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

Education Door 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.

Educators - Betty Lewing and Marcia Waller 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."

Educators with students 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.

Polunsky Unit Fence 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."

Polunsky Unit Wire 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

To read Part 2 of this two-part serie please click here

 

Other articles that may interest you:

BY NICOLE WILCOX  
Staff writer
Published September 2, 2015
Reprinted courtesy of The Navasota Examiner
Navasota, Texas

 

Reporter Nicole Wilcox of the Navasota Examiner recently visited the Luther Unit for a first-hand look at Windham School District and how correctional education is helping offenders prepare for a successful life after release.  Her positive report is shared below, courtesy of The Navasota Examiner.

 

Welding instructor Van Campbell tells reporter Nicole Wilcox why he became a WSD teacher.

Most residents can recall four school districts within the county - Navasota, Anderson-Shiro, Iola and Richards – but there are actually five fully operational districts in our community.


Often forgotten about, the teachers of the Windham School District don’t have bus duty, lunch duty or parent conferences. What they do have is a school surrounded by security fencing and guard towers.

The Windham School District operates within 89 different Texas Department of Criminal Justice units, including both the Luther and Pack units in Navasota. The school district’s goals, as stated by Texas Education Code 19.003, are to reduce the odds of relapse and the cost of confinement or imprisonment, increase the success of former inmates in obtaining and maintaining employment, and provide an incentive for inmates to behave in positive ways during confinement or imprisonment. Students in the CNC Machining program at the Luther Unit learn valuable employment skills.

An individualized treatment plan is created for each offender, taking into account age, program availability, projected release date and varying needs of the offender. To accommodate those needs, the school district has different sections, including literacy and GED programs, career and technical education programs, and life skills programs.

“We are trying to put you in contact with jobs that will change your life,” Windham School District Superintendent Dr. Clint Carpenter said last week to a group of offenders in the vocational program of the Luther Unit.

The latest reports from the 2013-14 school year show 59,678 offenders statewide received WSD educational services. Of these offenders, 66 percent were able to attain a GED or high school diploma or showed significant gains in educational achievements. In addition to normal education classes, Windham offers offenders cognitive intervention and CHANGES programs designed to change the way they handle situations to prevent criminal behavior. CHANGES  is an acronym for changing habits and achieving new goals to empower success.

“I really believe in this program,” said CHANGES teacher Victoria Koehn. “Most of them really want to change but don’t know how. When the environment is right, they really open up.”

Those entered into CHANGES are within two years of getting out of the system. It is a 14-week program that includes role- playing scenarios and a seven-step system of behavior awareness that includes saying no to drugs, civic responsibility, healthy relationship development, apologies and amends, job interview skills and being open to change.

“The healthy relationship development is a big deal,” said Koehn. “Research shows that one good relationship is enough of a motivator to stay free.”WSD integrates vocational and literacy skills to help prepare offenders for successful lives after release.

If an offender has obtained a GED or high school diploma, they are eligible for vocational or college courses. Within the Luther Unit, a few of these courses include electrical, welding and computerized numerical computation. The computerized numerical control course deals with machining fabrication. The majority of fabrication and machining shops in the industry are moving to computerization because the machines are capable of being accurate to within 1/10000 of an inch.

“The majority of these guys are at 250 hours right now and can do the majority of the machine’s programming,” said instructor Mike Klodginksi.

The participating offenders in the computerized numerical computation course will be eligible for entry- level industry certification when they complete the minimum 600 hours of coursework and can opt for an additional 300 hours of advancement.

Electrical instructor Frank Goodman has simulated a work environment within his classroom with each student having an independent stall and project board. He is a firm believer in peer tutoring and teaches students that intrinsic motivation is self-motivation.

“I see my son in each of my students,” said Goodman. “I just want you to get paid for your knowledge.”

Like the majority of the WSD vocational classes, Goodman’s electrical course is six to nine months long, and the students are eligible for first or second year apprenticeship depending on the time put into the training.

“This was a blessing for me. I had an apprentice license before I was incarcerated.  I had the opportunity to go to school, but I wouldn’t do it. This made me come to school and work on becoming a journeyman. I have an opportunity to go back to work with LECS and work for them. I am retaining the info I knew when I was working,” said offender Antonio Rivera Camacho.CHANGES teacher Victoria Koehn (center) describes WSD’s pre-release life skills program to Navasota Examiner reporter Nicole Wilcox (left) and WSD Principal LeeEtta Clabron.

Everyone within WSD has a story. An overwhelming majority of the inmates talk about their families as motivation for participating. For the instructors and administrators, it is often a calling that differs from the course of their previous life.

Welding instructor Van Campbell was a 20-year member of the ironworkers union in Cincinnati before the birth of his first grandchild made him and his wife move to Texas. When asked if he would encourage anyone else to follow in his footsteps, Campbell replied, “As a teacher, yes! It is very gratifying. I’d hire any one of these guys when they leave my class.”

'One day at a time' - W. Thomas sits on a bench outside the bus station on 12th Street, grinning as he enjoys his first cigarette in two years. Thomas served the past 24 months in a Texas prison for narcotics charges. It's Friday morning and Thomas is one of about 40 former inmates who just walked out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Huntsville "Walls" Unit as free men after paying their debts to society. He's waiting for the Greyhound bus to show up to take him to his hometown of Houston where he intends to begin again.

Governor Greg Abbott meets Windham School District Principal Teresa Craiker while both visit with veterans about job opportunities during the recent Red, White and You job fair in San Antonio.  WSD was appreciative of the opportunity to talk to veterans about job openings in the school district. Craiker, who is principal at Dominguez State Jail, joins Windham principals statewide who serve as recruiters at events throughout the state.

Industry employers partner with WSD to provide increased job opportunities - Windham School District continues to build valuable partnerships with industry employers, according to a recent report by WSD Superintendent Dr. Clint Carpenter to the WSD Board of Trustees.

 

Success Stories

Success Story IconEducation changed my life -
"These opportunities [GED® classes or learning a trade] are great, but WSD is so much more than that; for me it was a change of life."

Success Story IconNEW - I’m so grateful I took welding -
"I’m so grateful I took welding; I’ve come so far in my career because the things I was taught in that program".

Success Story IconNEW - I learned a great deal - "I really enjoyed this class and I learned a great deal. Painting and Decorating is something I always wanted to do and learn."

Success Story IconWelding Success Story -
"I'm thankful for the welding program I was allowed to take while locked up".

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WSD in Images

Auto specialization students in a West Texas prison learn auto maintenance skills, preparing themselves for future employment as professional mechanics.
WSD’s Business and Image Management & Multimedia (BIMM) class offers students the opportunity to learn viable graphic arts and computer skills, helping them prepare for jobs after release.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
Students at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit strengthen writing skills during a literacy class.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.