CMF inmates get chance to turn lives around through education
By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
Providing a high-quality education to offenders has long been a priority of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), as education is vital to finding employment, which is key to never returning to prison.
Educating inmates comes with unique challenges – many people who are incarcerated didn’t finish high school. Some can’t read or write. For many, going to school wasn’t even an option and so things like study habits and note-taking have to be learned from scratch.
For the education team at California Medical Facility (CMF), those challenges are compounded by the institution’s population, many of whom have medical needs some might see as impossible to accommodate.
The teachers and administration have not only met the challenge, they’ve created an educational system in which every student is given the chance to thrive, no matter his situation.
Walking through the classrooms at the Vacaville prison, bright-yellow “Mobility Impaired” vests are a common sight, as are books in Braille, text magnifiers, hearing aids, desks and computers adjusted to fit around wheelchairs or prosthetics, and even American Sign Language interpreters at the ready to relay information to students who cannot hear.
“This program works because the principal and the teachers provide an interpreter for me,” said inmate Othell Watkins, a deaf student who recently completed his Office Services and Related Technology certification, which covers Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet technology skills. “I can ask for help if I’m getting frustrated or struggling. I ask the teacher through an interpreter, so it’s really a three-way communication.”
The California Legislature established CMF in 1955 to provide a centrally located medical/psychiatric institution for men.
Today, CMF houses a General Acute Care Hospital, Correctional Treatment Center, Licensed Elderly Care Unit, in-patient and out-patient psychiatric facilities, a Hospice Unit for terminally ill inmates, general population and other special inmate housing.
Additionally, the Department of State Hospitals operates a licensed Acute Care Psychiatric Hospital and an Intermediate Care Facility at CMF.
“It’s amazing what the staff and teachers do to accommodate all these inmates with different disabilities that impact their ability to learn,” said Warden Robert Fox. “Staff does a great job of making these services available to a complex group of inmates.”
Leading the charge is Principal Fabienne Farmer, who has been at CMF for two years. She and her teachers share the philosophy that in order for the program to work, students must take ownership of their education. Students are encouraged to share what they need to succeed, and to identify problems as they arise.
“When they enter the Education Building, they are no longer inmates or CDCR numbers,” Farmer said. “They become students or ‘employees’ of the Education Department. Our students are empowered to give education at CMF its unique identity. This identity must be born from students’ ideas, aspirations, motivations and dreams.”
Inmate Grant Lycett is a member of CMF’s Student Home Group, similar to a student council. Members liaison between the administration and student body, working to address needs and expand programming. Recent accomplishments include expanding Career Technical Education offerings to include landscaping and horticulture projects, and creating music and visual arts programs designed to encourage inmates to join the growing group of students getting an education at CMF.
“I’m a very strong proponent of education,” said Lycett, who is working on his associate degree through Coastline College. “It’s part of my way of paying back society for the damage I’ve done, and trying to help some of these students break the cycle of coming in and out of prison.”
Teacher David Hudson, Disability Program Placement Coordinator and Chair of Curriculum for CMF, said each student is seen as an opportunity, no matter his need or previous education level.
“You can’t fake this,” he said. “When the student comes in, we believe that there is something that individual has to offer that is great, that he can accomplish something that is really meaningful, and he can rise above.”
“It’s always evolving, and we adapt as we go,” said Career Technical Education teacher Lisa Snedeker. “I have really frank conversations with the students and I say, ‘OK, yesterday was yesterday, today is today, here we are, what do we need to do to help you accomplish your goals?’ And we assess from there.”
CMF’s classrooms feature cutting-edge technology to help students learn, including “smartboards,” which are touch-screen digital white boards that promote student interaction.
CMF is also rolling out an E-reader program in which students will use digital tablets to access textbooks.
The E-readers will come pre-loaded and will be updated by the librarian, as inmates are not allowed Internet access. Not only will the E-readers allow for individual customization, such as changing font sizes for the visually impaired, they are also easily updated so students will have access to the most current information in the subjects they are studying.
Most students at CMF pursue their education while also working at the institution and attending rehabilitative programming. For those students whose schedules don’t fit with classroom time, who need extra study time or who want to brush up on skills rather than formally study a subject, the Voluntary Education Program (VEP) is a great option.
VEP instructors offer informal instruction and tutoring at various times throughout the day. Teacher Greg Pinkernell hosts a VEP session most afternoons, and numerous students gather to study for their GEDs, work on math skills or get help with certain subjects.
“I’m just kind of into the basics, picking up some things, refreshing my memory,” explained Nathan Williams in between helping fellow inmate Terrell Knox study for his GED test. “Me personally, I think all education is important and you should take advantage of it. You never know when you might need it.”
Inmate William Wehr, a dispatch clerk at CMF’s firehouse, said one of the best things about the prison’s education program is its flexibility. He is able to study during his off-work hours thanks to tutors and teacher Michele Baratti, who comes to CMF’s minimum-support facility each evening to work with students.
Wehr, who will go home in March, said he’ll continue taking classes to get his AA degree, as the credits he has earned in prison are transferable to community colleges. Wehr said getting an education in prison helped him “get his mind right” and made him realize not only is he still able to learn at 53 years old, his success has inspired others to crack open the books.
“In this environment, no one wants to stand alone,” he said. “It’s a pack mentality, so when you get an individual who is fed up with his current situation and wants to better himself, and takes a chance with education and succeeds, other people see that.”
Students entering the program range from those just learning how to read and write to those with advanced degrees.
Inmate J. Roughton, who speaks several languages and has two master’s degrees, wears many hats in CMF’s education program. He’s a clerk, a tutor and an “all-around assistant.” He’s been tutoring for 20 years, and said that what makes CMF work is the adaptability and patience of the teachers and tutors.
“We’ll go over something with them 10 times until they understand it,” he explained. “When glow comes over their face when they read something for the first time – that’s why I do what I do. That’s why all these people do what they do.”