Friday, June 11th in the Quad City Times newspaper, Kurt Erickson of the “Times” Bureau out of Springfield reported that the computer education program for prison inmates was being cut because ex-convicts who graduated in the field couldn’t get jobs. The article went on to say that the program operated at 11 state prisons in Illinois with the assistance of community college instructors. A five-year review of how the inmates fared in getting jobs after graduating from the program found that they were not getting hired, so the program was axed.
Another such joint program was one in business management, which had 900 inmates participate in the most recent round of classes. These classes seem to have been offered on-site, as 19 instructors were being displaced, but those instructors were told they could bid for other prison education jobs.
The fact is that ex-convicts are actively recruited for entrance into Eastern Iowa Community College in the Iowa Quad Cities, for example. At least one such community college cited in this article—Southeastern Illinois—has announced that it is halting its prison education programs because the state of Illinois is so late in reimbursing the institution for the work it has previously provided.
The article went on to say, “Community colleges provide many different classes for inmates, ranging from automotive repair to horticulture.” I can attest to this, having taught primarily students who were enrolled in automotive repair, HVAC programs, culinary arts programs or sign language.
The problem I perceived was that instructors were never provided any information about the enrolled ex-convict’s presence in their class. I realize that privacy issues and privacy policies (that often out-rule common sense) have come to dominate on the community college front, but it seems that the instructor, at least, should have the right to know that a student enrolled in his or her class has just been released from prison. This needn’t be knowledge the entire class possesses, but the instructor deserves to know.
This past history of violence, in some cases, can become a very real problem for the instructor and/or for the rest of the class, as it did for me when I had just such an ex-convict who enrolled (late) in one of my classes. I only found out that he was an ex-convict because he told me, in great detail, about the robbery he had committed. Among other problems this individual faced, he was an alcoholic with a device affixed to his vehicle to monitor his driving because of a DUI citation.
My class taught students how to put together a resume and how to interview for a job, skills that would certainly be beneficial for anyone and no less useful for ex-convicts. After my class had met four times, this particular student came straggling into the office, and I was pointed out as the instructor.
I sat down and attempted to fill him in on all missed work (we only met about 28 times, so 4 absences was quite a lot of missed time for a “late” enrollment). He talked non-stop about robbing his father’s place of employment after-hours, justifying the theft by saying he only wanted the money to go visit his mother in Florida, who had abandoned him when he was eight.
Those sad stories aside, he shared the news of his young daughter, (whom, I later learned, he used to blow into his DUI device so that he could drive drunk to class.) It seems it was her birthday that day. I tried very hard to be encouraging and sympathetic to both this student and others whom I learned, only by accident, were ex-convicts and enrolled in my classes.
The DUI student only came to class once. We were working on resumes in a room that I had reserved which was to have a computer for each student, but there had been some sort of screw-up and we were assigned to a room where the computers were specially designed for a court-reporting class and did not work for “regular” computer work. This student sat in the back of the room being loud and unruly and his blue language caused 3 other class members to come to me and complain after class (I was up front at the blackboard, trying to give instructions while he was drowning out the instruction and using “f” bombs every other word.)
After that, we never again saw the student in the class. I set about arranging the interviews I always arranged with my former Chamber of Commerce contacts (some of whom at the local auto plazas actually gave jobs to the students they interviewed.) The interview was approximately ½ of the student’s grade, but the missing ex-convict had never returned to class to find out when he was assigned to be interviewed (interviews were also filmed for later critique.)
When it came time to “write a memo,” the class and I wrote a very bland memo that simply said “To: John Doe. From: (my name). Re: Your Interview.” It then filled in the time, day and date of the arranged interview, noting that the interview was 50% of the student’s grade.
The student-in-question, the ex-convict who had been recruited by an African American administrator known as the administration’s “hatchet woman,”a very unpleasant lady with a bald spot the size of a dinner plate and the personality of a piranha…rather than viewing the informative memo(s) as doing Mr. DUI a favor in trying to salvage his grade, said that he had lodged a complaint that he had been sent the memo(s). The hatchet woman, (who bore a grudge against me for the alleged sins of my successor at the Sylvan Learning Center I had sold 2 years previously, whom she felt did not do a good enough job with her niece for a sum of money that she paid) was complained to.
For my part, the student in question showed up again only on the day of the final as it was ending (having missed the interview and all other classes and having only been seen once, in person), entered my classroom (no security at all in the entire building, but a sign posted by the copy machine that read “If you are assaulted, call the Sheriff,” with a phone number) and threatened to kill me. He reeked of booze, and his fellow classmates told me that, thanks to his young daughter, he would have her breathe into his DUI device so that he could drive to campus each morning.
The bell was ringing just as the ex-convict’s threat came, and all of us, me included, exited to the busy hallways ASAP, although it was well-known that no security personnel existed to assist any of us, student or teacher.
For my part, I tried to remain calm and I suggested to the ex-convict that we both go to the Dean’s office together to discuss his concerns. I already had a meeting scheduled about an hour after this to discuss whether it was “ethical” to be required to turn over my Final Exam, in advance, to the various assigned “tutors” for these students, many of whom could not read or could not read at the level necessary for college instruction.
It had come to my attention that the entire exam was being spoon-fed to some of the students by some of the tutors (not all, but some), and the regular students in my class—-kids fresh out of high school, not fresh out of prison—were justifiably upset that they didn’t get this unfair “break.”
As luck would have it, the drunk ex-convict’s advisor was in the hallway, saw him, and escorted him from the building, thereby sparing me a knifing, beating or worse. I spent the rest of the semester trying to find out if that student was still on campus and was coming back, had been expelled, what? No one would tell me (the instructor) what disciplinary action (if any) had been taken against the ex-convict in the auto body repair program. I was told to just drop it.
Despite some serious PTSD from the death threat that day, I did keep my appointment one hour later, where the large African-American administrator poked her finger into my chest and back-marched me around an office in full view of several other college employees (the tutors), who apparently felt that a death threat to an instructor from a student who had never attended class was justified, while a memo that he needed to be present for a scheduled interview that was 50% of his grade was not.
I am sympathetic to the many government-sponsored programs to assist ex-convicts who are leaving prison and need further training to find jobs, and so is the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group that has raised red flags about cuts to prison education programs. However, I am more sympathetic to the “regular, normal” students and teachers in that community college who are never ever given even so much as a private “heads up” to the danger(s) that may lurk within their classroom.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if you were either (a) one of the regular, normal 18-year-old high school graduates sitting next to such ex-cons, not being given the “tutor” treatment that involved advance knowledge of all test questions on a test and/or the threat the seatmate next to you could potentially pose (especially if drunk at the time)? (b) the instructor, fending off death threats from a drunk ex-convict who wanders into your classroom for only the second time all year.
And, last but not least, when do “privacy laws” allow for some protection for that instructor and those students, and what gives an out-of-control administrator the right to physically assault (poking with one’s finger is assault) a hard-working professor with the highest satisfaction marks of any on the faculty, simply because her niece didn’t do well in a reading improvement program that that individual had set up 20 years previously but had not been affiliated with for over 4 years?
Some further investigation of the effects of these government-sponsored classes should be made. Are these students really “college competent?” Is their reading level up to the standards that college work…even junior college work…requires?
Following the near-assault by a student and the actual assault, verbal and physical, by an administrator, I went to the office to take the sign that said, “If you are assaulted, call the Sheriff” as proof of the lax security, and….surprise!…it had been taken down. (There were still no security officers employed for the rest of that year, but we had the number that might have helped us get help taken from us.)
I’ve been told that now (after the Northern Illinois University shootings that followed) this college employs security guards, but I don’t know if that is true. I do know that the Illinois institution that it most resembles in this area has always had a security force, and I was very surprised to learn that the Iowa one did not think that the expense was justified.
In my own case, since I could never get a straight answer as to what had been done to discipline the ex-convict DUI student, I had volunteer male members of my class (who offered, unbidden) escort me to and from my automobile for the rest of the semester. This begged the question of my brand-new car sitting in the parking lot all day, potential prey to a guy with major-league problems and a possible unjustified grudge.
This is why I am not that crushed to hear that the computer and business management classes paid for by government dollars for ex-convicts may be diminishing. Our tax dollars at work, Folks. The inmates now run the asylum in a lot of places.
Source: Quad City Times, June 11, 2010, “Illinois Cuts Computer Classes for Prisoners” by Kurt Erickson, p. A7