Education over razor wire

 

By KIMBERLY WEINBERG 

Portraits editor 

 

Pitt-Bradford and the Federal Correctional Institution – McKean are two institutions a bit separate from the rest of the world – each an insular community with its own leaders, office staffs, industrial kitchens, housing officers, post office, commissary, medical workers, caretakers and law enforcement.  

            Similarities aside, they are institutions with two somewhat different purposes, and when residents of the two worlds come in contact with each other, education is sure to happen.

            There are an increasing number of times this is happening, but the place is always FCI, since the prisoners cannot travel to campus.

            For students, their first contact with inmates is likely riding along with Dr. TonyGaskew, director of Pitt-Bradford’s criminal justice program, as he teaches victim-impact classes at the prison. For some students, this day is the one they decide that corrections is definitely not for them. For others, it opens a world of possibilities in social work, social justice and the federal criminal justice system. Later, students can help teach the victim-impact courses.

            But there are many other visitors from Pitt-Bradford to FCI on a regular basis. In addition to teaching the victim-impact classes, Gaskew taught a regular Pitt-Bradford course last fall inside the prison where students and inmates sat side by side.

Dr. Don Ulin, associate professor of English, leads a nonviolence workshop (see sidebar). Then there’s the annual visit of Dr. David Soriano’s Drugs and Society students to learn about drug culture. There’s also a job fair during which Pitt-Bradford students and staff conduct mock interviews with inmates. Alumnus Dana Shields ‘78 reports to work every day as a security specialist.

The exchange is not all one way. Prison Warden Bobby Meeks and Jessica Hervatin, who works with inmate addictions, both taught at Pitt-Bradford during the spring semester.

The prison and the university had a strong link when the prison opened in 1992 under humanist warden Dennis Luther. At that time, Pitt-Bradford offered courses at the prison for inmates working toward a bachelor’s degree. But in 1994, the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act made prisoners ineligible to receive the Pell Grants that had made the classes possible, and they were discontinued.

The relationship was rekindled about six years ago when Rusty Ransom, who directed vocational programs at the prison, asked his neighbor for help with a job fair for the inmates. The neighbor, Diana Maguire, was then the associate project director of the entrepreneurship program at Pitt-Bradford and quickly got her students involved.

The job fair became student-taught courses in job readiness skills, and that’s when she invited Gaskew to participate. Classes for inmates were held once a week at the prison, and Gaskew soon had members of the Criminal Justice Club teaching there as well.

            Next came the victim-impact classes designed by Gaskew and the Inside-Out class, which made McKean the third prison in the federal system to offer the classes where inmates sit side by side students in a college course taught at the prison.

Prison officials gave Gaskew the freedom to create his own victim-impact course and then encouraged him to try something else, teaching a course in prison through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

            Inside-Out brings traditional college students inside prisons to learn alongside inmates in classes ranging from poetry to business. Gaskew underwent training at the Inside-Out Center at Temple University, something two more Pitt-Bradford professors are pursuing so they can teach literature and writing.

            It is a testament to the relationship of the two institutions that Meeks let Gaskew do what he wanted to do next, teach a criminal justice course, “Reentry and the Offender,” and use as one of his texts “The New Jim Crow,” a book about the incarceration of millions of African-American men.

            “It took a lot of mature conversation in that room,” Meeks said. “I think there was lot of value from that.” Meeks said he had thought the room would be quiet, that the students might be intimidated, that the inmates – some having not interacted with outsiders for several years – might be intimidated also.

            That turned out not to be the case, with a discussion about the book sometimes shifting into a conversation about where people were from and why they thought about things like race the way they did. It was real education for both sides.

            “They loved that book,” Kyle Yeager ’13 said of the inmates, but having the inmates there to explain themselves added depth to the study.

            “It brought a human aspect to the class,” he said. “They wanted to teach us as much as we wanted to teach them.

            Richard Obermeyer, a junior criminal justice major, also took part in the Inside-Out class. “There are some smart people in there,” he said. “You get to know them pretty personally in a class like that, and you wonder what went wrong. If they hadn’t gone into crime, some of them would have been CEOs.

            “I think it was eye-opening for some of them that they are as smart as us students.”

            Students begin their visits to the prisonby accompanying Gaskew to help teach the victim-impact courses and have, on occasion, taught them themselves. They work with inmates to help them realize all the ways in which their crimes have affected others, from family members to society.

            Gaskew brings a few different students with him each week and likes to have them come with him early in their college careers. “They’re taking courses, and when they go to FCI—McKean, everything comes together. When they see how the process works, they get it,” he said.

            It is a first test to see whether students are cut out for further opportunities at the prison.

            Yeager, a country boy from Bear Lake, Pa., made his first trip to FCI – McKean his sophomore year. “Where I come from, there’s no diversity,” he said. “It kind of cracked my shell. It let me see that inmates aren’t just animals in cages. They’re humans, but they’ve made mistakes.”

            For the students who grew up in North Central Pennsylvania, it is likely the first time they have ever sat in a room and been the minority race.

            Obermeyer looks back at his first trip to the prison with the hindsight of someone much older. “I was 18,” he said, “and it was probably one of the scariest moments of my life. You have to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with 50 or 60 inmates, and there are four or five students and no guard. Seeing it is different than reading about it.”

            Obermeyer stuck it out and was drawn to the inmates and their stories. “You almost forget they’re in prison,” he said of working with the men, adding that most of them are likeable and personable.

            As interns, Yeager and Obermeyer did a lot more than sharpen pencils and deliver coffee. They created two education programs for the inmates and presented the classes themselves with the kind of youthful twist that an intern can provide.

            Working with a third student, David Kunkle ’12, the two created programs to teach inmates about myths of re-entry using a Jeopardy-like format.

            One inmate, Obermeyer said, heard that he’d be given a gold coin and a horse when he was released – a remnant of the Old West – which, of course, turned out not to be true.  

            The students busted other myths by dividing the inmates into teams to teach them using a game-show format.

            “It was really interactive,” Obermeyer said. “They huddled up to choose answers like a bunch of fourth-graders.”

            For the second course, students taught inmates some basic re-entry skills, such as how to get a Social Security card, driver’s license and library card. As part of that project, they put together a guide of resources inmates could use to help them make the transition to life outside prison.

            As part of their internship, the students also got to shadow workers at the prison, including Dana Shields, a native of Eldred and Pitt-Bradford alumnus who worked in his family’s construction business and served as chief of the Eldred Borough Police before being hired by Warden Luther when the prison opened.

            “I really didn’t know what the Bureau of Prisons was about,” he said. BOP employees have the choice of staying at one facility or moving to another and moving up. He’s made the choice to stay. “I’ve made this place my home,” he said.

            He enjoys mentoring the students and showing them an area he’s in charge of – the arsenal.

            Meeks also feels a responsibility to mentor students and grow a potential base of knowledgeable, qualified workers for the prison system, which is why he decided to spend the spring semester teaching an upper-level course on campus, Managing the Federal Offender. Having such a course taught by one of about 100 federal wardens in the United States is like taking a religion class from a cardinal.

            Meeks feels strongly about mentoring because of his own experience as a student at Kent State where he needed some direction, which he got from a criminal justice professor, George Powell, who steered him into the Bureau of Prisons. “Hopefully, I can do that for someone at Pitt-Bradford,” he said, adding that he hopes to serve as a role model, to show students how far someone can go in the BOP.

            Already Meeks has helped Obermeyer with a recommendation letter that helped him land an internship with the U.S. Marshal Service this summer in Washington, D.C.

            Gaskew refers to Pitt-Bradford’s relationship with FCI as a marriage and treats it with complete respect. He is always prepared to yank any student from any program to ensure that the opportunity remains there for future students.

            The students benefit greatly from the relationship with the prison, and so do the inmates.

            Susan Folk, assistant warden, works closely with the students and outside programs. “This relationship really enhances our program, and the staff and the inmates are just so grateful,” she said.

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