency diploma; some come because the challenge of math and grammar is an antidote for boredom; many attend because they earn days off their sentences. I understand and appreciate all of these reasons, and I am glad that they come to class, whatever their motivation.

The first class is for male inmates. Both the facility and our county board of education are generous in supplying textbooks, so finding materials to meet the needs of many different educational levels is not a problem. The skill levels in this class vary greatly. Some dropped out of school after seventh or eighth grade, while others almost have completed high school, and a few already have high school diplomas. For the most part, the men are serious about their academic work and genuinely interested in learning. They settle down to work quickly and are eager to complete assignments.

GED classes are quiet and serious on this side of the facility. Nevertheless, many of the men are easily discouraged if the work seems difficult. They often underestimate their skills and knowledge. Especially in this class, it is important to make students comfortable. For example, asking them to write specific details about playing a favorite sport elicited excellent essays. The ideas were organized and clearly expressed - two skills that seemed overwhelmingly impossible when I asked for a more formal essay.

Math is the area most easily related to everyday life for these men, most of whom are in jail for drag or alcohol-related offenses. They understand a lesson on measurement more easily when I point out that there is the same number of ounces in a pint, no matter if the pint holds water, milk, gin, or ginger ale, and quickly challenge one man to tell me how many ounces are in a fifth. "I drank a fifth of whiskey once," he says. "And you don't even know how many ounces that was?" I ask.

Another man's statement about buying and selling drugs becomes a lesson in percents, and eventually a lesson in computing financial profit and loss. But, the most surprising lesson comes from one student's assertion that his friend had committed a felony because of the number of cigarettes he'd stolen. Other students challenge this assertion. "Well," I prompt, "can you write that as a mathematical equation?" He can, and he is delighted with himself.

The men in the class are polite and eager to please. Occasionally they tell me why they're incarcerated. Some say they want to change their behavior. Others say they have no intention of changing, but will be more careful not to get caught next time. One skinny young man assures me that he has never done drugs and never will. "I sell drugs," he says, "I don't use." I feel sorry for him. He believes he is important; I believe he is a pawn in the larger drug business.

The women's class, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. Loudly talkative and demanding, the women leave nothing outside of class. They clamor to know what I've brought for each class, and are visibly disappointed if I expect them to spend an entire hour on math or grammar. Many already have high school diplomas, but few expect or say they want to attend college. They prefer word games or puzzles, almost as though I should entertain them rather than teach. Unlike the men, the women almost never tell me why they are in jail. However, we live in a small town, and I read the police notes of arrest in the local paper and know about most of their situations. The women, too, mostly are incarcerated for drug offenses, although they are less likely to admit wrongdoing. Many say they were in the wrong place, or with the wrong person - a no-fault kind of situation!

Because this facility is a county jail and most of the inmates are serving short sentences, there is relatively little concern - even among female inmates - for children or jobs. Most seem certain that their jobs will be available when they are released, and their children are well cared for by family members. I often am surprised by their lack of concern for anything outside the facility. The jail is their entire world, and most seem so institutionalized that they don't even think about life outside. Most of the women are very cliquish and self-centered, eager to take whatever they can from the social service system. They often are petty and mean to each other, and, like young children, delight in seeing another get into trouble.

I resist the urge to treat them like naughty children, and try to build on any mature ideas or behaviors they may display. When one woman brings a magazine to class and asks me to read an article about rap music, I do that. But, I also find another article in the magazine - about slavery and starvation - which I ask her to read.

Ironically, age is highly respected by women in the jail. Any woman who has reached the advanced age of 40, whether inmate or officer, is referred to with "Miss" before her name, and is deferred to in matters of opinion or preference.

Most days, teaching in jail is not spectacular. Sometimes, students who have been released come back to class within several months. Their rearrest is no great surprise to anyone. In these situations, I am disappointed to see familiar faces. But then, too, there are definite high points: Donnell and Joe passed the GED exam; Debbie has a good job and is still drug-free; Paula returned to her family out-of-state, determined to begin a new life; Roy went home, a participant in AA meetings who is willing to live within the guidelines of his probation.

As I leave the facility, I am thankful that, although I once was robbed, I have not been the robber. I am thankful again to be on the freer side of the criminal justice system.

Sister Mary Winifred, CA, teaches GED classes for the Dorchester County Detention Center in Cambridge, Md. She is the director of Project Help Stay Out, a program offering options and opportunities for women who have been incarcerated.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Author:Winifred, Mary
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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