Inside the wire: Two longtime educators now teaching GED classes to inmates at TDCJ’s Polunsky Unit
(Part 1 of a two-part series)
Reprinted with permission from
The Lufkin News
By Gary Stallard
Inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Polunsky Unit - past the rolls of barbed wire, past the security checkpoints, past the seemingly endless gates, one of which leads past Death Row there's a door marked "Education." Inside the door is a classroom, one no different from any high school classroom save for the guards outside the door. There are bookshelves and a chalkboard, desks and work tables, a teacher's desk sitting below walls filled with instructional and motivational posters.
Sitting at the work tables are approximately 30 inmates dressed in white jumpsuits dealing in various ways with an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Some tap their feet restlessly, or drum fingers on the tables, while others engage in nervous conversation.
Today is the day they're supposed to get their GED test results.
None are more anxious than the two teachers sitting in front of the room.
Betty Lewing and Marcia Waller both spent years teaching in the public school system. Waller retired from Lufkin ISD a couple of years ago and now works as a substitute teacher for the Unit, while Lewing has worked with LISD and Scholastic, Inc. Lewing also spent a brief period teaching classes at a Diboll prison; her experiences there impacted her in such a way that she's chosen to continue working with inmates.
"I loved working with Scholastic, but my heart was always in the classroom," Lewing says. "Deep down, I always thought I wanted to go back to teaching in the prison. I realized those inmates are people; they're not monsters like some people think. I wanted to do that again."
Lewing has been with the Windham School District, which is responsible for Correctional Education in the state of Texas, for the past four years. She says her job is not only to teach the men what they need to know to pass the exam; it's also to instill the purpose behind the success, whether it's for those hoping for parole and the start to a better life, or those who simply want to experience some sort of success while incarcerated.
Once she got involved, she couldn't wait to share her experiences with her friend Marcia Waller.
"Betty called me and said they needed some substitutes and asked if I'd be interested," Waller said. "I put her off at first because I just wasn't sure about it. I finally sent in my stuff and got approved.
"When I got here, I loved it. It was a pleasure to go to work. Those guys are polite and respectful. All they want is someone to show some interest in them, and to treat them like human beings."
The two women say don't measure their successes by scores, however. They measure them by the response of the inmates, who express the utmost respect to their mentors.
"They don't have to be here, and they don't have to care," an inmate says. "But they give us everything they've got, and the only reason they could have for doing that is because they care about us."
The classes are divided into two sessions. The first begins at 7:45 and ends at 11 a.m.; the second starts at 11:45 and ends at 3 p.m. There are 28 students in each class, and Lewing instructs them in each part of the GED, given four times per year: Reading, writing, social studies, math and science.
"I still hate math," one man moans. "This stuff has got me doing problems in my cell. Just once, I want to beat it."
Another man holds a book by Dean Koontz. He says he never cared for reading before studying the GED; now he reads everything he can find.
"This dude's scary," he says, nodding at the author's photo. "I never knew reading would actually be something I'd have fun doing."
The men are direct and brutally honest. None offer excuses or explanations for why they're in their current situation. The prevailing comment is "I messed up."
And not every inmate was receptive to the idea of taking the test. School was never a priority in their other lives, and to them, it makes less sense now. But as one man states, "Prison isn't rehabilitation. It's punishment. Education is rehabilitation."
"A lot of their negativity comes from not having success in school before," Lewing says, "so they don't have any good memories of what they went through in school. So much of my job is reassuring and encouraging them and making them believe they can do it. They're not used to being told, 'Yes, you can.' They've heard 'No, you can't' a whole lot more."
Some of the inmates laugh at Lewing, saying she cries for them over any little failure. One even counts out loud the number of Kleenexes she uses when discussing some of the unit's success stories.
"I swear, if I'd have had a mama like her, I think my life would have been a lot different," a man says.
"I think that's why they respond to Betty and me so well," Waller says. "We laugh with them, we cry with them. We're willing to take part in something that is important to the majority of them."
Each student has different reasons for wanting to pass. Some of the men say their biggest reason for passing the GED has to do with their plans once they're released. One 53-year old inmate says he knows he'll never get to retire, but getting his GED will allow him to continue his education on the outside, where he plans to help run a family business.
Others have different motives.
"I have sons who come to visit me, and this is the only way I can ever be a role model to them," an inmate says. "I talk to them about how important education is, and how hard I'm trying to prove that to them."
"When my mom comes to visit me, I can tell her I'm studying for my GED, and that I'm going to use it to make a better life when I get out," another man says. "It makes her proud, and I haven't done that for her very much."
Another said he's the only member of his family to get this far with his education; still another says he plans to use his GED to get into college.
Those are the men who see a future in which they can wear so mething other than white jump suits.
Unfortunately, not all the men are working toward their GEDs with plans for using them upon release. They're not getting out. Some are serving life sentences, which begs the question: Why bother with the trouble of studying and testing?
"On the outside, I spent too much time fighting for respect," one man said. "I didn't know anything about self-respect. Doing this has given me that in a way nothing else in my life has."
Some of those men have decided to use what they've learned in positive ways.
"We've got so many kids coming through here, babies really, and they still have a chance to turn things around," one inmate who runs religious services says. "We can help them get the education they need so they'll never have to come back here."
They have messages for anyone willing to listen. For those youngsters who hate school, one says, "I know if I'd tried this hard to get my education when I was younger, I wouldn't be here now."
Some mentioned feeling left out in school; they weren't tagged as "college material", so they got no guidance in other directions.
"When I was in school, I had no idea there were opportunities for people who weren't really book-smart," he says. "Counselors in my school only worked with the people who were going to a university somewhere, people who had high test scores. No one told me how to learn how to make a living that didn't mean going to some big college.
"They've got to understand, a person has to have money to live, and if he doesn't learn how to get it the right way, he'll get it the wrong way and end up in here."
Hanging over the "Education" doorway is a row of pictures of smiling men dressed in the caps and gowns of graduates. The first photo has seven men the first graduates. Lewing says they've had as many as 52. That's how much progress the program has made in a few short years, and those pictures are testament to the impact people such as Lewing and Waller are making. They're not just giving knowledge for test scores; they're instilling a little hope, something in pitifully short supply in such an environment.
"I had a guy who passed the test after a couple of tries, and when I handed him his certificate, he had tears streaming down his face," Lewing said. "He said, 'I finally did something right.'"
She says another man told her, "I really struggled taking that test. The hard part was knowing I wouldn't be in your class any more. For those three hours every day, I forget that I'm in prison.'
"He's in for life without parole," Lewing says. "He'll die here.
"That's so powerful to me. How can you not love a job, love going back to something, when you hear that kind of thing?"
December 22, 2013
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