Instructors work around hurdles to educate inmates
By Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer
Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is reserved for the most serious of California’s offenders. It’s a level four facility with one half of the prison housing maximum-security inmates in a general population setting and the other half housed in segregation such as the Security Housing Unit (SHU) or Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) designed for violent inmates and prison gang members and leaders. None of this, however, means the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) isn’t doing an incredible job of improving the lives of the inmates in one of California’s most notorious prisons.
The Tsunami Adult School operates inside PBSP under Principal Janice Nelson, who has more than 16 years of correctional education experience. She leads a team of educators dedicated to helping these inmates get an education.
First, every inmate in CDCR is given an Adult Basic Education assessment to determine his or her reading level. The inmate may fall in one of four categories, the first being Adult Basic Education (ABE) I for those who read between a zero and 3.9 grade reading level, ABE II for those reading at a fourth to 6.9 grade level, and ABE III for those who read between a seventh and 8.9 grade level. All others who read above a ninth-grade level can work to obtain either their high school diploma or general education degree (GED).
For the academically low-functioning, PBSP’s Tsunami Adult School offers the Alternative Program (AP) classes. Due to the intensive nature, the class sizes are only around 54 students and most of the teachers call in their students in two groups per day. Most teachers group their students by ability or subject area depending on the needs of the student.
Then there is the Voluntary Education Program (VEP) for which instruction is largely provided via distance learning and video programs. This is how PBSP is able to reach segregated populations such as those in the SHU and ASU. This same program also works well for inmate students who have jobs such as kitchen workers and landscapers who want to complete their high school diploma or GED but work during the day. There are currently six VEP teachers at PBSP with one solely dedicated to college students.
PBSP’s newest education program is inside the Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP). The EOP is reserved for mentally ill inmates, particularly those suffering from psychotic disorders. Due to the extreme increased needs of these inmate-students, the class sizes are typically less than half of the AP courses.
Obtaining a high school diploma takes a lot more work than it takes to obtain a GED. To get a high school diploma students need at least 130 hours of course credit, which isn’t needed to obtain a GED. However, some inmate-students are set on getting their high school diploma despite the extra hurdles.
Recent changes to rules for GED testing made it mandatory to take the test via computer. This presents a unique challenge, especially for a maximum-security institution like PBSP. Currently, inmate students at PBSP must take a computer literacy course before being allowed to take the GED test. Certain inmates, like those in the SHU or ASU, cannot access computers due to security issues.
While access to computers may pose a hindrance for GED testing, requiring inmates to take the computer literacy course is actually proving to be a positive experience, according to those involved.
“In the computer class, inmates will sit next to each other and help each other,” one PBSP correctional officer said. “They may not necessarily do that on the yard given prison politics.”
If the inmate-student has already obtained a high school diploma or GED, then teachers at PBSP can help them enroll in college courses to earn either certificates, Associates or Bachelors degrees.
In order to enroll in college courses, the inmate student must first decide in which college he wishes to enroll and figure out how he is going to pay for the education. College education for inmates is not funded by CDCR. Inmate students must request fee waivers or coordinate with friends/family members to pay for tuition and the cost of the textbooks.
If the inmate student decides on a college and can pay the costs, then PBSP’s College Coordinator works to enroll the student in the school, typically on a first-come, first-served basis.
Currently at PBSP, there are two students enrolled in Ohio State, 37 in Coastline Community College, 35 at Feather River Community College and next semester there will 32 attending Lassen Community College.
On March 19, there were five inmate-students housed in the SHU who were taking their college mid-terms via Feather River Community College.
Again, all courses are taught via distance learning models, but that may soon change thanks to Senate Bill (SB) 1391.
The passage of SB 1391, authored by State Senator Loni Hancock last year, provided CDCR the ability to contract with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to create and support at least four pilot sites, still to be determined, to allow inmate students to earn college credits and have access to college counseling, placement and disability support services. College professors may now teach college courses inside state prisons and receive compensation like they were teaching the class to the public.
PBSP doesn’t currently have an agreement with the local community college, College of the Redwoods, but PBSP VEP College Coordinator Kari Telaro is hoping this will change in the near future.
“I hope inmates will be able to have the traditional learning experience and be together instead of teaching at this individual level,” Telaro said. “We realize that with this being Pelican Bay and the level of inmate we house it may not be as possible as other prisons, but we’ll try.”
There is currently more than 200 people on a waiting list to enroll in Feather River which completely comps inmates’ tuition and textbooks. Lassen Community College comps inmates’ tuition but the inmate must pay for his textbooks. Coastline Community College requires inmates to pay for both tuition and textbooks.
PBSP’s Education staff are in discussions to begin a college textbook lending program where inmates who have previously bought the textbook for a course may donate it to the lending program to allow other inmates to avoid paying the cost.
Due to the unique qualities of PBSP, such as level of violence, heavy fog, frequent modified programs, etc., the education staff have had to rely on creative ways to reach and educate students. Despite the constant hurdles the staff must overcome to motivate the inmate-students to complete their requirements, it’s working. Last year, 120 inmates graduated with their GEDs and so far this year 50 have graduated.
When asked about their secret to success, PBSP Testing Coordinator Corrine Thogmartin said, “(It’s due to) dedicated teachers who love to teach, thinking outside the box to ensure education is continuously delivered despite all outside factors, and working with custody. We sure appreciate those who assist in getting our students to us and keeping us all safe.”