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The importance of academic and ethical education for inmates.

I began my current job as a prison teacher in July 2013 after realizing a few years ago that this was what I was meant to do. Even though I told everyone it was my dream job, I was met with skepticism. Why was it so unfathomable that I wanted to spend my time making a positive impact in the lives of those who needed it the most? Not only have I affected these inmates by their own admission, but my attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and life have been improved dramatically by them.

I spend my days in a concrete-walled, oatmeal-colored classroom for six hours each day with anywhere from six to 16 convicted medium-security male offenders helping them obtain their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas, while offering motivational quotations, words of the day and reward stickers. It is very apparent who my students are: the ones with the backs of their IDs plastered with a myriad of reward stickers. In an environment fraught with penalties, I try to be a shining ray of positive reinforcement. In my eyes, they are not murderers, gang members or drug dealers, but valuable human beings who I genuinely want to help succeed. I am, in essence the cheerleader many of them never had. I care, which is something unheard of in many small towns where the prison is the primary employer--and sometimes in the corrections field in general. I have devoted most of my adult life to the criminal justice system as a student, researcher, writer and employee, and admittedly, for the longest time adopted the prevailing "offenders are bad" mentality. However, at this point in my life, I want to make a positive impact.

I will never forget my inmates' first graduation. I was placed in charge of the graduation committee and embraced this position enthusiastically. [wanted everything to be perfect: the decorations, the food, the ceremony, the seating chart and the processional. I think I wanted it more than those who were actually graduating. I spent hours in the planning process, stayed late to oversee the floor wax crew and to set up the visitation room, and worked with the department secretary on the program from home via email during my two-week Christmas vacation. Despite a few minor hiccups, everything went well, and when these guys walked up to the podium to receive their GED diplomas and associate degrees I had to stifle my tears of joy. While everyone heralded my efforts, the consummate praise was from those who graduated, for they were the ones for whom I did it. Even now, with each GED test that is administered at my facility, I am anxious and nervous for the students, often not sleeping the night before and experiencing the same emotions as the students do when apprised of their results.

As a teacher, I also have the assistance of inmate tutors. My tutors are among the most grounded, educated and creative people I have ever known. It took a while to earn the trust and respect of the tutors because respect in prison must be earned, not demanded. But once I did, I fully grasped the importance of my newly-gleaned purpose in life. I will never forget the day one of my tutors said to me that I "inspired loyalty," as well as the day one of my students told me that I "make him want to be a better person." These are the moments that give my life clarity, only previously experienced when I became a mother. In addition to those moments--as well as when a student grasps a new concept or earns his GED diploma--there are some inmates who have left an indelible mark on my soul to whom I am truly grateful for broadening my horizons with respect to how critical rehabilitation is.

It makes sense to give inmates the best possible chances for success once they are free--not only for themselves, but to improve society as a whole. Most of my tutors--and other inmates with whom I work--are incarcerated for some pretty heinous crimes. Some of them will never be released and others will spend the majority of their lives in prison. One of them recently told me that he feels that he is rehabilitated, but this realization occurred in spite of the correctional system. He and others have embraced this awareness of their own accord by fully grasping the severity of their actions and taking responsibility for them; however, not every inmate has the capability or desire to self-rehabilitate. Therefore, it becomes increasingly urgent that the corrections system directs its efforts toward providing the necessary skills and tools to help these individuals succeed once released.

The "politicization" of crime could be directly to blame for the increasingly high incarceration rates in the U.S. and the chronic "revolving door" system our prisons have. The data suggests that while the U.S. has approximately five percent of the world's population, it incarcerates 25 percent of the world's inmates. (1) The U.S. imprisons more adult residents than any other country in the world--and by an increasingly large margin. At the end of 2012, nearly seven million individuals were under the supervision of adult corrections systems in the U.S., and new court commitments comprised 71 percent of state prison admissions. This translates to one in every 35 adults in the U.S. being either incarcerated or on probation or parole. (2) The "tough on crime" and "war on drugs" policies promulgated by President Richard Nixon and built upon by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led to an unprecedented increase in crime rates. These two phases in American jurisprudence led to an extraordinary shift in U.S. consciousness that criminalized many actions that were deemed to not violate natural law. As a result, an unparalleled number of individuals were sentenced to prison who would have been better served in diversionary programs such as drug courts, mental health courts or community corrections.

Thus, education--not only academic but ethical--is but one piece of the rehabilitation puzzle, yet an important one nonetheless. Rehabilitation must be the fundamental goal of the corrections system. It is not enough to ensure that inmates understand the Pythagorean Theorem and know how atoms and molecules comprise matter en route to obtaining their GED diplomas, but also to teach them social and ethical skills that can be used throughout their lives. Society can only improve if we increase this subpopulation's chances for success on the outside.

ENDNOTES

(1.) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 2014. Criminal justice fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.

(2.) Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2012. National prisoner statistics. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=269.

Natalie Faulk has a Master's of Science in criminal justice with emphases in criminal behavior and homeland security. Faulk is an adult basic education/GED instructor and writing group sponsor for The GEO Group's Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility.
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Title Annotation:Speak Out
Author:Faulk, Natalie
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
Words:1162
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