Prisoners Helping Prisoners

by McCay Vernon, McDaniel College & Katrina R. Miller, Emporia State University

Doing Time

At the end of his trial, Mark Brackmann heard the verdict: nine years in prison. Shortly thereafter, he was in a jail cell awaiting transfer to the penitentiary. He had never been in a prison before and knew little about what he would face there. He was saddened that he would be separated from his family and friends, and was leaving behind the two successful businesses he had started from scratch. Literacy among state prisoners is typically lower than the general public (“National Assessment,” 2007). Like many educated men entering prison for the first time, Mark thought he would be very much alone and did not think he would find in prison anyone with whom he would have much in common.

Once assigned to prison in Wakula, Florida, Mark began to get acquainted with his fellow inmates, the guards, and other prison officials. He soon discovered that many of the prison inmates he met were similar to persons he had known on the outside. Some had a positive outlook, others were depressed and angry. Some had college degrees, others had only minimal education. Some had led interesting, productive lives on the outside, others had barely scraped by. Despite those differences, Mark learned that most of the men had dreams and ambitions for their futures, just as he did. For example, many who had spent their lives in crime-ravaged neighborhoods wanted to live where it was safe. Some prisoners hoped to spend time with their children, to be employed, and to have a home. Others dreamed of establishing their own businesses.

Few of these individuals had given serious thought as to how they would achieve their goals, nor had they made the effort to implement their future plans. In fact, only a tiny minority had worked out specific, realistic itineraries for their lives following discharge. As time wears on, inmate self-concept may degrade (Walrath, 2001).

Making Time Matter

In numerous correctional institutions, GED and vocational programming is strongly supported and sometimes court-ordered (“National Assessment,” 2007). Given Mark’s background as a college graduate, his first assignment as an inmate was to prepare fellow inmates to take and pass the GED test for their high school diplomas. He proved very effective at this task. About the same time, Mark formed a close friendship with another inmate, Jeff Botward, who had been a banker prior to his incarceration. Both men were appalled that so many of their peers were doing nothing constructive to prepare themselves for life after release from prison. Nor were they getting needed guidance from the prison staff regarding their futures and the hurdles they would face upon release.

It is notable that former inmates struggle more with keeping employment than acquiring a job. Many earn their GEDs, but lack basic social and life skills that are essential to the workplace (Koski, 1998). Rather than commiserate about the problem, Mark and Jeff decided to do something about it. They discussed the issues and proposed solutions to the prison chaplain, Reverend Allison, and to other interested prison officials. These officials were impressed by and supportive of the idea of helping inmates prepare for discharge back into society. Despite initial objections from some of the more traditional officers, the program Mark and Jeff had proposed was started.

Their first step was to write a book, Life Mapping, which was to be the text for their proposed course. The book detailed the specific steps prisoners should take while behind bars, in order to prepare for life outside prison. It also provided guidance on issues ex-convicts would face and how to cope with those problems after release.

Life Mapping

After Mark and Jeff finished writing Life Mapping, Reverend Allison and a few other prison officials who saw its value arranged to have the book printed. Once the book was available, classes in Life Mapping were begun despite continuing objections from some prison officials. Fortunately, key authorities supported the program and made it possible for Mark and Jeff to conduct classes using the text they had written.

From the beginning, the class proved to be a success. At the conclusion of the Life Mapping class, each student was required to take the poium and share his personalized Life Map.

Mark and Jeff were inundated with requests to open up more classes on Life Mapping. A volunteer professor from Florida State University, Dr. Mike Wallace, observed some of the sessions. Describing them, he said, “They are like a single flower in the desert. It is a miracle that the flower can survive in a harsh, inhospitable prison environment, yet it does. Its beauty is stunning, but even more so because of the austerity that surrounds it.”

Mark and Jeff were excited by Dr. Wallace’s evaluation, but knew they and their fellow inmates had to do more if they were to change the barren culture of the prison system. “We put everything we had into making Life Mapping class a success,” Mark explained.

Growing opportunities

About the same time Life Mapping classes started, another program was launched by an inmate who had studied how to write a business plan. He now teaches that course to fellow prisoners. His program was effective although rough in spots, and could be improved upon. Another class is currently forming, focused on credit and debt management.

The inmates involved in instructing these classes met and formed a steering committee that included Mark, Jeff, and another prisoner, Darrel Simpson. The committee’s goal is to oversee and plan so that the classes developed by inmates are organized, unique, and effective.

The inmates who did the organizational work wanted to brand what they were doing, so they chose the name Realizing Educational and Financial Smarts (REEFS) for the steering committee and bank of educational programs. As their work continued and time passed, the prison culture did change. By now, 6,000 prisoners have completed REEFS courses.

Ordinarily, as one walks through a prison dorm, the prevalent activities are gambling, card games, arguments, sports talk, or fighting. By contrast, today many of the prisoners in the REEFS Program are discussing business plans and goals, while others are reading about current events in business, religion, marketing, and trade journals.

These are positive changes, but they did not come about easily. For example, there were volunteers who wanted to teach, but were unqualified. Some volunteers sought to take ownership of the REEFS’ program and materials. Inmates found it difficult to say no to volunteers due to their lower social status. While most students in the classes were eager to learn, some presented a challenge to instructors. For instance, some wanted to fight when their academic work was deemed unsatisfactory.

The REEFS Program

The REEFS program has successfully demonstrated a way to improve prison systems nationally, not just in Wakula, Florida. It has been shown that exposing inmates to REEFS programming can effect a change in the attitudes and goals of a significant number of participants, as well as positively impacting the prison environment or atmosphere in general. Disciplinary actions decrease in correctional facilities offering educational and vocational programming (Torre & Fine, 2005). The REEFS participants were transformed from idle inmates with few realistic goals to life planners, using their time in prison for self-improvement and preparation for their return to society.

The REEFS Program addresses three crucial factors that prison administrators in the United States presently face: recidivism, costs, and unproductive use of inmates’ time. To implement the REEFS Program or others like it requires that key officials in state prisons adopt an approach similar to Wakula. Lower recidivism rates are associated with prison-based education programming (Torre & Fine, 2005). The financial savings alone would more than justify any costs associated with implementation of such a program.

In order to make the Wakula program a success, there was a high level of collaboration between prison officials and inmates. Cooperation between these two groups is a key element of building an effective program. Additionally, many prison chaplains value educational and vocational training as an avenue to change for offenders and may be a useful resource in program building (Sundt, Dammer, & Cullen, 2002)

Understandably, inmate-steered programs present a concern for prison officials, who are often hesitant to create opportunities for dangerous offenders to disrupt or take over the proceedings. To avoid this, careful screening of prospective participants is required at Wakula.

Most inmates self-select for educational programs in prison, which is considered a coping strategy (Jackson & Innes, 2001). Among inmates, there is a correlation between lower education levels and lack of participation in educational opportunities, suggesting that encouraging inmates to complete their GEDs may increase their interest in continuing educational pursuits (Jackson & Innes, 2001).

Utilizing Peer Resources

Many state prison systems today have sophisticated intake procedures that involve the use of educational achievement testing and data on previous schooling to assess the academic levels of incoming inmates. Some prisons also perform intelligence testing and obtain data on inmates’ work histories. Additionally, all prisons archive details relating to inmates’ criminal records.

While prisoners are outcasts, representative of drug addicts and alcoholics, sex offenders, and violent offenders, the prison population also includes a significant number of well-educated persons in professions and trades such as teacher, professor, business, cleric, physician, accountant, lawyer, and politician. While these inmates have been convicted of various crimes and are consequently serving time, they may also serve as a resource, helping other inmates prepare for the GED test and teaching life skills courses. Walrath’s 2001 study of a peer-run prison program found that in addition to behavioral changes, optimism among inmates was improved as a result of participation.

Because state prison systems do not typically harness inmate potential, a majority of prison inmates leave the system poorly educated and unprepared for life on the outside. Society pays the price in terms of recidivism and enormous criminal justice costs.

Attaining a GED and completing vocational training is not enough. A key problem that may ex-convicts face is not acquiring employment, but maintaining it. Because so many offenders have complex educational deficits, a multidimensional and internally consistent approach to self-improvement that includes life planning is recommended (Koski, 1998). The model that Mark Brackmann and Jeff Botward created at Wakula has proven successful in preparing inmates to re-enter life outside of prison. It provides an outstanding model of prisoners helping prisoners.

References

Jackson, K.L., & Innes, C.A. (2001). Affective predictors of voluntary inmate

program participation. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 30 (3/4), 1-20

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Summer 2007). National assessment of adult literacy and literacy among prison inmates. Alaska Justice Forum, 24(2), 2-4

Koski, D.D. (1998) Vocational education in prison. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 27: 3, 151-164

Sundt, J.L., Dammer, H.R., & Cullen, F.T. (2002) The role of the prison chaplain in rehabilitation. Religion, The Community, and the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders, 59-86.

Torre, E.T., & Fine, M. (2005). Bar none: Extending Affirmative Action to higher education in prison. Journal of Social Issues, 61(30, 569-594

Walrath, C. (2001). Evaluation of an inmate-run alternatives to violence project: The impact of inmate-to-inmate intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16, 697-711.

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