Thursday, February 18, 2010

#47 Prison Talk; Prison Education (retro)

Prison Talk: Prison Education

How is everybody doing today?

I was trying to think about something to talk about today on the blog, and as I was thinking on it, I thought, “why not just get outside, go to the park, buy a soda and think about it out there”

So I did.

I grabbed my journals, put them in a backpack and walked to a nearby recreation center/park/picnic grounds, and sat outside, reading some of my journals. I mentioned to you before that I have tons of material I have not shared with anyone yet. I’m not kidding. For all I have written, it is barely a scratch of what we can talk about.

That’s why I continue to encourage you to email me and ask me about stuff. Sometimes what you ask me could be a subject I had not yet blogged about, and it might be something that many of you need to hear.

A few days ago I got an email from a guy that was concerned about possibly doing prison time. I know I don’t know it all, but if he took the time to email me, then I needed to return the same kindness by sharing with him as much as I could. I didn’t blog his situation because that is between him and whoever he shares it with. I don’t put people’s situations out there in specific detail unless they let me know they are cool with it.

Anyway, today’s blog is about prison education, and how sometimes you have to fight to get it. I am about to share with you a journal I wrote while at Dan River Prison Work Farm, dated June 1st. This was during my last year in prison, so I know this was 2001, since I was released from Dan River Prison Work Farm in 2001.

What I want you to pay attention to is what I am saying THEN, and how I am going to follow up with it in the NOW. Remember, I wrote a lot of journals while I was in prison, because to me, it was the only way I could “talk to myself”. I actually started writing journals when I was in college (go Cats), and it seemed to work well for me in prison.

So the following is from my journal, again, dated June 1st, 2001:

How important is education to inmates? I’ve debated this issue many times, now the question is more personal. I’ve just been turned down for Office Information Systems class by Programs because I don’t have enough time. Yet the question now exists; what does Dan River expect me to do?

The problem is that an inmate who wants to better himself can’t because Dan River won’t let him. If I’m in that OIS class for 2 months, that’s 2 months of experience I can get. If I’m in the class 2 weeks, that’s 2 weeks of experience, both compared to zero experience. There’s a lot of points I can push, because I know the class isn’t full. What would it hurt to put someone in that likes the class? After all, how many inmates have written a grievance to get IN a class? Most would write to get out.

Yet how is a person supposed to help himself if Dan River won’t allow him to help himself? It raises some real questions about their commitment to rehabilitation.

So now my options: First, I’ve got the grievance in; I wrote it soft, not going for the jugular. If I did, I’d probably never get in the class. There’s still a chance to get in the class.

A second option is writing to PCC. I think a pro-education letter may sit well with them, maybe pressuring Dan River to let me in. I can get a recommendation from Mr Hines (teacher at HRD). Then there’s a letter to the Sup. Of Programs. Personally, I don’t think it will work, but it wouldn’t cost me anything. Speaking of that, there’s the DOC officials, which also costs nothing.

I can float a few more letters our there to get some responses. I don’t expect much from that, but a shot is a shot. On the more expensive level, I can start shooting letters to schools, public officials and the sort. To be sure, I can make a case about it, dragging Dan River into it. But I’d really like to get in that class. But if they won’t help me out, it’s going to be a long stay.

There is much more to share from this journal, but I wanted to halt it there for a moment to bring a few points out.

First off, I want you to understand why I wrote this journal. We know that most inmates don’t write about their experiences, and if they did, they certainly would not share it with anybody. So what was the underlying tone here in this journal?

This is important because if you can see WHY I wrote those journals, you may also find some angles of understanding your loved one in prison. I say many times that every inmate does his time differently, but there are always similarities from one inmate to another, whether it is a guy in a prison in NC or a woman in prison in TX. Whether it is a person doing 4 years in Florida, or a person doing 44 years in Oregon.

We’re all human, and that alone gives us similarities.

Now, I wrote this blog because I had recently finished HRD (Human Resources Development) while at Dan River Prison Work Farm. Every class had an inmate assistant, which was pretty cool because he gets to help out when it comes to refreshments, and stuff like that. I wanted that spot because it would be nice to get off the camp. All these classes were taken off the prison grounds, in a prison-like campus in Roxboro, near the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Anyway, I thought I could get that spot because the teacher was pretty cool and indicated that he was looking for an inmate assistant. I made a request to be that assistant, and thought that I would get that spot, but was told that since I didn’t have a lot of time left on my sentence, I might not get it.

At the time I was closing in on my release, which was August. But with the HRD class over, I still wanted to do something rather than just sit around the camp all day. A few of my friends in the dorm told me that there was room in the computer class, or Office Information Systems class. I felt that maybe I could spruce up my skills by taking that class. What most people didn’t know was that I was pretty good with computers. I took some in high school, with typing, and when I went to college I took computer classes and used it while writing for the campus newspaper.

Even in prison I had already taken other classes. While at Pasquotank I took a computer class and passed very good marks…it was almost too easy to me. So I figured, why not, take the OIS class at Dan River.

But the problem, as indicated in my journal, was that I was not approved for the class because there was no way I could finish. With 2 months left on my sentence, there was no way I could finish the class and receive credit. So I was denied the opportunity.

Now having shared that folks….look DEEPER into that journal. What is this really about?

This is about an inmate standing up for what he believes in.

In the prison world we look at this in the wrong way, when we talk about inmate who think that violence is more important than reasoning, where guys embrace the negatives of prison rather than finding hope. Inmates often see “standing up” for a reason to be aggressive or violent, but that is not always the way to see things, and it certainly is not common in prison.

Lots of inmates lose the battle of their own respect as a human being when they stop standing up for the positive things just because they are inmates. And yeah, I know prisons are just as much at fault, because they often ignore and turn their backs when inmates need things.

But this situation was important to me, very important. My background in education includes a degree from college, working as a GED instructor after graduation, and even being a GED assistant while incarcerated. Education is important to me, and I would defend it for other inmates as well. Don’t put any halos or wings on me folks, I am just like you, but I honestly felt that sometimes you have to forget about your own condemnation and help others, or at least help yourself.

This comes at a very tough time in my life, because if nothing else, prison can magnify your faults. Whatever feelings of shame, guilt, frustration, stress and disappointment you may have, prison will increase that manifold. But if you don’t find something to believe in, it will swallow you up whole.

As an inmate, you simply MUST find something to believe in, something good, something positive, something hopeful. When you do, you must also fight for it, because the second you start to believe in something, there will be circumstances to strip it away.

This is what was going on. My hope in trying to better myself was being challenged. And I had a choice…feel sorry for myself and give up, or stand up for myself. How many times have I seen and heard guys in prison give up on things simply because they are inmates, or the rationale that “they don’t care about us”. How many times have I read posts on other sites about mothers or girlfriends whose boyfriend is in deep trouble, but they are afraid to do anything about it?

These are the times where you have to stand up for yourself, even at the cost of losing. Inmates don’t like writing grievances because they lose so much, they feel that they can never win. But even if you lose 10 grievances, you still must write the 11th because it shows that you don’t give up.

My desire to WANT to go to class was being challenged because the prison felt that there was no need for me to go. I would not be able to finish the class, so it was not worth it for me to enroll. But is the question about finishing the class…or getting whatever skills I could before my release?

You can see here how many prisons completely forget and forsake the education of inmates, especially those preparing to reenter society. As I mentioned in my journal, even if I had just 2 months, it is two months better than none. I would have some productive activity, rather than just wandering around the prison all day. Prisons have to give inmates a chance, even if they can’t finish. Now, they didn’t know how much I already knew about computers, but my argument was to at least let me try.

It was important to me, and at the point of rejection I could have done nothing try to make my case. If I took the attitude of “I’m just an inmate”, then I would have given up. But this was an opportunity that I wanted to have, and the prison should have given me a chance. So I decided to fight for it. But you notice also HOW I fought for it…

Writing grievances and letters.

And yet, that goes even deeper. Understand what I am sharing here folks, when you are in prison, the most valuable asset you have is your brain. Every inmate has the ability to reason, and think in critical situations that involve them, but whether they use that or not will determine what kind of man or woman they are shaping out to be while under incarceration.

You’ll notice I said in that journal that I wrote a “soft” grievance, and not going for the “jugular”. That means there are different ways to write a grievance, depending on your mood. As a guy that has written tons of grievances while in prison, I was pretty good at making a point. But I also knew that sometimes you have to be more diplomatic when arguing a point. There were some times where I needed to “bear fangs” when writing a grievance, but I also knew that if I wanted to get in that class, I had to be less aggressive.

Many inmates forget how important writing a grievance is, because it is your only voice in the prison. Unless you are very good at writing letters, that grievance procedure is your best bet to make a case, or at least lay the foundations for it. I wrote a grievance debating why an inmate trying to learn cannot be admitted in a computer class. I did not go at them with fangs, I went at it to simply ask why an inmate with 2 months left cannot at least get some knowledge of the class that is not full and prepare him for his release.

Lots of times there will be situations in prison where inmates can reason with the prison. Lots of prisons are hard and don’t care about inmates, that is true. But many times the people that work in those prisons are reasonable to understand that rehabilitation is a very key part of incarceration, not just detaining inmates. In my experience in prison, I have indeed run across many kind employees of the prison. If you can appeal to them, there is a good chance that you can get some answers to your questions.

I wanted to share that journal with you because it lets you into my head about a few things, and you can see my mentality while in prison. There is more to this situation, and if you ask me to share more, I will share more journals from this situation, so you can see how this ended. I did end up going to that class, and I can share how that with you next time, unless you have other things to ask. You know me, I can write 10 pages if necessary.

Anyway, I trust all is well with you. If it isn’t and you are frustrated with some situations involving prison, or if you want to know more about prison or have me talk about some issues, feel free to email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com. I promise I won’t bite, and I do answer my emails. If you email me with a situation that is common to many others, I will blog out my thoughts on it. I won’t divulge your specific info, so don’t worry about that. I am not gonna say for example, “Mrs Smith in New York City told me her son Brian got 15 years in prison and she is concerned that he might be advanced on by bigger guys”.

That’s too specific, but what I can say is, “a mother from New York emailed me and wondered if I can talk about the chances of her son being advanced on in prison”. See, that I can do.

But my offer is there, email me or make a NICE comment. Or, if you are interested in support my blogs, ask me how. I am always appreciative when people trust me enough to support me, and I do truly appreciate that. Even if you are interested in my prison books or cards, let me know. I have already sent out my free prison encouragement certificates for Valentine’s Day, and I hope all those that requested them will get something out of it. For those that I sent them to, email me and let me know when you got them, and how you feel about it.

Until next blog…..

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