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Prison Drama

Teachers report to prisons and juvenile detention centers every day in the hope of improving the lives of their student-inmates, some of whom will never again live outside prison walls.

By John Rosales

Nancy Ahlquist never crosses the yellow line painted an inch wide on the concrete floor of her classroom.

On one side is her whiteboard, desk, chair, and supply cart. On the other are her students—adult male convicts who have committed crimes ranging from kidnapping and armed robbery to rape and murder. Some are serving life sentences without parole. Others are on death row. All are felony criminals at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a maximum security prison in Youngstown.

Most of the 530 inmates at OSP can’t add or spell very well and read at a seventh-grade level. Yet there are eager learners among them who will spend years striving to earn a GED.

Inmates are escorted by a guard from their cells to class, one at a time. Some are in handcuffs and shackles, which are removed only after they enter the 4-by-4-foot cells with prominent locks, desktops welded to the bars, and low stools bolted to the floor.

It’s surprising to find the affable Ahlquist teaching math and reading to grim-faced convicts. “I’m rewarded when they learn from me, just like any teacher,” she says. But educators in this environment need “life experience and maturity under their belts,” Ahlquist cautions. “I wouldn’t recommend this job to a teacher fresh out of college.” 

Another key to survival is not asking about the crimes that inmates have committed. A guard once let slip to Ahlquist that a new student was the person who had recently raped a 5-year-old girl and thrown her body out of a third-story window.

“I had to go to class and work with this person in five minutes,” she says. “I’d rather not know what they’ve done.”

About 15,000 correctional educators serve the country’s prisons and juvenile detention centers. Many started their careers in public schools. For Ahlquist, finding a full-time position in Youngstown schools was impossible following the decline of the area’s steel industry in the 1980s. She got by on substitute teaching for 10 years.

Longing for job security, in 1997 she took a position at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center and later switched to OSP because it offered a solid family medical plan and union protection through the Ohio Education Association (OEA) and the State Council of Professional Educators (SCOPE).

Before reporting to work at a state prison, teachers attend the Ohio Corrections Training Academy. There, they learn about criminal behavior and go through the same physical training in unarmed self-defense as prison guards. “I know how to take a punch,” Ahlquist says. “But I wouldn’t want to.” One Ohio teacher is currently recovering from reconstructive facial surgery after being punched by an inmate.

When she first arrived at OSP, Ahlquist had to figure out how education fit into her students’ lives. “Most have low self-esteem,” she says. “They have always failed and have a negative perception of school.”

All incoming inmates are enrolled in an education program if they don’t have a high school diploma or GED. Even those sentenced to life without parole or death row sometimes work toward a GED, often to show restitution and be better role models for their children and grandchildren, Ahlquist says.

In addition to GED lessons, the system provides inmates with adult literacy education, apprenticeship training, library services, special education, vocational education, and other programs. Some inmates even pay for college correspondence courses, says Ahlquist, who monitors the exams of those pursuing college degrees.

But most inmates are playing catch-up when it comes to school. In Ohio, approximately 30 percent of incarcerated males and 20 percent of females read at less than a sixth-grade level and are considered functionally illiterate. Nationally, about 80 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts.

Whether teaching or learning, studying can be a challenge with controlled locks clanging open and shut, electric gates whirring, alarms blaring—all echoing through the corridors. The harsh fluorescent lighting makes such a glare that inmates have trouble seeing the whiteboard.

Nancy Ahlquist stands in one of her classroom areas at the Ohio State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison that offers GEDs to death row inmates.

“In spite of this environment, my students are learning,” says Ahlquist, who speaks in an earnest, deliberate tone and likes to open her classes with a hearty, “good morning, gentlemen.”

While the prisoner recidivism rate is 60 percent in Ohio and most states, Ahlquist says this figure could be reduced through more prison education programs.

“The more educated they are, the less likely they will return to prison,” she says. “There is a direct correlation.” 

Not all Ohio inmates are adults. At the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility, Stephanie Rippy is explaining Romeo and Juliet to her 10 male students. None seem overly interested in Shakespeare’s tragic story. When Rippy calls on one student to read from his text, he says he has a headache and doesn’t “feel like it.” Another student volunteers.

“They arrive here at different levels, usually very low,” says Rippy, one of 28 teachers at the all-male detention center, located in a Cleveland suburb. “Some kids who come here are illiterate.” The students perform below grade level, she says, simply “because they didn’t go to school. They have the intelligence but not the discipline.”

Gracious and even-tempered, Rippy has worked with all types of students during her 20 years at Cuyahoga. She started there as a teacher’s aide while earning her certification credential doing field work at local junior high and high schools. After experiencing large classes, disrespectful students, and the overall frenzy of Cleveland public schools, she decided to stick with correctional education, with her average class size of 16 students and single-sex environment.

The state’s eight juvenile facilities operate year-round schools that employ more than 200 teachers, education support professionals, and administrators. Almost half of the teaching staff have a master’s degree, including Rippy. All Cuyahoga inmates are enrolled at Luther E. Ball High School, a fully accredited school located inside the facility. It is part of a school district offering a core curriculum, electives, student assessment and testing, guidance, and library services. Special education and supplemental intervention services are also provided, all to help prepare students for the Ohio Graduation Test or the GED.

While some students return home to graduate, others opt to take the GED while incarcerated; Cuyahoga awards about 360 GEDs each year.

Unlike Ahlquist, who may work with an inmate over a period of years, Rippy’s student body is in constant transition. Cuyahoga houses roughly 385 offenders—serving time for drugs, stealing, vehicular homicide, and sex-related offenses—and the average stay is just seven months.

Rippy, Ahlquist, and other correctional educators share a common goal in the education of adult and juvenile inmates: to instill a value for education where none exists. “I try to get them to see that education is a personal thing,” says Rippy. “Once obtained, no one can take it away.”

The U.S. correctional education system, supported by local, state, and federal funds, has no school boards, local bargaining contracts, or regular school calendar. But like typical public schools, there are work schedules, pay scales, superintendents, and a statewide bargaining contract.

Ahlquist works year-round—11 weeks on, two weeks off. Her salary is comparable to what other public school teachers earn in Ohio. And like all educators, her job comes with tedious paperwork, administrative chores, and workplace issues to discuss with managers.

Her workweek begins at 8 a.m. on Mondays with a two-hour GED course. She often opens with a motivational reading and is careful to ask open-ended questions. “I encourage critical thinking and active listening,” she says. “It promotes maturity and might even contribute to an increase in self-control.”

Since there are no grades, report cards, or time limit on how long it takes students to complete the GED program, student success often depends on self-discipline. It can take years for an incarcerated student to pass the GED. Inmates are not allowed access to computers, cell phones, or CD players. In their cells, some are permitted a limited number of books, paper, and golf pencils—pencils with erasers are too easily turned into weapons.

Student progress is marked through testing and evaluation. The main stumbling block, says Ahlquist, is absenteeism. “They’re always doing legal research to get their cases dismissed, though I don’t know of any that have ever succeeded,” she says.

A few days each week, Ahlquist teaches in different classrooms, where there are no yellow bands dividing teacher from inmate. Only nonviolent inmates who’ve shown exemplary behavior—usually those not affiliated with one of the prison’s established gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Crips, or Bloods—are allowed to attend these classes.

On Tuesdays, Ahlquist works in the computer room to teach soon-to-be-released prisoners programming and Web page design.

She teaches another group lessons from the Employment Readiness Program, which covers job interviewing, résumé writing, personal goal-setting, and self-management skills. Inmates who’ve served up to 30 years prepare with Ahlquist for their release from prison.

“If they don’t help these people to be productive when they get out, they’ll be right back,” she says.

In June, 25 of these inmates were awarded GEDs in a cap and gown commencement complete with guests and cake. In a separate ceremony, 10 maximum-security inmates received their GEDs, though they were not allowed guests. In total, 65 GEDs were awarded during the 2006-07 school year.

Recently, Ahlquist ran into a former prisoner, who greeted her with open arms and an ear-to-ear smile. She had helped him get his GED several years earlier. He was now married, working for a tile company, and thinking about buying a house.

“When he introduced me to his wife and kids, he said, ‘Without Mrs. Ahlquist I could never have done what I’ve done,’” Ahlquist says. “That’s why I teach at a prison.” 

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Nancy Ahlquist is a site representative for Ohio’s State Council of Professional Educators (SCOPE), whose 725 members also belong to OEA and NEA. SCOPE is the bargaining unit that represents non-exempt state employees from 11 agencies involved in education and library services. The majority are teachers. Ahlquist’s Ohio State Penitentiary local includes three teachers, a counselor, job coordinator, and librarian. SCOPE receives legal services, group benefits, and collective organizational strength from OEA and NEA.

The Correctional Education Association, an affiliate of the American Correctional Association, is a non-profit serving educators and administrators who work in correctional settings. Founded in 1945, it has about 3,000 members. Though not affiliated with NEA, many correctional educators belong to both organizations.