On Friday afternoon, while some of her classmates sleep through their labs, Kate Hawkins teaches multiplication, pounding her arm against the table to the rhythm of her speech.
“Four times three?” Pound, pound, pound. Her pupil, Jason Cartman, flicks his eyes towards the ceiling, deep in thought. “Twelve?” he replies. His answer receives a punctuated “Yes!” and another pound, this time in jubilation.
Earlier in the session, Hawkins explains, Cartman was having trouble with the concept of multiplication, calculating equations by hand with little check marks that took ages to count up. Now he’s running through the tables with minimal trouble. “He’s really getting it,” she says proudly.
This scene could be from any elementary school tutoring program, except that Cartman is well over six feet tall and in prison.
Every Friday, Hawkins and a handful of other Yale students spend two hours in Cheshire, Connecticut preparing inmates of the Cheshire prison for the GED. They settle in the prison’s classrooms, ready to answer questions about the math, language arts, and social studies sections of the exam. Every Friday, the same inmates filter in, clutching their math books, ready to ask questions about fractions and conjunctions. All of them are serving time. All of them are trying to graduate high school.
The Cheshire prison’s program is by no means unique. Its Prison School lies under the jurisdiction of Unified School District 1, a department that provides educational programming in 18 Connecticut prisons for over twelve thousand inmates. Last year, 682 inmates earned their GED in U.S. District 1. Thirty-seven were students at Cheshire.
Cheshire’s GED program isn’t the prison’s only educational offering. Students who are not ready for the exam can take basic reading and math classes. Those who have already received a high school diploma can enroll in one college class each semester. Occasionally, Yale volunteers offer fun, informal classes like creative writing and art history. The prison also provides its inmates with vocational seminars, by far the most popular courses, which teach skills such as woodworking and computer or automotive repair.
Even against the array of alternative classes, the GED program stands out. “If it’s not the only program, it sometimes seems like the most important,” says Pria Anand, a Berkeley sophomore who runs the tutoring program this year. “It’s someone’s high school graduation-that’s such a big goal.”
Dorthula Green, Cheshire Prison School’s principal, cites her favorite quote from the ’70s TV show Baretta: “Do the time, don’t let the time do you.” For inmates, she explains, the GED often represents a chance to finish something and make positive use of their jail time. This is why Green has gone to such lengths to incorporate Yale students into her program, despite serious hurdles. “My philosophy is that we need to make sure to do everything we can to make the time as productive and empowering as possible,” she says.
This philosophy allowed Jessica Jiang, the former head of the program and a current tutor, to start the Cheshire program in the fall of her junior year, inspired by similar work she had done in the New Haven Correctional Facility. It’s this same commitment that has allowed the Cheshire effort to thrive while the New Haven program, though housed in a non-federal facility, is temporarily halted due to administrative problems.
Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
This Nelson Mandela quote, carved into a wooden plaque on a long wall above a security desk, greets visitors entering the Cheshire Prison School. The rooms are large and bright and filled with dozens of new computers. The walls brandish posters of the “Great Books” and To Kill a Mockingbird, commemorating Cheshire’s participation in ‘The Big Read’ during New Haven’s Festival of Arts and Ideas last year. Aside from a lack of school supplies (the prison restricts the use of markers, pencils, and other writing utensils for safety reasons), there is almost nothing that differentiates these facilities from those of a well-equipped grade school.
Yet, the elaborate bureaucracy and regulatory system controlling the flow of people into and out of the prison remains daunting. Visitor rules are posted around the waiting room in English and Spanish: If you are late to visiting hours, you forfeit your right to visit; if you are unregistered in advance, you forfeit your right to visit; if you wear an article of clothing that might set off the metal detectors (such as an underwire bra) and try to remove it in public, you forfeit your right to visit.
Many of the same strictures apply to tutors. They must fill out pages of paperwork to gain clearance. A prison staff member must escort them at all times. Nothing can be brought into the prison: no cell phones, no purses. Only a photo I.D. may be taken into the waiting room, and even that must be left at the front desk upon arrival. Often, there are glitches. Last week, a tutor’s shoes set off the metal detector. Another time, one of the prison-issued panic beepers went off repeatedly during the two hours of tutoring. Anand remembers a recent setback when a new guard wouldn’t let the tutors into the facility. “He just kept saying, ‘I don’t know your faces, I’m not sure.'” The tutors were left in the waiting room for over an hour.
Oftentimes, tutors must overcome difficulties far beyond logistics. The Cheshire prison population is predominately African-American and Hispanic; Yale tutors are usually white or Asian-American. Cheshire is an all-male facility, while all the current Yale tutors are female. Aside from a few mild instances-a flirtatious note sent from a prisoner to a tutor, an odd comment now and then-both tutors and inmates are conscientious. “Everyone walks on eggshells,” Anand explains. “The inmates, the warden, the students. It’s sort of a novel thing for everyone.”
For tutor Samantha Amodeo, the Prison School students are more uncomfortable with the gender discrepancy than the tutors. “Some of the inmates have said, ‘Why is it all girls coming, don’t any guys want to do this?'” Sometimes, Amodeo thinks, the inmates might be more at ease learning from male tutors.
Even the academic material can feel out of place at times. It’s uncomfortable, for example, when a teaching aide uses an example about car mileage with a student who no longer possesses a driver’s license.
A few weeks ago, Anand was prepping a section of the exam that required students to state whether a phrase consisted of fact or opinion. One of the statements read, “All U.S. citizens have the right to vote.” “Obviously they meant it to be ‘fact,'” she says, “but for someone who’s incarcerated, it’s not fact.”
Most Yale students would not trade tutoring kindergarteners at elementary schools ten minutes from campus for a fifty-minute drive to Cheshire and two hours with convicted criminals. The tutoring program attracts more seniors than freshmen, and participants generally learn about the program via word of mouth rather than on-campus advertising. There is a fairly high initial drop-out rate among the tutors, explains Beth Reisfeld, who runs the New Haven Correctional Center’s program. “Prison tutoring seems like the kind of activity that is really unique and glamorous, and when you get there it can be a little more like a slap in the face.”
But for Amodeo, who’s been tutoring at Cheshire for almost a year, adjusting to the new setting was much easier than she expected. “I went in the first week thinking, ‘This is a federal prison, I’ve gotta be sort of tough,’ but now I think it’s a more relaxed learning environment than at Yale. It’s often the best part of my week,” she says.
Green believes the program is mostly self-selecting. Tutors who don’t take the program seriously, or who come for the wrong reasons, usually end up dropping out in the first semester. “I always tell the tutors you can’t come because of excessive benevolence or some sense of rich white guilt,” Green says. “People pick up on that and you become less than authentic.”
If the point of a GED is to aid in finding employment, then why would the Cheshire inmates-who are serving anywhere from five to 99 years-need the diploma? Green has asked this question herself. But the first time she awarded a GED, she realized the degree meant much more than gaining access to a job. “When these guys earn their diploma, that’s the first step towards thinking they can accomplish stuff. At Yale, you don’t necessarily choose a major because it leads to a particular job. It’s the same here; there’s an intrinsic value to education.” Although Connecticut law requires inmates under the age of 21 to participate in educational programming, most of the Cheshire students are older. They choose to participate anyway. They consider the Prison School such a privilege, in fact, that prison authorities often punish inmates by forbidding them to attend.
Anand remembers a group of GED candidates who continued to participate in tutoring sessions while waiting for their GED results. “They still came to tutoring anyway, even though they’d already taken the test,” she recalls. “One guy started asking me questions about trig, just because, ‘why not,’ he was interested.” When the inmates received their GED scores, all of them passing, the first people they told were their tutors. “They just came in with these huge smiles waving their certificates around,” explains Anand.
Jiang, her predecessor, chimes in. “That was just the best day.”
Experiences like this make the tutoring program especially rewarding for its Yale participants. Amodeo says that her students often ask whether she’s being paid. “When they find out that we’re here just because we want to be, they just really care.”
For Jiang, the students’ dedication makes the travel time and security measures worthwhile. “Just seeing these people who want to learn so much,” she says, “I realize I have this great opportunity at Yale.”
essica, Jessica,” a voice calls out. Jiang swivels in her seat. Jermaine Davidson, an inmate who has been in tutoring classes for a little over six months, pops his head through the classroom door.
“I couldn’t come today, ’cause I got in trouble. But I’ll be here next Friday. I need real help.”
Randall Jennings, another student, swings his palm in a semi-circle against his forehead. “I’m nothing but cobwebs up here, nothing but cobwebs,” he says, stretching a smile across his face. With the help of Jiang, Anand, and their fellow tutors, those webs have begun to trap ideas.