By Jesse Duthrie
After sitting in the unoccupied waiting room of Mason Youth Institute for a few minutes, reading the flyers for clothing regulations and visitation rules, I’m met by President Tim Colley and director of academic programming Kim Holley. They are young and enthusiastic as we exchange greetings and head towards MYI’s juvenile education facility.
Tim, Kim and I approach the first set of doors that lead to a classroom. Inside is a technical education program: rows of computers are occupied by young men in tan uniforms, a professor stands next to a chalkboard with technical jargon unfamiliar to even me, a relative computer nerd.
Tim explains that this is not part of the high school program, but one of many vocational programs that are offered at MYI. The age range of MYI’s 300 or so inmates goes from fourteen to twenty one. Men who enter MYI with a high school diploma, GED, or earn their diplomas in the facility must enter vocational programs for the remainder of their sentences. The programs range from computer technology, culinary education, automotive education, and so on.
At the end of the hallway, we enter the automotive lab. The lab resembles a Midas more than a classroom. A large wooden table to the right of the entrance is filled with half-dissected alternators. A young man, no older than 20, is putting together a transmission by himself in the corner of the room. The rest of the class stands around a green Saab sedan. The Saab is lifted up about six feet or so, and the engine has been gutted out on nearby tables.
The class is no different than an automotive school. The students go through different skills of automotive mechanics and when they complete all the skills, they are given a certificate that can be used once they leave the facility.
“Even if all they learn is how to do an oil change and replace the brake fluids,” the automotive instructor tells me, “they’ll get a certificate so that when they leave here they can go out and find a job.”
Most of the funding for the vocational programs, as well as for the expansion of the school, has slowed down over the past few years. In a state that already spends over 600 million dollars on incarceration, it’s difficult for MYI to establish greater funding.
“We used to receive more money,” Tim says, “But over the past few years things have really slowed to a halt.”
All inmates at Manson are required to attend school. For those without high school diplomas or GED’s, high school education is mandatory. Each inmate is tested on his math and reading skills upon entry to MYI. They are then entered into class rooms based on their ability and prior education experience. Each day the men must attend eight hours of classes divided only by a lunch break.
Inside the first classroom on the first floor, young men sit at desks, books open, paying close attention to the teacher. The teacher, a casually dressed middle aged women, bounces around the chalkboard, pointing out things on the board and selecting raised hands. The civility is remarkable. There’s no backtalk, no passing of notes.
Each classroom on the first floor is quiet and controlled. There’s little security on the first floor too; a corrections officer passes by every so often.
The classrooms on the second floor are designated for special education classes. Tim explains how some of the men come into MYI with low aptitudes. These men work towards strengthening their basic educational skills.
The students give me apprehensive looks, but say nothing. I’m made fully aware that my presence is foreign and strange.
By the time we finish visiting the second floor, it’s time for roll call. We stand opposite of the large hallway as clusters of inmates stroll through the yellow walkway. The hallway, for the most part, is calm and quiet.
Nationwide studies have shown that there is a direct link to completing a GED during incarceration and the rates or recidivism. On average, a person who completes a GED during incarceration has a five percent less chance of being incarcerated after their original incarceration. Furthermore, the younger the inmate completes their GED, the less of a chance they have of being re-incarcerated.
Amongst the calm atmosphere and positive learning environment, the effectiveness of the education is uncertain. Manson Youth Institution does not track its former students. Therefore, there is no statistical evidence that the education these men receive leads to lower rates of recidivism. To better grasp the effectiveness of the education, an effective tracking system of the ex-offenders could show how the education is or is not working in the long run.
The waiting room is packed when I return to MYI a week later for the fall graduation. Pairs of men and women talk emphatically to one another as they wait for the graduation ceremony to commence.
After passing through the metal detectors, we’re led into the gymnasium where rows of chairs are lined up facing a podium. I grab the pamphlet off my chair and take a seat. While I wait for the graduates to enter the gym, I look at the schedule of events: national anthem, benediction, opening remarks, student speech, receiving of the degrees.
Minus the corrections officers standing beside me, I feel like I’m back in 2006 at my own high school graduation. Yet in 2006 the economy was still in tact; words like recession and crash were abstract. For those of us graduates not going to college, the possibility of finding a steady job was unabated. Now, post-wall street crash, the tightening job market has made finding valuable employment a greater challenge than ever. Even regular high school graduates have difficulty in finding employment.
The men walk in through the back entrance as the spectators stand up and applaud and whistle. They’re dressed in cap and gown, the tassels appropriately hanging on the left side. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background.
Tim Colley, the warden, and the vice-principal all give brief speeches. Before the degrees are handed out, the deputy warden asks Tim if he can say a few words. He fires off a passionate speech. He explains that these men are being given a key today. He likens it to a Mercedes car key or the key of a mansion. He tells the men that owning that key is not enough. “What good is a key,” he says, “if you don’t use it to open the door?”
After a long applause, the diplomas are handed out. One by one the graduates come up to the podium, shake hands with staff, and receive their thick blue degrees. Most of these young men, though trying to remain tough and collected as they walk in front of their peers, crack wide smiles. Their eyes scan the audience for their parents, and when they connect they wave or wink or acknowledge their family.
The middle aged couple next to me, upon hearing the name of their son being called, stand up and cheer loudly. When they sit back down, I notice the mother tearing up. The father hands her a tissue, then pulls one out for himself.
In uproarious applause the final diploma is handed out. Tassels are moved from the left side to the right. The final blessing is given and the ceremony is concluded.
The on looking inmates who’ve come to watch the graduation are escorted back to the facilities, while the graduates are given the opportunity to spend some time with their families as they partake in some desserts created by the culinary program.
Teachers approach the families to say a few words about their sons’ accomplishments in the school. A corrections officer greets a young man and his family sitting nearby me. He tells the family how well behaved their son is. He congratulates the teenage boy, and tells his family they should be proud.
It’s bittersweet when Tim alerts the crowd that the ceremony is finished and it’s time to leave. After hugs and kisses are dispersed, we sit back in our seats for a head count. The graduates, now stripped of their caps and gowns, return to the facility in their tan jumpsuits; their brown colors reminding me that they are inmates. Each brown jumpsuit is a man who made a mistake or followed the wrong path.
But as they leave the gymnasium, blue diplomas tucked under their arms, it’s hard to define them as inmates. They walk erect with smiles across their faces. Their futures are uncertain, as is the society they will one day return to. Some of these men will fall back into a life of crime. Others will prosper using the degrees they’ve earned. As unpredictable as the job market they will return to, so is the fate of the graduates of Manson Youth Institute, Fall 2011.