Reducing Recidivism Through Education
During my path in becoming a teacher I never imagined that I would be working with convicted felons in a restricted institution with long corridors and parole agents. I never for one moment thought that I would be one of the last people a human being would see at the end of their incarceration. I had always assumed naively that education could only take place in an elementary or high school. In college, most of the curriculum I studied was geared towards children and young teens. I imagined a school with playgrounds, handball courts, a teacher's lounge, recess, and a cafeteria where parents picked up their children after school. But in this setting, almost like a timeless warp, I'm faced with working with adults who once had IEP's, who once had been in elementary and high schools but who had veered from the path by addictions, poverty, teen pregnancies and criminal lifestyles. Many of these students struggle with not only severe learning disabilities but also with the pressure to be reunited with their families, with anxieties about finding jobs, low self esteem and supporting themselves and integrating legitimately into society. The custody to community transition program, unique to California, provides a safe haven for the transition process, one of the key anchors is education as an empowerment tool, a pipeline to college and freedom which can literally be seen from one of the small windows in my classroom. Only a 5 minute walk away from the confines of my classroom, there stands the promise of two city colleges, the Pacific Ocean and a collection of adult and technical schools. It is truly a unique place that any dedicated educator would be in awe of. The signs of success are all there and the end of the continuation school to pipeline cyle ends and the detour begins. The physical promise of human advancement can be seen and heard. For the so called "two strikers" it is the final detour and may be the last possibility of escaping the firm grip of inequality and a life time sentence. Yes, these are all violent offenders not children but they are just as vulnerable and naive. They existed once in your classroom before they could read, write and before they could think critically. They existed before they were labeled as convicts who committed crimes ranging from vehicular manslaughter, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and even murder. Some of them were incarcerated when they were in high school and have been away from the "outside" world since. I was surprised to see the amount of insight, the heightened senses they possessed and the hunger to learn. I was also saddened by the large gaps in their educational experiences. For example, many of my students could not comprehend their multiplication tables, basic division, pre-algebra and even locate Europe and South America on the map. As a special education teacher with 7 years experience, I never imagined or was confronted with this level of academic disfunction.
My first day working there It was not at all the preconceived place that I had imagined on TV shows and movies. First of all, it is a transitional program embedded in a therapeutic environment that allows inmates (or as we like to refer to them as participants) to continue their recovery by working their way towards attending vocational schools and colleges. They have the opportunity to advance as long as they follow the program's parameters of sobriety and following the law. They also have ankle monitors that are strictly monitored by the California Department of Corrections and parole agents. The participants must abide by all program expectations or risk being sent back to Calfornian prisons. Sadly enough, at least 15 of my students were sent back. In the long run and in the face of these barriers, this has been a long journey of success and I have witnessed the most resilient and exceptional human beings at their finest. This teaching experience has brought me valuable insight into improving as an educator and most importantly I have been given the unique role to lead my students, through education to complete milestones that reduce their sentences by 3 months- valuable time that allows them once they pass their high school equivalency exam to make it home early to their children and loved ones. Overall, it has been the most challenging places to work as an educator but also the most rewarding. Even though it isn't the idealized place I would ever have thought to work at, it is one of the most genuine settings I have ever been in. I feel like I am given the unique opportunity to provide them with the education they deserve.