6 March 2017


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“Are ‘large’ and ‘hard’ sa…sin…synonyms?” one of the students asked me when I was typing in the back of her classroom.

“According to men they are, but not really,” I answered. She didn’t get the joke. Maybe she was too young.

“What are they?” she asked.

“They’re adjectives, you know, descriptors,” I tried to explain. I always go into a mode when I’m asked about adult basic education. I try to be as complete as possible.

“No, syn…synonyms.”

“They’re words that are different but have the same meaning. You understand what I mean? Like ‘auto’ and ‘car’ are different words but they mean the same thing. They’re synonyms.”

She shrugged and turned back to a math ditto. She’s taking the GED test soon.

A lot of prison students make Welcome Back Kotter’s “Sweathogs” look like Rhodes Scholars.  Despite teachers’ best efforts, students in the GED program here [at York Correctional Institution] think that Nelson Mandela took the first steps on the moon.  They think Maryland is in California. They think Christopher Columbus drove a car: a Pinto. The Nina and the Santa Maria don’t sound like motor vehicles so they’re off the hook.

All large and hard.

And many of them earned still their GED’s because scoring a total of 225 out of 500 on the five-part test, with no score less than 40 on any individual part, is all it takes. Unlike passing grade standards in traditional high schools, GED students must score only 40% to pass.  Unsurprisingly, 70% of inmates remain in the lowest two of the five levels of literacy, even after receiving their GED’s, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics.  With these results, the GED barely earns status as a rubber stamp.  In many ways, taking college courses in prison may be the only way for an inmate to achieve a high school education even – especially – if she earns her GED in here.

York doesn’t offer any more courses that will cure their knowledge deficits. Once you’ve scored 41% on your GED, you’re allowed to go into vocational programs like culinary arts, commercial cleaning, computer/data entry skills, and hospitality training for the hotel and restaurant industry so you can get a job where you can barely afford a Pinto.

And if there isn’t a huge offering of college classes – ones that will contain people who don’t know what synonyms are – the only option for learning is correspondence courses.

mademoiselleThese schools used to advertise in the back of Glamour and Mademoiselle when I was in high school, offering master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s. I think  one of the names had “Pacific” in it or it was on the west coast. I can’t remember. Over 90% of distance education is available only online now and we don’t have internet access. Who else but an inmate would take a paper-bound correspondence course these days? If anyone who isn’t incarcerated is enrolled in one of these paper and envelope courses, I want to meet him or her. I want to see how a person can be that outside of society’s flow and not bear an inmate number.

The only way we would even know about these courses is that Wally [Lamb] bought a book about them  -“Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada” – and he donated it to the library. The handbook contains, like, 10 programs which matches the fact that it was published, like, 10 years ago and it costs over 100 bucks. And these degree programs cost $185 per credit; bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits. So an entire degree costs about $22,000 cash when you go through a correspondence school. A community college in Connecticut charges about five thousand for full time enrollment. An associates degree would cost about 10K. Continuing on to a bachelors would probably cost about the same as a correspondence course degree.

But inmates don’t get a campus, teachers, school atmosphere, camaraderie, intellectual discussion, a gym, a student center, academic support or anything else a normal student would get for the same amount of money. And forget student loans and scholarships; those Pell Grants have been gone for almost 2o years. What are the chances of someone who can’t afford a lawyer being able to afford this education? Prisoners’ only saving grace is just another commodity where traders exploit our isolation to make money. These correspondence schools are probably lobbying to keep internet access out of prisons to stop inmates from floating to Coursera or iTunes University and getting their learn on for free.

imageDown from the 350 programs that operated in forty-five states in 1982, the all-time high, currently only twelve in-prison college education programs operate in four states. Distance learning continues to be a prisoner’s most viable educational opportunity, so the need for internet connection is even more pronounced for inmates, 85% percent of them so poor they can’t afford sneakers, much less tuition in a profit-motivated school.  As long as we remain unconnected, the electronic wave hitting higher education washes over prisons and recedes, leaving them desolate oases of ignorance. It’s no wonder no one says “Welcome back” when we get out. We’re not much better or smarter, at least not as long as this place stays educationally unplugged.

I keep wondering where the holes are in these GED curricula. What else don’t they know as they brag about a graduation? I doubt many women here could calculate how badly I date myself by readily referencing Welcome Back Kotter, dittoes and Mademoiselle magazine which hasn’t been in published in years even if I told them the years when those things were common to our culture. Can you tell I’ve been offline for years?

Even with a GED program, the knowledge deficits in a prison are large. If someone just wired this place, eliminating them wouldn’t be that hard. At least I hope not.


HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Host Jimmy Kimmel (L) surprises tourist with an entrance tothe 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

If you’re like me, you’re sick of the Sessions/immigration news. We forget that things unfold outside the Beltway, too.

Gary Coe or “Gary from Chicago,” one of the surprised tourists whom Jimmy Kimmel paraded through the Dolby Theatre during the Oscars last Sunday, was discovered to have a pretty severe criminal record, including a conviction for attempted rape. Gary’s is actually a pretty amazing story. He was sentenced to life under California’s “three strikes” law and had his sentence modified recently. The only reason why he was able to leave Corcoran, a men’s prison, last Friday was that California’s Proposition 36, passed in 2012,  allowed him to show a court how much he had rehabilitated himself in prison. Despite this reform, Coe has already faced discrimination. The Chicago Sun Times was the only paper to report that Jimmy Kimmel Live! canceled Gary’s appearance because of his criminal record. For shame, Kimmel.

The second deadly prison riot in two years popped off in Nebraska, at the same facility, Tecumseh State Prison. Two inmates were killed on Thursday and at least one of them was convicted of a sexual offense. The two inmates killed in May 2015 were also convicted of sexual assault. These aren’t prison riots, they’re highly choreographed executions of certain offenders. Let’s not make this about prison conditions.

There are only about 2200 prisoners in Vermont and the state wants to build a $140 million prison, which amounts to spending $63,636 per inmate on a new building. I will never understand Vermont.




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