I Am Not What I Once Was
By Casey Coughlin
“We are a paradoxical nation, enormously charitable and stubbornly unforgiving. We have called into existence the prisons we wanted. I am less and less convinced they are the prisons we need.” –Wally Lamb, I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself
During my tour of the Women’s Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT I had the opportunity to see their educational facility. Their head of Education lead the tour; a squat man with a balding head. He talked to us about the “girls” and their lack of education. He told us they have two elementary classrooms and stopped at one to tell us that not many make it through their GED. The classes are taught by other inmates and as our group huddled on the outside of a large picture window, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at a zoo. Students slowly scratched at their workbooks while a lesson on verbs was being scribed on the chalkboard. They nervously glanced at the window as we stared in at them.
A few months later, I walk through metal detectors, long winding halls and doors that slowly move open upon approach at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT. Guided by Andreus, who introduces himself to everyone as being from “central office,” I am eager to see what York has to offer its inmates. He leads me to the annex, where we wait for permission to access the school. We stand near a fan and Andreu asks, “Can you smell that?” Unsure of how to respond I nod, “fresh air?”
“Nope, that’s the smell of so many people living so close together.” I do smell it, a mixture of linoleum, cement, cleaning agents and skin. It hangs in the air. We are met in the annex by Mary Greaney, Principal of York Correctional Institution’s School. The CO in the annex nods and Mary escorts us through glass doors and into a hallway. We pass her office immediately to our right, and she asks what I want to see.
She and Andreus laugh, but honor my request and we continue traveling. Natural light pours in through skylights above us. Colorful murals distract the eye from the continuum of white.
The school serves around 200 students at any given time; York’s population itself hovers around 1,100. Mary Greany tells me she works to allow any woman wanting to earn her GED or High School Diploma the opportunity to do so and there is usually only a short waiting list for the academic classes. The vocational classes, however, have a significant wait time due to their high demand and mandatory hour requirements. The average starting grade level for the women working towards their GED is sixth grade.
Aside from the traditional GED classes, York offers a magnitude of unique programs most being operated by dedicated volunteers. Three Rivers Community College runs a few courses each semester. Students from Wesleyan University tutor and hold book clubs. Short art and movement programs are frequently offered. Renowned Connecticut author Wally Lamb teaches a writers workshop.
Our tour stops first at Mr. Robinson’s math class. He welcomes us in and I am introduced. The classroom is long and narrow, scattered with desks. Half the women ignore our presence, keeping their heads in their workbooks. Others gladly abandon their work to examine their distraction. I smile at them and clutch my pad and pen; trying to scribble notes and be polite at the same time. “Feel free to ask them any questions you have.” Mr. Robinson says, I take a half breath and Mary Greaney interrupts, “Well we were just taking a quick tour, sorry for the interruption Mr. Robinson.”
York CI offers a variety of vocational and higher education options for women who have already earned their GED or Diploma. For the students in these programs certification is obtained through the completion of the courses, which ultimately will help them obtain employment after their release. Hospitality, culinary, computer programs and cosmetology are the most popular.
We enter Mr. Green’s hospitality class. It’s spacious and at least 3 times the size of the first math class. The lights are half off and Mr. Green stands by a projector screen displaying the information of a five star hotel somewhere in the mid-west. We interrupt his speech about price variation and Mary plays the introductions again. On the far side of the class a woman stands behind a wooden counter, checking a fellow classmate into “The Mineo Inn.” Mineo is a town in southern Italy, over 4,000 miles from the women in York. Mr. Green explains his unique classroom; book work in the front, mock front desk in the middle, and housekeeping in the rear. They learn everything from customer service to commercial cleaning and at the end can earn certificates in hospitality from START and The Educational Institute.
The Culinary classroom resembles the hotel. Large space, windows, energetic teacher, engaged students. Here the certificate offered is very valuable. It’s called Serv Safe and every food operation must have an employee on staff that possesses one. Andreus asks the teacher about the differences in dinner rolls and I watch the women cleaning the deli slicer. There is no charge consideration when determining admittance into any of the vocational classes. All they need to qualify is a completed GED and good behavior.
Mary’s staff consists of 25 members (18 teachers and 7 support staff). She herself has spent 22 years with the DOC. Out of college she worked at a runaway house, followed by years as a school psychologist, which is how she started in the prison school system. She is warm, yet authoritative, similar to any other high school’s principal. I ask about behavior problems, since I have yet to see any CO’s since leaving the annex. She answers with a definitive no. Each teacher has a beeper which will alert a problem, but she says they rarely are any.
“To be here is a privilege, and for most of these women this is the first time in their lives where they feel successful. If there are any problems they are usually verbal between students, when those occur we handle them with the school psychologist and myself.” She goes on to tell me that most teachers want to teach here because they say they feel it’s a safer environment than public schools.
We crisscross the white hall again and stand behind solid double doors. Mary fishes through her abundant key chain and unlocks it. As we enter there is a drastic change in air. Musk, cement and wet mop is replaced by relaxer, shampoo, and nail polish. A dozen beautician stations clutter the room. Chatter continues despite our presence and Ms. Cirillo is barely visible in all the commotion. I am allowed to wonder amongst the chairs. The women aren’t disturbed at all and continue working despite my interested eyes.
Ms. Cirillo tells me the women pay minimal prices for the services they receive, the money going to keeping the beauty school stocked with products. Sometimes they collect tips and donate them to local charity. Unlike any other vocational skill offered, the women cannot receive a certificate. Because of security, the students are not allowed to handle the chemicals necessary to dye hair; however, upon completion of the 1500 hour course and prison sentence the state gives the student a voucher to pay for the missing color classes, which allows them the opportunity to complete their certification.
We plunge back into the hallway, gratefully escaping the chemical fumes and I’m told that’s all there is. There is still one room I haven’t seen: Wally’s writing workshop. “No one is here today, they only teach on Thursday but you can still see it if you want.” They think I am crazy for insisting on seeing an empty classroom but Mary consents and leads the way. The classroom is empty, with desks in rows- a line of computers in the back. The only noticeable trace of the writing workshop is left written on the white board. “Elements of a story- plot, character development, setting.”
We end the tour with a stop in Mary’s office. It’s almost time for the students to go to lunch and they are trying to keep me out of the way. I ask about the success of educational programs in lowering the recidivism rate and learn that the state is not doing anything to track the correlation between involvement and recidivating. I am miffed. Outside the office door I can see the hall now crowded with women. Mary shrugs off my dismay and instead offers me the school motto. “Nom Sum Qualis Eram,”- “I am Not What I Once Was.”