Thursday, August 11, 2016

Education vs. Incarceration

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Failing Grade: Basic Education at Stateville

By Joseph Dole

With all of the talk about prison reform and a refocus on rehabilitation over the past year or two, it´s time to start shining a spotlight on the sad state of basic education in Stateville Correctional Center.  Other than a person´s age, there is no greater indicator of whether someone will recidivate than one´s level of education.  With that fact in mind, it´s extremely disheartening how few resources the IDOC and State of Illinois are willing to commit to educational programs and how arbitrarily men are denied a basic education.  The end result is that Stateville has hundreds of men who are either completely or functionally illiterate wasting away in their cells.

In conjunction with the IDOC, the school district half-heartedly offers the equivalent of elementary and high school classes to grown men of Stateville.  Elementary level education classes are known as Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes.  High school level classes are the well-known General Equivalency Diploma (GED) classes.  There are supposed to be five teachers teaching a total of ten classes per day (five days per week).  I´ve been here nearly four years and have never seen it accomplished.

Stateville currently employs a total of three teachers who teach a total of five classes (3 ABE; 2 GED).  Each class holds a maximum of 24 students, but is never at capacity.  Prisoners transfer or go to segregation and it takes weeks or months to replace them.  Out of a population of more than 1,600 a maximum of 120 people can work towards getting the education they should have received as children.  In reality, less than 100 ever are.

The process of obtaining a GED can take many, many years, even for those who get to skip ABE classes and enroll straight into GED classes.  This is due, in no small part, to the combination of ridiculously long waiting lists, arbitrary lockdowns, and teachers not showing up.

The good news is that lockdowns of the entire prison have become more infrequent.  The bad news is that it is almost unheard of for all three teachers actually to show up to teach all five classes in any given day.  Each morning I listen as staff announces something along the lines of, “School lines on your doors,” and then “only teacher Lyday” or “no teacher Coleman”, or “no teacher Graff.”  It must be nice to hardly ever have to show up to work and still get paid. (The idea of having a substitute teacher or the principal fill in must be too advanced a concept here at Stateville).

Unfortunately, this means that few men are obtaining their GEDs at Stateville, and it takes those who do many more years to do so than it ought to.  This not only minimizes the level of education they will be able to obtain while incarcerated, but also minimizes their employability upon release, which increases their risk of recidivating.

With hardly anyone “graduating,” the waiting list to get into classes remains long.  Unfortunately, this doesn´t seem to be a problem confined to Stateville.  As AFSCME (the guard’s union) informed Governor Rauner´s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform in December (2015):

IDOC has long list of inmates on waiting lists for education programs – including ABE classes which are supposed to be mandatory.  Education, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism, should be in any program enhancement, and our union is very puzzled why it was not included.

While the incarcerated population appreciates help from any corner in obtaining expanded educational opportunities, it´s hard to swallow when coming from AFSCME, whose members work daily to deny guys at Stateville an education.  Guards here routinely protest adding any new courses because they don´t want the increased movement which they will always claim is a security risk. (i.e. it´s safer for guards if guys are locked in their cells all day.  More dangerous for society when they get out, but hey).  Guards also control all movement and routinely refuse to escort students to the school building.

More notoriously, Internal Affairs (IA) is given final say in who can enroll in classes and routinely discriminates against Latinos.  One Latino, who hasn´t had a disciplinary infraction in five years (and who attends art classes, without incident) was told by IA that he can´t get a basic education because “his name is ringing”.  IA has been known to use access to education programs to coerce information from guys or to deny an education as retaliation for being uncooperative, an alleged gang member, or having a staff assault in their background.

Returning to the subject of Latinos, Stateville doesn´t offer any English as a Second Language class.  Thus, many Spanish-speaking immigrants who find themselves here are left incapable of communicating effectively, unable to comprehend staff, the law, rules, regulations and people who may be angry with them.  In 2010, a dozen such men were arbitrarily kicked out of ABE and GED classes for being unable to learn as quickly as native English speakers.  Despite numerous grievances over the past six years, only one has been allowed back in.

Through no accident, as both policy and practice, Stateville fails to educate the people confined here.  This is completely contrary to the stated goals of both the Illinois Constitution and Code of Corrections.  Not too long ago, the United Nations recognized education as a basic human right.  The IDOC views it as a privilege that has to be earned, and a tool for manipulation and retaliation.  It´s time the IDOC, and Stateville in particular, ensure that sufficient staff and resources are committed to providing everyone who needs it, with a high school education as is their basic human right.  When someone goes to segregation for discipline, their education should continue, just as their right to be fed and clothed continues.  Moreover, it is imperative that IAs veto power be rescinced immediately.
Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Joseph Dole is 40 years old.  Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  He has been continuously incarcerated since the age of 22, and spent nearly a decade of his life entombed at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in complete isolation (Tamms was shuttered in 2013 after an intense campaign by human rights groups, and the families and friends of prisoners who were confined and tortured there).

Mr. Dole is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence after being wrongly convicted of a gang-related, double murder.  He continues to fight that conviction pro se, and has recently uncovered evidence suppressed by the State, which proves that the State´s star witness committed perjury on the stand.

His first book A Costly American Hatred (available at  both as paperback and e-book) is an in-depth look at how America´s hatred of “criminals” has led the nation down an expensive path that not only ostracizes and demonizes an overgrowing segment of the population, but is also now so pervasive that it is counterproductive to the goals of reducing crime and keeping society safe;  wastes enormous resources; and destroys human lives.  Anyone who is convicted of a crime is no longer considered human in the eyes of the rest of society.  This allows them to be ostracized, abused, commoditized and disenfranchised.

Mr. Dole´s second book, Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat, details how long-term isolation units not only pose grave threats to inmates, but also guards who work there and society as a whole.

 He has also been published in Prison Legal News, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Mississippi Review, Stateville Speaks Newsletter, The Public I Newspaper, Scapegoat and numerous other places on-line such as and among others.  His writings have also been featured in the following books: Too Cruel Not Unusual Enough (ed. By Kenneth E. Hartman, 2013); Lockdown Prison Heart (iUniverse, 2004); Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People´s Gude to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (James Kilgore, 2015); Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (The New Press, 2016).

Mr. Dole´s artwork has been displayed in exhibits in Berkeley, CA, Chicago, and New York.  He has also won four PEN Writing Awards for Prisoners, among others.

He is both a jailhouse journalist and jailhouse lawyer, as well as an activist and watchdog ensuring Illinois public bodies are in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more of his work on his Facebook Page

He will respond to all letters.

The Cost of Education

By Eduardo Ramirez

When I was seventeen, I was still in the tenth grade and my prospects of advancing were not looking so good. I was done in, burned out, run down, and beat up after only a few years of partying and self-abuse. I had to choose between continuing to trudge through the phony social hierarchies of high school--with the in-crowds and high achievers, or drop out and try my luck in the world of crack-of-dawn commutes to greasy factories for minimum wage. I chose busted knuckles over homework. Yup! Another minority dropout who took the easy way out. What makes this especially sad is that had I applied myself back then there's no telling what level of success I might have achieved. That I would have been a success can hardly be debated. But no, my own laziness and indifference torpedoed my future. Whatever social influences that may have existed cannot excuse my responsibility for my own shortcomings. Thankfully, I am working overtime to make up for my past.

For eleven years I have been challenging myself to study hard and prove what has always been suspected; that I am capable of intelligent, analytical, and critical thinking reflected through writing. If I haven't proven it by now, I am definitely close. Critics dismiss my accomplishments as being the results of a "free" education. If only they had to pay what I have for this education.

Consider for a moment how many innocent people are in prison; what would be an acceptable number, 20,000 (or roughly 1%). That's pretty high. Even if that number were halved it should still be enough or shock the public conscience into some kind of action. It should at least provoke enough concern for one to consider that maybe, just maybe, for the innocent person in prison; their education tuition is paid in full.

Full disclosure: studies suggest the rate of wrongful convictions is anywhere between 0.5° to 2%. So, ten thousand innocent people in prison might be underestimating the total count. It would not be a stretch to assume that most people would agree that an innocent person in prison deserves to get a "free" education. For those who would disagree, how heartless are you?

Of course, the typical response of innocence-deniers and prison reform critics is: "Everyone in prison claims to be innocent. What about the guys who are actually guilty, why should they get a free education?"

Let me digress for a moment to share something both sad and important. When I write I choose not to include the names of people and/or agencies I have come across. There are two reasons for this: first, I don't want kind hearted people and groups to experience a backlash of negative criticism because I am extolling their virtues. These people deal with enough pressure from friends and family who at least have enough decency to temper their bitter remarks. But there are far too many cowards who, under anonymous cover, would berate and demean the efforts of those who still believe in mercy and transformation. Second, I am no fool. I know if I cross too far into social commentary that could be construed as “anti-establishment” (whatever that means) I would likely face retribution. Besides, I trust the MB6 audience to read between the lines to know the  difference between relevant and irrelevant details.

There are a couple of college programs here. One offers a prison exchange experience so that students on campus and students in the institution can meet and exchange ideas on criminal justice issues. The workload is heavy, requiring that students contribute to the class discussions and complete term papers every other week. In addition, a final term paper covers important topics arising from the class conversations, critiques course reading materials, and offers a project for community transformation. The rigor of this course is not for the lazy wallflower. More than 300 residents have completed the course and the lion's share has gone on to lead progressive projects designed to have a positive impact both inside the prison and on the outside communities where many of these men come from. These "convicts" are making a difference despite the difficult obstacles they face every day. Their commitment rivals that of their campus counterparts who regularly advocate for social change.

Prison can be discouraging. It is easy to fall back and play cards, or lift weights, or sleep off the time. But resident-students are doing much more. In partnership with local politicians, they have implemented public safety initiatives, cultural exchange programs, political action committees, restorative justice projects, and the list goes on and on . . . . Every Thanksgiving, residents organize dinners for needy families and clothes drives for the homeless; there is a scholarship for inner-city students entirely funded by residents. From job fairs to re-entry services, you name it and a group of prisoners have probably taken on the cause. Something to consider: most of these residents are never going home; they are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. In 2005 a group of men collaborated on an article on public safety and criminal justice reform. It was published in an international journal on criminal justice. In 2006, a conference sponsored by the journal was held in the prison with the co-authors of the article.

It kills the critics to give credit: where credit is due, but these guys have earned it. And they're not alone. A prominent university has been offering courses here since the early '70s. Almost every graduate has gone on to direct a resident organization that provides daily educational, employment, religious, and therapeutic services to the rest of the resident population. Nearly all graduates complete the program with a GPA above 3.0, and a few have graduated with honors. An alumni chapter that is heavily engaged in community outreach. The critics might not like it, but the Secretary of Corrections considers our program to be a model of what education in prison should be like. It's not just because the men are model residents but because their work ethic is impressive for its tirelessness and devotion. The program has the lowest rate of misconduct and students are often recruited to organize other correctional programs. The change in attitude and morale is visible and remarkable. Professors known for particular teaching styles have been changed by dialogue with students; their approach to teaching is altered to overcome teacher-student antagonism and move toward a harmony between teacher and student.

What has my experience been like? Well, like I said, I was a dropout who lacked the discipline to challenge myself. When I first enrolled in the college program I was so far removed from any classroom setting that I wasn't even sure if I knew how to take proper notes. But I dived in head long and I learned something about myself: success is what happens when hard work meets opportunity. As the years went by that adage made more and more sense. Today it is my mantra.  My hard work is paying off in the form of my first graduation since kindergarten. I've come too far; I've put in too many hours late at night for anyone to tell me this education was free. I earned it. I paid for it with my life--both literally as the victim of a wrongful conviction, and figuratively with the sacrifices I have made. While the average college student might have to balance a job with studies, I had to balance defending my life with my studies.  While some students have enjoyed love, I have been denied.  While some students went home for the holidays, I stayed behind receiving visits from friends and family members who pray for my safe return.

Exchanging dollars for an education is only one form of payment. Exchanging time that can never be replaced is another form that is, at the very least, just as important. So this education hasn't been free--it has been very expensive. When the critics think about this maybe they will see that, more so than dollars, real human live are at stake. And education is really about improving the quality of life for everyone, not just for some.

Edward Ramirex DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

When Learning is Lost, All is Lost

By Steve Bartholomew

In 1988, a young Seattle woman named Diane was raped and murdered while walking downtown. She had been bright and pretty, a girl who would be sorely missed. I was a 15 year old street kid at the time, and I remember recoiling at the thought of what had happened to her in the heart of the city, where I after walked amid the peaceful bustle a few, blocks from the Space Needle. Her attacker was swiftly caught, a sexual predator in work release, on his way out of prison.

The news media attached onto the status of her attacker as a way to further sensationalize an already tragic story. Here was the mugshot of yet another monster exploiting the state's catch and release program, merely one of thousands waiting to be unleashed onto unsuspecting communities. The public outcry for justice and reform was immediate and strident.

Most people sorted through the spin and realized this horrific act was the result of one man's deviance. But Ida, Diane’s mother, saw things differently than most people. She felt her daughter's murder, although committed by one psychopath, was owing to a systemic failure of the criminal justice process. She had been victimized as much by the Department of Corrections as by the predator.

Ida believed there was a loathsome enemy at the gates, faceless and legion, a salivating adversary whose claws were being sharpened with taxpayers' emery boards. This scourge of humanity, barely caged, was simply biding time, gnashing their teeth until the gatekeeper let them prey upon us once more. Ida knew in her heart that every prisoner in the state was not only deviant and opportunistically predatory, but also bred-in-the-bone irredeemable. A subspecies of would-be rapists and axe murderers. And worse yet, they were being coddled by the Department of Corrections.

Ida Ballasiotes ran for state congress in the early nineties, using her her daughter's murder as a platform for her campaign. Her message was simple: crime and recidivism are society's fault for being too soft on criminals. Who better to hold D0C to account than a woman motivated not by politicking but rather vengeance. She won by a landslide.

I happened to be on the big yard when she toured McNeil Island with her entourage, a group of dour faced legislators dressed in gray business. They did not wave back.

A few weeks later she debated DOC Secretary Chase Riveland, on Town Meeting, a live broadcast. The cold animosity shone in her eyes, narrowed into lasers that stabbed at me me through the 13 inch screen in my cell.  She compared McNeil Island–- formerly Alcatraz's sister prison--to the Hilton. She cited pillows as evidence for her claim, aghast at the injustice of our having creature comforts. The fact that my cell, like every other at McNeil, came with a state-issue TV set galled her to no ends, even after Mr.Riveland explained that Nick Nolte had purchaser all 600 of them as a way to show his gratitude, having filming part of a movie in the prison. She was morally outraged that we could lift weights.

"You're encouraging them to become bigger monsters,” she said.

"All due respect ma'am," Riveland said, "but inmates who better themselves physically and mentally are better behaved, and statistically speaking, they recidivate less often. And I'd like to point out that you don’t have to be big to pick up a nine millimeter. "

Most of all, though, Ida Ballasiotes was furious that we had access to education. She swore to strip us of amenities from pillows to college degrees, and she did her best to keep her word. In 1995, she penned, pushed and passed House Bill 2010, which made it illegal for the State of Washington to fund higher education for prisoners. (It also provided that we pay fees to lift weights, play music, or use the now-extinct hobby shop. And it required that any money received by prisoners be taxed 35– 95% by the Department. Legend has it the pillow clause went to filibuster.)

When I arrived at McNeil Island in 1994, an entire floor of one admin building was used by Pierce Community College. Classrooms were full of prisoners busy earning degrees, studiously changing the direction and shape of their lives through post-secondary education. They were engaged in learning that, for most of their previous lives, had only ever been someone else’s dream.

Aside from liberal arts, Pierce College offered vocational certificate courses in welding, forklift operation, upholstery, HVAC, and electronic repair. Of the 1200 men doing time at McNeil, over half were involved in one or more of these programs. McNeil Island was as much a prison as any other, but one whose culture was informed by the common knowledge that anyone who wanted to remake the trajectory of their future could do just that. There was a climate of driven hope, pride derived from accomplishment and resolve.

When I returned to McNeil in 2007, a dozen years post-Ida, the only recognizable aspect of the prison was the buildings. Dayrooms choked with men shuffling to nowhere, or playing card games that only ended when dope hit the yard. Drama surrounding drugs and black market tobacco; cellphones, tattooing and fights. Lots of fights. No one expected to do anything different upon release than what they'd been doing when they came in. Why would they? More importantly, how could they?

The years I'd spent at Walla Walla prior to 2007 had been in an intellectual abyss. One of many abysmal institutions in a system likewise devoid of academia, wandered by prisoners with no option but to pursue this life as a career. I had the sort of education you might suppose I'd have after 11 years of formal schooling and an extensive post-dropout program. I'd only studied the works of other criminals--some classics, but mostly newer genres like identity schemes. I thought like an outlaw. Arguably, one far more dedicated than masterful, but for me criminality had become second nature.

I began trying to educate myself at Walla Walla, burrowing through the paltry prison library one book at a time. I pored over what few books there users on science, rereading works by philosophers until I could understand them, which took some time.

My progress was scattered and unsteady. But the years I spent as an autodidact served as a sort of primer for the rigors of the classroom I would experience only after arriving here, at the Reformatory.

On my third day here a friend introduced me to Carol Estes, the co-founder of University Beyond Bars. The first person to ever validate me as a student and writer, she nurtured my self-confidence until it could root and grow on its own. I immersed myself in this unheard-of program ran by volunteers. Actual college classes offered to prisoners, courses taught by freeworld professors with no ties to DOC, other than their volunteer badges. I had found the only oasis on a desert planet.

That was six years and over 60 college courses ago. Higher education has altered my perspective on the outer world, to be sure. But the process, more than any resulting degree, is what will serve me when I rejoin that same world.

Addiction and criminality feel immutable and inescapable because of a flawed and self-fulfilling belief system. We are so far out of harmony with reality that we think in circles, a hobbling cycle of self-limitation serving as a backdrop for our temporary escape from what we can’t stand, let alone understand. Ambivalence is the lifeblood of addiction--we crave being anyone else, even if only for a moment, but we embrace our own inferiority as if owning it is a virtue.

College provides a low risk arena where each student is challenged to persevere through difficult material, wrestle with uncomfortable ideas, master new skills, meet deadlines and so forth.  As a prisoner what few choices I have are inconsequential. But as a college student, I have agency over my own progress. I had to learn to trust myself because how, much work I do and how well I do it are my decisions. My success is my own.

For most of my life I feared acknowledging my latent potential. In the throes of addiction, giving consideration to what you could be only brings more sorrow, and makes what you are feel like a conscious decision. It's easier, and safer, to convince yourself that being an outlaw is all you're good at. Such thinking amounts to another prison cell, one you carry with you. Liberal education is the antithesis to prison in all its forms.

In the bigyard here, it is not uncommon to overhear two or more hardened prisoners discussing systems of linear equations, principles of macroeconomics, or cells--the type that live within you, not the other way around. We walk the track planning our majors, not our next major infractions. The culture of this prison has been fundamentally altered by UBB. Alongside loads of homework, UBB has introduced us to hope.

In the ivory towers of Washington State there has been talk lately of repealing the moratorium on funding post-secondary education for prisoners. Thus far, the education bill has gained enough traction to make it through the house, only to die in the senate. The conservatives' primary argument against lifting the education ban is that we prisoners should not be afforded a state-funded education when their own children, and the children of their constituents, would have to pay for tuition. The focus is limited to budgetary quibbles, monetary concerns characterized only as "spending."

But republican lawmakers miss the point entirely. Over ninety percent of prisoners in this state will be released. There is a strong negative correlation between post-secondary education and recidivism (in other words, the more education a prisoner receives, the less likely he or she is to commit another crime). It isn't actually spending, it's investing.

I was not a particularly successful criminal. But I was an expensive one. Who’s to say how much I might have ended up costing my future victims, and taxpayers, monetarily upon my release, had I not been given an option besides a life of crime. And there's no price on the suffering and deprivation of security I would have inflicted. When they would have finally recaptured me, it would cost around $36,000 per year to imprison me, as it does now.

What Ida failed to grasp-- and what her republican cohort of ideologues cannot yet conceive, is that prison is a possibility engine, inexorable as it is inefficient. Either it continues chugging along as is, belching out older and anti-socialized versions of its intake--or the state fuels it to operate in accord with its original intent, which has to rehabilitate. The few thousand dollars invested in my education so far has done what no judge's sentence or cell could. My thinking has been reshaped into that of someone who won't simply fit back into society in a few years, but will add to its net value.

We wait patiently while legislative brainchildren crawl at glacial speed toward reason, our fingers crossed as we quietly urge them to unbequeath us Ida's legacy. In the meantime, we take solace and no small amount of pride in the visible success of UBB and FEPPS (Freedom in Education Project of Puget Sound), its sister program at the women's prison in Purdy. Both stand as functional models of how real education happens in prison, economically. And, thankfully, when we're not standing for anything we can still lie down and rest our brimming heads on state issued pillows.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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