Friday, August 30, 2013

Thoughts on Education Part 1

He who opens a school door closes a prison - Victor Hugo

“Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 

Villanova University Gives Back: A Free Education for Inmates
By Mwandishi Mitchell
Every individual has inherit worth and dignity - Graterford Mural Arts Program 

On June 13, 2013, I had the honor and privilege to attend a lecture given by Thomas M. Arvanities of Villanova University. He is the current director of Villanova studies here at Graterford. His lecture was devoted to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow.

The lecture was held for Villanova alumni who participated in the free Bachelor of Arts degree here at Graterford. Because my success as a writer has gotten around the institution, I was invited to attend as a guest.

The institution here at Graterford is thirty-one miles west of Philadelphia, in Graterford, Pennsylvania. It opened officially in 1929 and to date is the largest maximum-security prison in the state.

Just thirty years ago, Pennsylvania prisons housed about 5,000 inmates in seven prisons across the state. Things have changed since 1983, as the bloated prisons have ballooned to four times as many with twenty-nine. The prison population is ten times as many as more than 50,000 inmates are held in state facilities. Talk about mass incarceration!

Despite these statistics, though, in 1972 a remarkable thing happened. James J. McKenna, a former sociology professor and Villanova's undergraduate director, started allotting degrees for prisoners at Graterford. Within the past eight years, sixteen professors, adjuncts, graduate students, and undergraduate students have volunteered their services to help inmates get degrees.

I can assume my fellow comrades who have received degrees from Villanova feel empowered despite the fact that many of them have Life sentences. Proud too, at knowing that even though society has caste them into a lot of demonization, they have done something productive with their lives. Even now, in my mind, I can see the proud smiling faces of family members as a peer of mine walks up to the director donned in Villanova graduation apparel to receive his degree. Such a marvelous sight indeed!

However, the program here at the prison was once on the verge of termination. Under President Clinton, in the early '90's, Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was done away with. Without this funding, many other colleges and universities that offered degrees to inmates pulled out. Villanova kept their promise to inmates; they did not pull out.

Professor McKenna was succeeded by Stanly Jacobs, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “Villanova made a vow, and we plan to honor our commitment,” Jacobs reiterated when asked why Villanova chose to stay at Graterford without Federal funding. Villanova is the only university to offer a degree program at Graterford for all qualified prisoners.

Two courses are funded and taught by Villanova each semester, and volunteers teach additional courses. I had the honor of attending a Creative Writing Workshop, a small class of about ten to twelve students, which was taught by Villanova English professor, Dr. Lisa Sewell. Being in a classroom atmosphere again had me reminiscing about my community college days, long before I was imprisoned. I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to show my talent to Dr. Sewell, and learn how to make my writing better. It was such a wonderful experience that I'm going to try to enroll in this coming fall semester. The only thing that worries me is the part of the pre-application that asks: Number of Class l misconducts (within the last four years?) I wonder if eight is too many? Well, at least in five of the eight I was found not guilty and the charges were dismissed.

Because the program is offered from Villanova's part-time studies, it normally takes ten to twelve years to earn a degree in Bachelor of Arts. Grades are allotted the same way that they are at the main campus of the university: GPAs are based on a 4.0 scale. Professors and volunteers don't look at Graterford as a penitentiary when they come to teach inmates. They look at Graterford as an off campus satellite of the main campus in suburban Philadelphia. The inmates love the interaction with professors and students. Besides that, they're happy. Inmates enrolled in the Villanova program show better behavior, and educate other prisoners who are not enrolled.

The Villanova program here at Graterford is a godsend. Education is the key to making it out of poverty and out of the filled ghettos. By acquiring knowledge, a person is able to live productively without falling into the lure of street hustling, a drug game in which two things are certain to befall them: prison and death. By getting an education people on the outside will see the best in them, and realize that yes, they do matter.

The program has fifty active students currently, which is forty less than in 2010, when ninety students were enrolled. No one is quite sure of why enrollment has dropped as low as it has. I pray by that statistic there is no writing on the wall to read. When the time comes, I hope they accept me into the Villanova Bachelor of Arts program. I want the chance to make the best out of a bad situation.

Mwandishi (in brown) with his cousin

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0426

By Christi Buchanan

In 2011 I received a scholarship from Doris Buffet and the Sunshine Lady Foundation. Mrs. Buffet gives her money away to inmates all over the country so they can get an Associates Degree.  She believes an education goes a very long way toward helping us turn our lives around.  Piedmont Virginia Community College, in Charlottesville, teamed up with Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and Sunshine to offer classes to the scholarship recipients.

The college program first came to Fluvanna in 2009 when Ms. Buffet chose us along with one of the men’s facilities to bestow her generosity upon.  Since then it has grown into a successful and much sought after experience.  The waiting list, virtually non-existent in 2009, has hundreds of names in it now.  This past May, Fluvanna held its first program graduation.  All 19 original scholarship recipients graduated – with honors, I’m proud to say – in front of friends and family, program faculty and administrators, prison staff and Department of Corrections officials, the MEDH and Ms. Buffet.  That day was powerful and humbling for me as I watched my friends cross the stage.  I was only two semesters away from my own graduation.

It has not been easy, though.  Taking classes of any kind in prison presents challenges both familiar and unbelievable.  A prison runs on a very tight schedule and from a security standpoint, nothing is more important than count.  If count takes longer to clear than usual, everything else, the rest of the day’s schedule, is thrown off track. This makes getting to class on time difficult.  If chow runs late, or there’s no officer on post, or your name’s not on the master pass, getting to class can be nearly impossible.

That said, getting to class is also an unexpected thrill.  Walking across the yard to the school to participate in college classes – in prison – is the best feeling I’ve had in decades.  With every step, little pieces of the damage done over my years of hell fall off.  With every assignment, every paper and test – with every class – little pieces of myself come back to me.

I am finding myself.  I am expected to carry the load, do the work, participate and put forth effort I am expected to reach the goals.  I bet my teachers even expect me to enjoy these experiences.  Amazingly enough, I do.  Sure, it’s great to know that when it’s all said and done, I’ll have a college degree; I will have achieved something special considering my address.  But what this is doing for my self-esteem, and sense of self-worth goes far beyond the benefits of a diploma.

This is emphasized in every class by our teachers.  The faculty at PVCC, and the administrators too, are the best in the world.  Not only do they teach us all sorts of things, they motivate and encourage us.  Not only do they treat us like real people, they see us as such.  The consistency of this across the board has been stunning.  Every teacher I’ve had has been awesome, and my friends all say the same about their teachers.  These are folks who have never experienced prison in any way, and now have to get searched while their stuff gets ruffled through.  They are also at the mercy of our very rigid schedule, and corrections officers, and yet they want to be here teaching us.  They’ve all said they love coming out here and that they’re proud of us.  The first time I heard that, I was blown away.  It made me all the more determined to do my best.

I will never be able to repay Ms. Buffet and The Sunshine Ladies.  She does this – gives it all away – I think, because she believes in a basic goodness inside us that can be cultivated given the right tools.  She believes that we can change the direct course of our lives if given a chance.  I’ve seen first-hand the effect this opportunity has on people – how it’s completely altered the quality of their lives by giving them purpose and worth.  It has certainly done so for me.  I’m often asked how I plan to give back – or pay it forward.  I think the answer to that is more complicated than a few short sentences, but I will say it starts with sharing what I’ve learned about myself.  It starts with shedding light –sunshine- on what’s inside and perhaps reminding someone that they are more than just seven digits.

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Corrections Center 1A
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Forging a True Community
By Jeff Conner

The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. [...] They have a true community that is exemplary for all other communities. --Allan Bloom, "The Student and the University" (in "The Closing of the American Mind")

Prison is by default a wallow in waste. To avoid depression and stagnation, I participate in the University Beyond Bars, a cash-strapped non-profit program that provides college classes to prisoners. I take classes (whether they're for credit or not) to develop my intellectual capacities and to improve my chance of success upon getting out of prison.

Before the University Beyond Bars existed, I had taken correspondence courses for many years, paying for them through my G.I. Bill money. Each time, I had to pay extension fees, since I didn't have sufficient self-discipline to meet the initial deadlines in the courses. Although I found I could be successful, the experience was dissatisfying: it was difficult to study in a vacuum, without the salutary peer pressure to complete and compete and in the absence of any opportunity to be guided by faculty.

By contrast, the University Beyond Bars (UBB) feels like a momentary respite from prison. When I enter the classroom for English 3230 (American Literature: 1918 to Present), I receive something that studying alone could never give me, courtesy of Gillian Harkins, an award-winning professor who is director of Undergraduate Programs in English at the University of Washington and the chair of UBB's Education Advisory Committee--and a charismatic intellectual with a style all her own, who loves Walter Benjamin, Henry James, and Zoolander with apparently equal verve, to boot. She teaches us historicized close reading as an ethical practice: a means of care and attention that makes of literature both the most necessary and searching criticism of society and self. The qualities of precision, insight, and sensitivity that such teaching communicates cannot be gleaned merely from dusty pages in whatever poor excuse of a prison library is available. Thinking about and defending ideas in a seminar or a paper is, for me, an essential component of genuine liberal learning, and the UBB makes it possible.

None of the UBB teachers are paid. Instead, they give unstintingly of their time, expertise, books, and, often enough, their money to keep the program running. Most students cannot afford to pay some distant university to grade a test and prove that they've learned the material. No wonder the UBB classes remain filled with students keen for what it offers.

UBB offerings comprise what we call our College Pathway courses (this semester features Pre-Calculus II, American Lit, Spanish I & II, and English Composition II) and our Certificate courses. The Certificate courses are often enough as rigorous as the College Pathway courses, with texts, homework, and tests; but unfortunately there's no corresponding university accreditation. This semester we offer Understanding Family Violence, Ethics and Decision Making, Biology of Drug Use, Music History, Japanese II, Intro to Curriculum & Teaching I, Studio Art: Gouache Painting, and a Creative Writing workshop. In addition to these classes, we teach College Prep Math and College Prep English, where I'm happy to be a writing coach, helping basic writers develop their ability to read, think, and write to prepare them for the college work ahead.

Aside from the regular classes, the UBB also sponsors an eclectic Arts & Lecture series with Saturday night presentations that have ranged from a discussion of the physics of sound that featured a performance of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BMV 1007, to topics such as opinion polling, evolution, mathematical modeling of the progress of epidemics, African-American history, and oceanography. Jake Cooper, a brilliant young biologist who has taught Astronomy for the UBB and is currently completing doctoral research on the mating habits of yeast, has given riveting accounts in various Arts & Lecture seminars on everything from modern game theory to the factitious quality of the color magenta. (The fact that still amazes me is that we don't see the periphery in color: our brains just guess what the color might be; experiment with this for yourself.)

Without internet access there are few ways to get a college education through distance learning. Ohio University (OU) is one of the few remaining colleges that offer non-internet based correspondence courses and Course Credit by Examinations (CCEs). The cheapest option, CCE, costs about $310 for OU to grade one two- or three-hour test. It's double that for the correspondence courses that, at best, come with a few marginalia comments on the submitted lessons. The UBB, however, is staffed with volunteer teachers who give weekly class time, grade papers and tests, and frequently give additional guidance in an effort to deliver to prisoners the same quality of education that their on-campus college students get. So, whether or not students are able to pay for accreditation or not, in a UBB class, they actually learn the material.

Although I am a writer and love the humanities (or, as my best friend, Atif says, easy classes without the rigors or beauty of mathematics) the UBB offers classes for everyone. To me, taking calculus classes in here would be like being in a prison within a prison, unlike the humanities, which inspire me with the accomplished examples of human perfection, a source of inspiration for my own craft, and a permanent ideal for which to aspire. My friend and fellow TA would argue that mathematics is the purest form of intellectual discipline, the basis of much of modern science, and perhaps even the sole incontrovertible truth to which human beings may have access. It accustoms the mind to proof, enables understanding of the complex social and economic phenomena that underlie modern society, and provides insight into the most fundamental questions of logic, reference, and meaning. Thankfully, my personal aversion to the arduous means of achieving these goals doesn't interfere with my appreciation of them; nor does it obstruct the pleasure to be had in gaining these benefits for other students--as a TA, I simply refer all math questions to those who can understand them.

The UBB community embodies something absent in most of ordinary life, and certainly all of prison life: the sense of a shared pursuit of a goal that is intrinsically valuable and in which each of us has a contribution to make as well as much to receive. As the vast majority of prisoners waste their life on televised entertainment, day-room games, insulting each other, genuflecting before altars, and relieving their glory days, not of wine and roses, but of drugs and pimping, we in the UBB forge new, hopeful lives grounded in our common pursuit of educational excellence, service to society, and the cultivation of individual sensibility.

If you would like to learn more about the UBB, please click here. UBB is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that would gladly appreciate any support you can offer. Also, for a more detailed and personal account of the UBB, please read "Time to Learn."

Jeff Conner 757788 D-1-22
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

By Arnold Prieto

One of my life long dreams has finally come true! As of May 9th 2013, I, yes, Arnold Prieto Jr., officially became a High School Graduate!! WOOHOO!!!

I don’t think I’d be more excited if Polunsky Unit actually turned on the A.C. during these hot summer days than I am right now!!

But as my face splits with a very huge smile, I do not know how to feel, because it’s just so surreal.  I am holding my hard earned High School Diploma in my hands!!  A feeling of celebration and accomplishment – WHOOHOO - washes over me again and again.

It took 24 years for me to become an actual high school graduate.  It’s definitely better to finish school at 40 than not at all!  So for anyone who is considering a G.E.D. or High School Diploma, it’s NEVER TOO LATE to get one!  My friend, the Swedish Stranger, summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “…one can never stop learning!”  How very true here statement is! So to her, I say “Thank you for your encouragement.”

So be it at the age of 40 like myself, or 20 years old or 80, 100 years old, it is never too late to finish what you began as a youth!  I am a living example of this and from solitary confinement, no less.  If you’re thinking about going back to finish a degree, do so!  Because thinking about it is not going to get you anywhere.  Nothing to it, but to do it is what I say!

My High School Diploma (I still smile after saying that! J) was issued in May, but I was not allowed to receive it until recently!  That was because there was a small financial matter that kept me from receiving it on time.

Thanks to my best friend, Sister D, who rolled up her sleeves and ironed the minor glitch out, with a simple phone call to the school!  You’re the Best, Sister D! 

Continental Academy has a very good program, and I am glad I chose it.  The curriculum for the high school program is well grounded and was written by good educators with excellent credentials.  It has been my experiences that nothing in this life is ever easy and the program was challenging but this was exactly what I wanted, for it helped me fire up old circuitry that hadn’t seen any kind of current in many years!  So I thank all the teachers of that fine establishment for such a motivating curriculum.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my family and friends for their encouragement, patience and for their support.

I dedicate my most prized accomplishment to my dearest mom and to my best friend Dina, whose faith in me was unshakable!  I may not be able to point my mother or Dina from the stage of graduation, but I can tell the world about it!! -WOOHOO!!!-

Arnold Prieto 999149
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

1 comment:

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