By Ruth Bruno
While prison is not the typical place to earn a high school diploma, students of the Unified School District are finding the guidance and hope they would find in a common classroom.
The district operates across 15 different Connecticut prisons and is open to any imprisoned young adult under the age of 22 as well as older adults with a record of good behavior within the prison.
Connie Haskins, who has been working as a teacher in the Connecticut Department of Correction for 21 years, says that most of her work in the facilities is equipping students to thrive once they are released.
“It’s so hard to find a job once you’re out of prison,” says Haskins. “That’s why we teach these re-entry classes.” In addition to GED classes, Haskins teaches students to write their own resumes, answer interview questions from potential employees, and apply to community colleges.
“We are trying to take individuals and make them into productive citizens,” says Kim Holley, who has served as acting superintendent of the school district since 2012. “We try to give them educational services that will help them get to that point. It’s not only academic and vocational but life skills and social skills.”
Some of these “life skill” classes include parenting and transitioning tactics to help formerly incarcerated citizens adapt to life once they are out of prison. For those who would like to develop vocational skills, training classes are offered in various trades including computer repair, cosmetology, auto body technology, and culinary arts. In 2013 alone, the school district awarded 2,333 vocational trade certificates and 574 GED diplomas. Perhaps more importantly, the school district provides students with an incentive to set goals beyond prison and eventually achieve them.
“We try to give them the right life skills to go along with it, because they have to have the right mindset, the right work ethic. It’s very difficult for some of these guys to go home,” says Holley.
Oftentimes, teachers see transformations over the course of the program itself.
“I was a teacher and I’ve seen students who come in and don’t want anything to do with the school. Then they end up getting their GED and they’re thrilled. Every inmate is different and not every student has education as a priority right now,” says Holley, noting that there are instances when incoming students are dealing with mental health or familial issues that often distract them from the classroom. “But we see a lot of successful students. I see the difference.”
Haskins says she also sees the difference, which is what drives her to continue her work with the students. “Because I’m a re-entry teacher I get contacted by students who are now out and will let you know that they are employed and doing well. They’ll say ‘Hey I remember starting off in your class,’ and that’s when you know how that impact has taken place.”
Despite the success of the education programs, over recent years the budget of the school district has shrunk. With the state budget cuts implemented under Governor Dannel Malloy this year, the district’s funds will be punctured even further. State grants are currently covering all programming costs and the district’s approximate $1 million budget is paying the salaries of its 170 certified instructors.
“We get very little state funding. It gets a little more difficult every year, but we’ll continue to teach with what we have; we just may not be able to replace older supplies and new books. We keep rolling with the punches and making it work,” says Holley.
For Haskins, the difficulties that arise from teaching in a correctional facility are not only budget-based but rather stem out of state laws that prohibit the use of certain technology. Under Connecticut state law, imprisoned students are not granted access to the Internet; which means Haskins must rely solely on the textbooks provided to her.
“A lot of teachable moments are completely lost,” says Haskins. “I can’t pull up a video to show everyone. I can’t use technology and smartboards the way other teachers can. I’m used to doing more with less.”
For Holley, the continued funding of the school district is a way to keep citizens out of prison, and despite the cost, she feels the expense of the absence of education is far greater.
A 2013 study conducted by the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation revealed that an incarcerated person who participates in educational programs is 43 percent less likely to become a repeat offender than those who did not receive educational resources while imprisoned.
“90 percent of these inmates are going to go home,” says Holley. “If we put them back where they came from without improving any of their skills, then all we’re doing is making our communities less safe and costing us a lot more money. Re-education is helping them not come back.”