Frustrations of Peer-to-Peer Education in Prisons

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The Public i is partnering with the Education Justice Project (EJP) to share writing by incarcerated students at the Danville Correctional Center. The EJP is a comprehensive college-in-prison program based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Through its educational programming EJP enriches the lives of its students, their families, and the communities to which they return.

I sit at a rundown table that has its seats welded to the floor. It is likely secondhand from a bygone fast-food restaurant. Where the seat backs of the chairs should be attached, there are now just four empty screw holes: a hint at their past and a reminder of their current reality. Since this particular table is now in a state prison, the aforementioned seat backs have been deemed either unnecessary or dangerous.

I’m waiting for a peer that I am set to begin tutoring today to be let out of his cell. We live on a special wing at Danville Correctional Center that is designated for peers to help each other with their education.

Finally, my tutee (yes, that’s the actual word) is allowed out of his cell after I spend five minutes politicking the officer in charge of our wing. The man who approaches me has a large black beard that many might describe as “unkempt.”He’s dressed in the standard-issue blue scrubs provided to those of us incarcerated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). With a tucked-in shirt and pants pulled up above the waistline, he actually looks tidier than most of the rest of my peers I see running around, despite the beard.

His name is Pete (all names changed for anonymity). He looks down eagerly to the stack of math books I have brought to our session and asks what we are going to cover. I spread out the books so he can see all of the titles.

“Well, I was hoping you could tell me what you want to learn, because based on the test you took, you already know the basics from the normal classes we have.”

“I don’t know . . . I was hoping to learn like . . . calculus maybe?” He shrugs a shoulder and raises an open palm, as if choosing calculus was like deciding between soup or salad. We settle on polynomial factoring as well as statistics and probability over the next few weeks.

One day, we’re walking down the gallery towards tables where we can work, and we hear the telltale click that eans the overhead PA system is about to fill the air with authority.

“Upper deck, get ready for chow! Upper deck, get ready for chow!”

We grimace at the announcement, not only because it is loud enough to feel in your bones, but also because that means that our tutoring session is over before it even started. If we don’t line up and go to the dietary building, we won’t get to eat.

Pete heaves a great sigh. “Of course.” I can see manic sarcasm creeping onto his face. “Every damn time. All we get’s once a week, and this shit seems to happen more often than not!”

His frustration is not unwarranted. As with most prison programming, we don’t always get enough (or any) time to have a comprehensive session. Sessions are often cancelled because some institutional event takes precedence. Meals, call passes, lockdowns: it runs the gamut.

“It’s not just this, either. I don’t know what the point is anymore. I’ve tried to get into every program they have, and I can’t get into any!”

He fishes a paper out of a folder and hands it to me. It is a request slip he had filled out to sign up for a community college course. I notice a rare response from the institution.

“You are on the wait list. All wait lists are determined by MSR [Mandatory Supervised Release] dates with the earliest MSR dates given the highest priority.”

Poking around in the Law Library led me to Administrative Directives that confirm this is an IDOC policy, across the board.

It jives with what I’ve seen others go through as well.

***

One unfortunate soul I know has been locked up for eight years and has another fifteen to go.He wants to get into school like sunburns want aloe. You can tell his frustration is beginning to blister and peel.

“It’s probably going to be a few years before you’ll be able to get a spot in the college courses, you’ve got too much time left.” I inject as much contrition into the statement as I can.

He shakes his head in disgust. “Ugh. If I can’t get into some program soon, I’m just going to get a disciplinary transfer.”

This guy is willing to do something bad enough to get himself transferred to a different prison because he had become so discouraged. I suppose when you are barred from academic accomplishment, any accomplishment will do. It’s another way to exercise some control over the environment, a perpetual state of grasping for incarcerated individuals.

***

Yet another man I worked with for many months progressed from learning his multiplication tables to wading through the morass of fractions and decimals. Jamal had conquered a great deal, but his reality was different than the two aforementioned individuals. He only had two years left on his sentence and wanted to get his GED. We worked feverishly to try to improve his Test of Adult Basic Education scores so that he could meet the threshold for GED class. Unfortunately, he left the wing due to institutional vagaries, and I was unable to continue tutoring him. I did see him again many months later.

He greeted me with a handshake. “Hey homie! Guess who in school now?” I couldn’t see beneath his surgical mask, but I could tell he was beaming.

“That’s great! How much more time do you have to finish?”

His body language changed immediately. “Man, there’s no way I’mma finish, yo. I only got six months left.”

IDOC had finally placed Jamal into pre-GED class, but not in time for him to take advantage of it. He would have to work until he could test out of that class, then wait again to be put into GED class proper, then wait again until the next round of GED tests are offered, and then pass them. This was a lot to ask when classes only meet two hours a day, four days a week. It looked a lot like Jamal would go home with no GED, despite spending the better part of two years working on it himself without official assistance. There is some hope though. At a recent relaunch of our program after COVID lockdowns had hamstrung it, one of my peers addressed this issue in front of the whole wing with one of the wardens.

“We know it’s a need.” The warden was clearly accomplished at equivocating “We are running it up the ladder to get programming for guys with longer sentences. A lot of that is governed by statute.”

One of my peers grumbled something derogatory in response. I didn’t hear what was said, but whatever it was got the attention of an administrator, and the man was kindly invited to return to his cell immediately. It’s good to know that the problem is on the radar of the people who matter, but it seems like if anything is going to change, we are going to have to wait for it to trickle down “the ladder” to us.

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