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2010 July 27 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: College Students Gain Valuable Lessons from Inmate Education

BORDENTOWN, N.J. (AP) — Parents of some area college students are beginning to hear a declaration they may not have heard from their children before: “I’m going to prison now.”

Facing budget cuts and simultaneous mandates for increased educational offerings to New Jersey’s prison population, institutions such as the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility have opened their doors to volunteer college students and professors to provide instruction to inmates.

DOC spokesman Matt Schuman said that due to staff cuts, there will be 67 fewer positions department-wide in 2011, including recreation employees, teaching assistants, non-tenured teachers and vocational instructors. As a result, there’s an increased need for volunteers — and officials say volunteers have responded.

“We discovered an untapped resource,” said Alfred Kandell, administrator at the Bordentown facility which houses about 1,300 male inmates ranging in age from 18 to 35. “Suddenly, volunteers started coming out of the woodwork.”

On any given day, students and faculty from nearby colleges, as well as members of the Princeton community, can be found at the facility teaching classes, serving as teaching assistants, and tutoring inmates one-on-one in various subjects.

Kandell said about 30 volunteers come to the facility on a regular basis, though the faces change as students get jobs, start internships or take summer vacations.

“These inmates are very isolated. Exposing them to college undergraduates and graduates of the same age ... that interaction turned out to be a positive thing,” Kandell said. “It helps them to at least see that there’s more to life than just guns, drugs, crime.”

Several inmates taking a class with Celia Chazelle, a professor at The College of New Jersey, said taking part in the education program has improved their quality of life behind bars.

“It lets you know that you still have a chance,” said inmate Lamont Baker, 18, who described the classroom experience as rehabilitating. “(Regardless of) all I have been through, I can still better myself.”

Fellow inmate Mark Hopkins, also 18, shared that sentiment.

“It gives me something to do,” he said. “Sometimes I forget I am in jail.”

Chazelle’s class started at the end of May and centers on the Tim O’Brien novel, “The Things They Carried,” as well as several shorter readings on war and American involvement in war. Several of Chazelle’s students serve as teaching assistants and help guide discussions, edit homework and lead discussions of their own.

“I’ve always been interested in social justice and volunteering in my community,” said Marcella Botero, a recent TCNJ graduate and one of Chazelle’s teaching assistants. “I guess it was just a new way to reach out to people who, a lot of times, are neglected.”

In between job hunting and substitute teaching, Botero enjoys visiting the prison each week and looks forward to working with the inmates. Based on her experiences this summer, she’s considering teaching a class of her own, possibly with another friend who volunteers at Wagner.

“I look forward to hearing what the guys will say about what we’re reading,” she said. “It’s very cool to go into a classroom and actually have people who have read the assignment and want to talk about it.”

The program is not Chazelle’s first time working with inmates at A.C. Wagner.

She first became involved in teaching there in 2008 through the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, a Princeton-based organization. She soon decided to teach her own class and has been there ever since.

“I’ve taught for years, but I’ve never taught in an environment like that before,” she said. The “thirst for learning” and “passion that they brought into the classroom” are among the factors that most surprised her about teaching behind bars.

“It was just so different from what I expected,” she said.

Focusing on topics ranging from social justice to prison history, Chazelle has taught several courses at A.C. Wagner, including joint classes with inmates and TCNJ students.

“Some (inmates) actually outperformed their TCNJ classmates,” she said.

Chazelle says her prison work has also changed her perceptions of life in general.

“A lot of my understanding of what is proper and what is improper, what works and what doesn’t, has changed as a result of this,” she said. “To know prisoners as individuals, that was part of the process of rethinking where my priorities were.”

Chazelle’s work is also part of a larger goal.

“There are so many studies that show that if there is anything that reduces recidivism, it’s education,” she said.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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