News & Media

IU13 receives grant for prison education

01/11/2016 Lebanon Daily News By Daniel Walmer

When Intermediate Unit 13 community education instructor Lynn Campbell first met one formerly incarcerated student, she knew it was going to be a challenge: the woman was so disinterested in education that she had a stack of fines at home for neglecting to send her children to school.

But the woman kept participating in classes — and when she finally received her forklift certification, the smile on her face made it clear that it meant much more to her than just a piece of paper.

“This is the first thing I’ve ever completed in my life,” she told Campbell. Her children are now attending school on a regular basis.

Each adult student that Campbell and other IU instructors meet has a different story. Some are disinterested in education; one never attended school after fifth grade as she traveled through the New York City foster care system. Two immigrants who were literal brain surgeons were forced into low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart because they couldn’t speak English.

But they all have one thing in common: the need for additional education to escape a cycle of poverty and crime.

IU13 announced in early November that it was one of nine recipients of a nationwide grant that will provide $350,000 per year for three years to expand its programs in Lancaster and Lebanon counties for the currently and formerly incarcerated, including new ESL classes and expanded one-on-one learning. For prison educators, that means more opportunities to provide a second chance at education.

Motivated learners

While many prisoners have major holes in their academic knowledge — minimal literacy or inability to recall multiplication tables, for instance — it is not because they are stupid or uninterested in learning, teachers said.

In fact, they are among the most motivated students that Amanda Ruth, who teaches GED classes inside the prison, said she has ever taught. Students are frequently eager for the next class and for Ruth to grade their assignments to see how they performed.

“They’re just so excited to have somebody who’s interested in what they need to do to be successful,” she said.

Campbell — who teaches classes geared in part to ex-offenders — always tells her students that she will track them down if they stop attending classes. Still, one student looked both shocked and happy when she actually showed up at his house to ask where he’d been.

“He said, ‘nobody every cared enough to do anything like that before,’” she said. “A lot of folks haven’t had support in a very long time.”

Some students have even proven their motivation through obtaining professional degrees in other countries, but ran into trouble in the United States. Campbell and Ruth said they’ve taught professional pharmacists and counselors from Egypt unable to get jobs because they could not speak the language and did not know how to fill out an English job application or obtain the needed certifications to practice their profession in the United States.

The prison setting is in some ways conducive to learning, teachers said: the prisoners have a lot of time to complete their work, and being around other prisoners helps break down barriers of being ashamed of what they don’t know.

Life becomes much busier and less structured for inmates when they are released, so former inmates are encouraged to attend Campbell’s classes at IU13’s Lebanon headquarters to continue working toward their educational goals.

Set for success

Nationwide, inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not, according to a 2013 study from the Rand Corp.

A major reason is likely education, without which finding employment can be difficult. Prisoners participating in educational programs were 13 percent more likely to be employed after re-entry, while those who participated specifically in vocational training were 28 percent more likely to find a job, the study found.

“If you know you can pay your electric bill, you’re not as likely to do something else to get that money,” Campbell said.

In addition to helping former prisoners obtain GEDs and other certifications, the IU will also help them develop realistic career options that are possible given their criminal record. It isn’t unusual, for instance, for inmates to say they want to become a parole officer, which often is not a compatible career given their charges, Ruth said.

“You don’t want to set them up for failure,” agreed Sally Barry, Lebanon County’s chief probation officer.

IU13 instructor Lynn Campbell works with students - many of them former prisoners - in an adult community education program at the IU-13 headquarters, 1 Cumberland St., Lebanon. The Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 will be receiving a federal grant to improve its education programs for people about to leave and after leaving the prison system. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

Barry also helps former inmates navigate the complicated job market for people with a criminal record — for instance, understanding the difference between applications that ask if you have a criminal record and those that ask if you’ve been convicted of a felony. Education is critical for those former inmates to obtain steady employment, she said.

The Lebanon County Correctional Facility also encourages inmates to work on their education, and sometimes provides support for them to complete their GED or other certifications after they leave through the inmate welfare fund, Warden Robert Karnes said.

“They usually have to have some sort of educational credential, even if it’s a high school diploma, to secure employment,” Karnes said.

Most prisoners aren’t bad people, they just lack coping skills — and if they aren’t taught how to succeed, more people than just the inmates will feel the consequences, Barry said.

“They’re living in our community, they’re having children in our community, and if we don’t help them with that, we’re going to pay in more ways than just them being incarcerated,” she said.

About the Adult Re-entry Education Grant:

  • Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 is one of just nine nationwide recipients of a U.S. Department of Education Grant designed to build evidence that educational programs are critical to the success of the incarcerated in reentering society.
  • The $350,000 will support 30 clients in Lebanon and 65 in Lancaster for the 1st year.  In year 2 and 3, 40 clients each year in Lebanon and 80 each year in Lancaster.
  • In Lebanon County, IU13 plans to use the grant to re-establish English as a Second Language classes inside the Lebanon County Correctional Facility that were eliminated several years ago because of budgetary constraints. It will also allow more post-incarceration one-on-one tutoring for students unable to attend classes because of scheduling conflicts or in need of more individually-tailored learning.
  • IU13 is also working with organizations like CareerLink, the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center, and Harrisburg Area Community College on increased training options, officials said. Community support from organizations — also including Lebanon County Adult Probation and the Lebanon County Correctional Facility — is likely a major reason they were awarded the grant.
Read More