Is it time to buy into “There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” Matthew 13:42?
After the tears, the remorse, the wailing, the whatever-and remembers it’s not good to gnash teeth- it’s time to say, “How can I or he/she use this time to my or his/her best advantage?”
Or maybe you or the person in jail is not yet ready to ask that question, much less answer it? And maybe the question will come on that proverbial twelfth of Never.
When I left Southeast Community College as president, I became head of Lee College in Texas. I think one of the reasons I was hired, in addition to my very positive experiences at Southeast, was because Lee College runs the largest college prison program in Texas, and I brought valuable experience to the position from having taught and advised inmates at the largest prison for women in Ohio.
You might ask why in this world would a woman with any intelligence want to teach college courses to jailbirds, cons, yard birds, losers. My young sons expressed fear about my taking on the job, which I certainly was not required to do at the college where I was a professor, and I was apprehensive myself.
Apprehensive until one of the inmates in the creative writing class I taught blurted out on the first day, “Just how old are you?” When I told her, she said, “D—-, you look good for your age.” We all laughed, the ice was broken, and those women wrote poetry and stories that sometimes shocked me but always informed me.
I saw these inmates as women, as students, and in my three years of teaching there before coming to Southeast as academic dean, I entered a realm that few have the privilege to enter. Yes, I made mistakes in terms of prison protocol, rules and regulations. I was called on the carpet a few times and had to make amends with the superintendent of the prison by writing a handbook on the dos and don’ts for faculty when working inside the “razor wire.” My sense of the world, however, was enlarged immeasurably by my work with these student inmates.
They were excellent students. Yes, you say, they would be because they had plenty of free time to study. Yes, but they were also excellent students because they were motivated. They were proud to be college students and to be doing something positive with their lives.
So let’s go back to Texas. Today I received the first edition of “Second Chance,” a publication devoted solely to the Lee College program at the prison units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (the Texas lockup, the places where convicts are executed with Texas claiming the most executions in the nation virtually every year).
When I was president of Lee College from 1986-91, I was admonished to keep quiet about the program because community members would be outraged if they knew tax dollars were being spent on a free education for felons when they were paying their hard-earned money for their children to attend college.
As I read every word of Second Chance and examined the pictures carefully (I knew 75% of those featured in the photographs), I was dismayed to learn that enrolment in the program is down to 700 students because of cutbacks from the state and the federal government. I also learned that Associate of Arts degrees are no longer offered, only Associate of Applied Science degrees and certificates that might lead to employment upon the inmates’ release. Some Texas colleges have abandoned their prison programs altogether, but Lee College has soldiered on since 1967 because of a belief in the potential of education to transform lives.
Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you will, but there are several reasons why educating inmates is the right thing, the responsible thing. The graduation ceremony each year of these men is always held at the Chapel of the Prodigal Son. How fitting to reinforce the idea that redemption is possible! Lee College Dean Donna Zuniga indicates that “only 10 percent of offenders with a college degree will return to prison a second time, a far cry from the 60 percent return from offenders who do not have a degree.”
Do you as tax payers want your dollars spent on constructing prison, employing the personnel to run them, and feeding/clothing and housing the men and women offenders who live there? I don’t.
If paying for a couple of years of college can give these felons the skills to get a job, support their families (so we don’t have to), and pay taxes, is it a good fiscal deal?
You might say, “Just put the juice to ‘em and send ‘em straight to hell.” Thank the Good Lord and our Founding Fathers, that’s not how we do things in the USA.
To be continued…