From: Daniel Pirkel
Re: Prison Education
Education is the single most important element in rehabilitating prisoners. The Rand Corporation's MetaAnalysis (spanning 32 years of research) has demonstrated that correctional education reduces individual recidivism rates by 43%, thereby saving taxpayers the cost of re-incarceration and fostering public safety by preventing people from committing future crimes. This should not be shocking, as the reformative nature of education has been lauded for thousands of years, reaching back to Socrates, Solomon, and even Moses.
Despite the logic and evidence of using educational programs to foster rehabilitation, I have found it difficult to earn an education while in prison. From the very beginning of my prison sentence, it has been challenging to obtain reading material. While I was in quarantine, it took almost three weeks to get my hands on any books. At this time, all of the cells in JFC housed one person, and no talking was allowed what so ever. We were locked down twenty-three hours a day with nothing but our thoughts about the long prison sentences that awaited us. Limited amounts of solitude may encourage some people to change their life around; others simply swan dived off of the third-tier gallery!
The reasons for the lack of prison education vary, but most prison officials blame the budget, and they have a valid point. When budget cuts are discussed, closing prisons and cutting education programs are at the top of the list. Most other costs like institutional maintenance, correctional officers' (C.O.s) pension, and labor are considered inflexible. Despite these legitimate claims, there is a deeper, more cynical reason behind the difficulties of earning an education in prison: animosity toward prisoners. Like many U.S. citizens, numerous correction officials believe that prisoners deserve punishment, not privileges. I have heard several C.O.s grumble when prisoners have the opportunity to earn a free education that their kids cannot, especially when the program entails accredited college courses. This is understandable. However, it is based mostly on an abstract concept of what different individuals personally believe is right or wrong, while the benefits of post-secondary, correctional education can be confirmed with coid, hard facts. Some may argue that people cannot prove that college courses in prison reduces recidivism, as those who take advantage of such programs are a self-selected group who would not reoffend even if they did not receive such an opportunity. This point has some merit, but it fails to recognize that education, at the very least, helps correctional officials accomplish the trickiest aspect to an efficient criminal justice system, determining which prisoners are no longer a threat to society. Failing to discern who is ready for freedom either releases dangerous criminals or wastes tax-payer money by incarcerating people longer than necessary.
Nonetheless, some correctional officials prevent prisoners from utilizing educational opportunities. Usually, this is done through apathy or inattention. For example, people often contact prison facilities because they want to voluntarily teach a workshop or class. However, special activities coordinators are notorious for ignoring these emails and phone calls, and they often fail to fill out the proper paper work so that their superiors can make an informed decision on whether or not to allow the volunteers into the prison . When a proposed program does make it past this hurdle, it may be denied for a number of reasons (which are rarely disclosed). For example, Natalie Holbrook from American Friends and Service Committee (AFSC) attempted to hold a Commutation Workshop at Michigan's Training Unit (MTU, also known as Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility) also known as Richard A. Han in 2017, but it was rejected by the MDOC office in Lansing. Like most decisions that MDOC makes, the reason was undisclosed, perhaps because they feared criticism. Some have speculated that it was because this organization is involved in advocating on the behalf of prisoners. If this is true, my question is, if prisoner advocates are not allowed into prisons, who else is going to want to come in and help the inmates? What legitimate governmental objection does the MDOC have in preventing this?
Far from a few self-contained incidents, some prison officials regularly attack rehabilitation efforts. A few months before I was welcomed into the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI ) program, I met a man  at Kinross Correctional Facility (KCF). After a brief conversation, Bruce informed me that he had been transferred from Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Mi. because the prison officials had accused him of operating a business for writing a book. Regardless of the reason that prison officials used to send him across the Mackinaw Bridge (hours away from his family), they also retaliated by completely dismantling the college prep program that Bruce had been voluntarily coordinating. About a year later, the Warden of LCF visited MTU and boasted about the "success" of her college prep program (failing to realize that her lie would be exposed by the program's former participants). I was able to corroborate this story because many of my fellow CPI students were at LCF, facilitating classes like Grammar, Study Skills, and Intro to Psychology, before they were terminated.
When prison officials shut down education programs that are not costing the state a dime, one must question their motives. When they do spend money on education, they choose classes that demonstrate a disregard for the taxpayer's money as well as their tendency to view prisoners as inferior. The MDOC's favorite vocational trade over the past ten years has been Custodial Maintenance Technology (CMT), affectionately called Mopology 101. This class is practically worthless to prisoners, as no one needs a certificate to be a janitor. Additionally, teachers and equipment for this class cost roughly the same as more useful classes such as plumbing and electrical. The Prisoner Benefit Fund (PBF)  has offered to offset much of the associated costs with other types of vocational trades, but they are usually ignored.
Despite these criticisms, we must acknowledge that some Wardens and MDOC officials try to encourage rehabilitation through classes like Cage Your Rage and Substance Abuse. However, this type of programming is inadequate. First, prisoners are not going to take these sarne classes over and over during their entire prison sentence (which often ranges from five to twenty years). They need more variety as well as an incentive to continue improving themselves. Second, some C.O.s attempt to destabilize even approved programming by discouraging the volunteers from continuing their work. C.O.s sometimes say hostile words to volunteers, and may even refuse to process them, not allowing them to enter the facility. A number of professors in the CPI program have told me that they have to regularly wait 20-45 minutes before a C.O. will allow them into the prison compound. This is not just a matter of how long the C.O.s need to search and process teachers, as one of the teachers said that he saw the C.O.s hanging out and drinking coffee in a backroom. It was not long before this teacher was discharged from teaching at the facility. Many CPI students believe this occurred because the teacher gave the C.O.s a piece of his mind.
Some correctional officials are enthusiastic when it comes to prison education. For example, Warden Burton at MTU spends a lot of time promoting the Vocational Village Program. However, prisoners often forego educational opportunities at this prison because going to the school building sometimes provokes confrontations with correctional officers. I have seen several guards humiliate prisoners by inappropriately yelling at them for minor reasons. I often hear them demand prisoners to stand outside in the rain because they were five minutes early. On 12-12-17, my Statistics' Final Exam was interrupted several times when an officer in the hallway was shouting at prisoners, ordering them to go outside and tuck in their shirts. Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with requiring prisoners to follow the rules. However, belligerently yelling at people over petty violations poorly demonstrates what society wants from ex-offenders. Instead, it engenders strife and hostility. Despite these criticisms, the officers' conduct is understandable, as dealing with a large group of people can be frustrating. They have a job that they are trying to do, and they become frustrated when people repeatedly break the rules. Like all people, emotions often get the best of us. Training in this matter could be useful, as many C.O.s may not recognize the consequences of taking out their frustrations on inmates verbally. Rather than yelling at them, it would be more productive to simply write people minor misconduct tickets when they violate rules. People are more likely to respect discipline that is both firm and polite.
Senior prison administrators are reluctant to discipline this C.O. conduct, partly because the only people who accuse them of misconduct are convicted felons. Even if video tape evidence exists, it is not too difficult to recognize how easy it would be for it to "disappear." This gives state employees incredible power over inmates and makes it difficult for even the most diligent administrators to fire bad C.O.s. When accountability is practically nonexistent, one can be sure that the education system is also inefficient. For example, most of the MDOC certified classes that I have been in or heard of while I have been incarcerated had teachers who were more likely to be surfing the Internet, or leaning back in their chairs half asleep than teaching. Instead, the tutors taught the class. Although the tutors often do an adequate job, it seems to be a waste of money to pay people $50,000 to $60,000 a year to baby sit. Instead, prison administrators could pay prisoners a couple of dollars a day to teach and install cameras in the classrooms so C.O.s can watch from a central location (one guard can watch at least five cameras). Quality teachers are not difficult to find among the prison population, as many prisoners are both qualified and willing to help educate their peers, often for free. I have met several men who were former business owners, college graduates, lawyers, and even professional teachers. Just because people have done terrible things does not mean they no longer have any value. If the U.S. can "trust but verify" Iran's nuclear program, then prison officials can do the same for classes facilitated by prisoners.
In all fairness, many facilities in the MDOC allow prisoners to facilitate a few classes. However, experienced prisoners know the precarious nature at prisoner-led classes. Because prison officials are often capricious, they regularly terminate a class at a moment's notice. While I was at the KCF, an organization called the Jaycees regularly facilitated courses in everything from Thinking for a Change to Truck Driving. When I arrived at KCF, they were teaching at least five classes a week. Within two years, the entire program was dismantled. Several of the prisoners that led the Jaycees said that the Special Activities Director simply wanted to reduce his workload, but this would be difficult to verify.
While the MDOC must improve its policies and personnel related to education, it has made huge strides in the last couple of years, partly aided by federal funding and private donations. For example, CPI students are now allowed to facilitate classes on a variety of topics, including Moral Formation, Math, Employment Readiness, etc. In the recent past, the teachers at MTU had a faculty meeting and decided to oppose a prisoner's proposal to allow prisoners to teach G.E.D. classes because they feared that this could threaten their jobs. Furthermore, CPI has been working behind the scenes to change policy in order to allow their students to use laptops in their cells and to pay incarcerated college students a modest amount of money so that they would have more time to help tutor one another and facilitate classes for the general population. Credit must also be given to President Obama, as he reinstated the Pell Grant system for prisoners, and to Betsy De Vos who expanded the program. This allowed Jackson Community College and Montcalm Community College to begin teaching classes at several different facilities. The MDOC's most significant improvement related to education is its increased spending on vocational programs at MTU and Parnell. These programs teach prisoners marketable skills related to Carpentry, Computer Numerical Control (CNC machine shop), Plumbing, Welding, Automotive Repair, and Electrical. Until these classes were developed, pursuing a vocational trade while incarcerated in Michigan was slowly becoming a nearly impossible task.
Any comments, questions, or criticisms of my articles are welcomed. These can be addressed to me at the address below. Thank you for your time.
 Officials should have to demonstrate that a program threatens the facilities' security in order to reject it. As it currently stands, they deny these requests with little explanation. This lack of transparency breeds suspicion.
 A privately funded Bachelor's Degree program designed to transform the prison culture by training long term prisoners to become teachers and mentors
 For confidentiality purposes, I am not disclosing his name for fear that the MDOC will further retaliate against him.
 PBF - an organization established throughout Michigan prisons, which pays for recreational equipment, cable bills, and other related activities. Prisoners buy hygiene and food items through Keefe at marked up rates (up to 50% or more), some of which goes to the PBF. While this money is supposed to be the prisoners', the institution has 100% control of how it is spent, and it is often used to fund security related issues, like the envelopes that are necessary to carry out the MDOC's new mail policy (they destroy all of the incoming envelopes from the prisoner's incoming mail, and send the letters to prisoners in new envelopes). See PD 05.03.118
Daniel Pirkel [ID]
Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility
1728 West Bluewater Highway
Ionia, Mi. 48846
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