Entering the prison is a bit like going through airport security but only at first. Coats, jackets, blazers all must go through the X-ray machine, as must the clear plastic backpacks or bags that contain our water bottles and evening meals. Food must be clearly visible. Very little can be carried into the prison. Cell phones are banned. We surrender our driver’s licenses and car keys and cannot have them back until we leave for the night. Once we have passed through the metal detector, we receive the keys that will open the dozen or so metal doors and gates through which we must pass before entering our classrooms.
Last Monday, the high school at which I teach opened a site at Lee Arrendale State Prison in northeast Georgia. I am the Social Studies teacher at the prison site, and two nights a week I will be facilitating courses in Civics/Government, World History, U.S. History, and Economics for over 30 inmates.
Our high school is unique in that we are a state-chartered school with locations in eleven north Georgia counties. We serve non-traditional students (although most are of traditional high school age) who, for one reason or another, are not able to attend high school during the day. The prison site is now our twelfth location.
Lee Arrendale is Georgia’s largest facility for women, housing upwards of 1,400 female inmates. A maximum security prison, it houses the state’s Death Row but also houses many inmates who live together in dormitories.
Our students have been carefully vetted, and some were even transported from other facilities in the state just so they could participate in this ground-breaking program. Georgia has one of the largest prison systems in the U.S., and the recidivism rate is 30%. The state’s governor, Nathan Deal, has attributed the high prison re-entry numbers as being partly due to the lack of educational opportunities available to inmates. Our program is a pilot program established as a collaborative effort of the Office of the Governor, the Georgia Department of Corrections, and Mountain Education Charter High School.
Students are divided into three groups. One consists of inmates who already have a substantial number of high school credits and are expected to complete requirements for a high school diploma fairly soon, although “soon” is a relative term. One group includes students who have a number of credits to complete. The third group includes juvenile offenders, and there must be a prison guard with them at all times. (It make one wonder what crimes they committed to have been tried and sentenced as adults.)
The groups rotate between classrooms, spending two hours at a time in each one. A guard remains in the hallway or otherwise nearby during the entire evening. Student work is done online, and each course is self-paced which makes it possible for every student in a given classroom to be working on a different class or be in a different module if working on the same class.
I have five classroom aides. All are inmates with college/university degrees, and all have been trained in school procedures. Their educational backgrounds include: a Master’s degree in Nursing, a Graphic Arts degree, a degree in Bioengineering, plus two aides have Sociology degrees. Because of the way student-inmates had to be divided up into groups to avoid conflicts, I may have students working on English or on Science as well as Social Studies in my classroom. The aides are wonderful and can help with all of these subject areas.
This photo is of me at the beginning of the very first class last Monday. The five women seated at the center table are my classroom aides.
After only two nights at the prison, I believe that I will enjoy my time teaching there. The students were respectful and hardworking. Once they settled in, they began working conscientiously. They know this is an opportunity not to be taken lightly, as a high school diploma will open up opportunities for them once they are back in what they call the “free world.” I’m not naive enough to believe they always will work diligently or that there will be no problems, maybe even major problems, but we already are off to a good start.