Monday, June 20, 2011

149's Corner - A Journal from Death Row - Entry #5

by Arnold Prieto Jr #999149

"A Dream No Longer Deferred"

Since my very first day on Death Row, I have tried to get some type of formal education, namely my GED or my High School diploma. Normally, inmates in general population are given the opportunity to achieve his/her GED by attending classes offered by the prison system. With that in mind, I was already setting my goals of finishing high school way back in county jail. Coming from a city like San Antonio, I saw first hand how the gang culture snapped up "new boots” and hoped that spending my time getting my diploma would distance me from such activities. I simply didn’t want to deal with the typical prison drama; I didn’t want to be some "everyday" convict. I was intent on not becoming part of such a world. Yes, I might be forced to live in prison, but it didn’t mean that I had to become it. Or so I thought, way back in 1995.

I was basically laughed at by both inmates and guards when I asked about how I was able to go about getting my opportunity to go to school. I was quickly learning that there were no such avenues open for Death Row but it didn’t really sink in until I asked the property officer who \vas in charge of all "outside purchases." Figuring he would be the one to ask ... boy, was I ever wrong! His response was a heavy one and one that I still t remember to this day. Officer Gaylon’s words were: "What does a dead inmate want with education?" That was heart breaking, not his ignorance so much, but rather the fact that it was true. So I stopped asking my "stupid questions" about school.

A couple of years later, Officer Gaylon was nabbed as part of a statewide sting operation that arrested pedophiles with child pornography. There are far more criminals than you know in prison; many of them go home at shift change.

As time passed, I could not help but notice that the majority of Death Row inmates were very uneducated. To this day, I still notice it. There is so little change here, and to a normal person that is a scary thing. I was not nor am now a well educated man, but I could see the lack of education in people and what it has done to them. This is a path I did not want to tread on but it is a path that I had no choice but to be on… until now. I was swallowed up by the uneducated masses of Death Row. Yes, I had given up.

I think we all gave up when they moved us to Polunsky. Because this unit is a lot more restrictive than Ellis-1 ever was, what little hope I was still holding on to in the back of my mind became what it always was… a stupid pipe dream. True I had taught myself how to draw and to always be "on top of my game," but "prison" education is nowhere close to the real mental challenges of a formal educational environment. Achieving a degree is something to be truly proud of, and that is maybe one of the reasons they denied us that chance. There are reasons why no one ever fights being strapped to the gurney.

Giving up my dream created a hole in my being ... like something was missing. Humans need dreams to survive. You know what I mean? School is not and never was a part of death row. For what? As Officer Gaylon said, "what does a dead inmate want with education?" I wonder if his attitude has changed, as he himself rots in a cell.

Things changed two years ago. An "Interoffice Communication" was posted on all the dayrooms concerning this matter. Well, according to the IOC, we were able to purchase correspondence courses though the mail at our expense. At least one inmate that I know had worked out a method of taking classes before this, but now they were admitting that they never had a right to deny us at all! Included in this list were home schooling programs, which was never allowed even when we were back at Ellis. I, for one, was very pleased, though I was surprised by the lack of joy in the men around me. Immediately, I began to become concerned with the cost. At that time, I didn’t have anyone out there in the freeworld to do any research for me. Feeling helpless sucks hardcore! (Not playing the victim here, just stating a fact.) But then a certain gringo moved into my section, and the research began in earnest. Holy crap! The costs were much higher than I had expected. Some HS equivalency courses cost as much as $2000.00 The cheapest came in at around $850.00, and even then I was asking myself how on earth I was supposed to get that kind of dough.

If I added up my 17 years worth of funds in my account, I know I wouldn’t get past ¾ of the $850.00. I brainstormed on this with T, and we came up with the idea of writing the school, to see if they had any sort of payment plan. Actually, what happened is, he asked me what I was waiting for. He's always nagging people about this stuff. I mostly answered back in frustration, saying, "Sure, let me just bend over and pull that money out of my back pocket." Seriously. My gym shorts have a back pocket, not what you were thinking. Anyway, he asked me if I had written them about scholarships or financial aid, and I had not even thought of doing, that. As soon as I got back into my cell, I wrote a letter to the school in question.

That school is Continental Academy in Florida. Mostly I was curious about the aid, plus I wanted to know what the curriculum was like. They responded quickly and with loads of information! Apparently, I can make a monthly payment of a minimum of $40.00 and I will receive 28 courses to accumulate the credits I need to get my high school diploma. Each grade level would consist of 7 courses starting at the 9th grade. HERE you can see a copy of the classes I signed up to take.

Here we are at the end of June and I have already finished my first course, which has been graded. I am a proud owner of a "B" for the course of "Career Research and Decision Making." This is a 12th grade course, but one that they recommend you take first, in order to get back into the feel of "school," and to help you establish good studying habits. I have now received all of my 9th grade courses. Yes, I am a freshman. Boy-o-boy, did certain people around here have fun with that. As everyone knows, freshmen in high school are known as "fish," and are normally taunted as a way of entry into high school. Certain people ought to remember that in these more modern days, such behavior would be considered bullying and charges could be filed! Wow, how the times have changed.

Anyway, my freshman courses consist of: Introduction to Computers, World Cultural Geography, English 1, Health-Life Management Skills, Consumer Math, Earth Science, and World History.

Each course consists of a textbook with practice problems. Let's take my consumer math course, which l am nearly done with. The course was 10 lessons long, and after each lesson I would go to the workbook and answer the questions on a scantron sheet. (See lessons HERE) After I finished the 10 lesson course and my homework from my workbook, I read a booklet called "things to remember," which is a full preview of the entire course. Now, the workbook exercises are open book assignments, but the tests are not. The math "End of Course Examination" had 50 questions, and you are to record your answers on an included scantron. I was a bit nervous about taking the first exam. I haven’t been nervous about taking a test since Junior High! I’m pretty sure the Flintstones were still barefooting their car around in those days.

I know what you are probably thinking: that I might have cheated by going back into the textbook while taking my closed book exam. I honestly don’t blame you for thinking that because for one you really don't know me, and secondly, its something you'd have thought of doing. As for me? I have a challenge now, and I am finally able to have that challenge after a decade and
a half of waiting. Cheating would sully the dream. I earned a "B" in my first course, and whatever I get for the rest of them, I will wear that mark on my chest with pride.

What I like about Continental Academy is that they have highly accredited instructors designing each course. Like Mr. Leon Kiston, who authored my consumer mathematics course. He has a BS in mathematics from Purdue, and also a JD from Illinois State Institute of Technology/Chicago-Kent College of Law, and has taught for more than 30 years. And that makes me feel very good, because I don’t want anyone to say, "oh, well, anyone can get a diploma from a diploma mill." These people are for real, and that makes the challenge feel real for me.

So the gray matter between my ears which was nothing but a deflated raisin this time last year has started to pump itself up a little bit. Not where I want it to be yet, but already I have noticed that my memory seems sharper. Sounds of whistles and bells tell me the cog wheels are back in action again! I freaking love it!

Officer Gaylon: eat your hat, wherever you find yourself.

This far, my plans are to work daily on my courses, taking each one on before moving to the next. This way, I feel I will get a better understanding of the material, instead of trying to do them all at once. I have a good tutor a few cells down, if it comes to that, and I don't mind the potential headaches. This has been a long time coming.

I feel human again! I feel like I am finally walking out of a cesspool of stagnant thoughts, words and senseless actions. I feel alive again. No wonder they have such an issue with us trying to better ourselves. It destroys their entire image of us. I can only imagine how I will feel after I get my diploma, and what I can attain for myself afterwards. Thomas has already got my college course "plan" worked out.

I think that I can speak on behalf of death row here in Texas when I say that if we were given the opportunity to learn a useful skill, this place would be very different. People here have no hope, no dreams, beyond the petty. This place is designed to kill these things, to break the spirit. In the days of slaves and plantations, the owners kept their "property" illiterate and uneducated. They would say that a dangerous slave was an educated slave! It seems Texas is mimicking this behavior, because smart convicts let the world know just how corrupt this place is, and how the corruption comes not from the inmates, but from the system itself. They say that education is expensive, but it costs (on average) about 2.5 million dollars to kill each one of us. 2.5 million to put a hit out on one of its own citizens, while it costs me 850 dollars to find the sorts of skills needed to survive in the world. Makes a lot of sense. But then, we are in Texas. Sense never had much to do with anything around here.

Arnold Prieto Jr

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker & Arnold Prieto, Jr. All rights reserved.


admin said...

Excellent!!!! "carry on my wayward son, there'll be peace when you are done..." How can you illuminate others? Unwilling to give up on you, don't give up on them either, take one obscure piece of knowledge and make it your business to share with all you encounter on a daily basis.
I love stories such as this!

Tracey said...

To clarify, please note this comment is not the site admin, but a user called admin.