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Take Advantage of Prison Reforms to Save At Risk Students

The United States would truly be worthy of worldwide acclaim if our nation could boast of increased and improved schools simultaneously with decreased and improved prisons. A magazine called YES recently featured an article concerning prisons called “Signs of Life – Small Steps Toward Change” by Marcus Green. After completing the article, I began to consider whether Green’s ideas might be modified and applied to schools.

In addition to recognizing the value in Green’s ideas, I also agree with him that an underlying foundation for either prison or school reform rests in attitude. Before considering new ideas, we must believe a capacity for change always exists for students in trouble as well as for convicts. With this fundamental agreement, we explore five ideas being used successfully in prisons.

  1. The first prison change, Canine CellMates comes from Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. Green states, “A dog’s companionship can never be undervalued. Dogs have the ability to see the good inside a human being, even when people can’t.” This program takes unwanted dogs from shelters and pairs them with repeat offenders. After ten weeks of training, the animals can be given to families. Even more important, very few of the inmates involved in the program repeat criminal activities. If a school adopted a program to pair dogs and students, at-risk children and teens could be trained to deliver instruction. Ideally, outcomes would transform students’ futures as well as salvage the lives of unwanted dogs.

2. A second program from Stafford Creek Correction Center connects inmates with nature. For six hours a day, five days a week, inmates work in nature as they literally transform prairies into pastures. Prisons using the program report a reduction in anxiety and aggression.

Many schools already include gardens. Although six hours a day, five days a week would be excessive, extended gardening classes for aggressive students could be utilized as a part of anger management. I am convinced that everyone would benefit from exchanging aggressive classroom outbursts with positive activities in nature.

3. Most hardened prisoners in solitary confinement face twenty-three hours a day in concrete cells approximately the size of parking spots. Research studies reveal an increase in aggression. The prison at Snake River Correctional Institution brings nature to the prisoners by converting solitary confinement spaces into “Blue Rooms”. Within each room, a prisoner watches videos of deserts, forests, and oceans. Exposure to nature, even though technology, promotes a sense of well-being.

Out of control children in schools often endure “time out” rooms. I assert that areas for time out do not need to be punitive. In addition, I predict that if schools modify traditional time-out locations into more comfortable spaces for watching nature videos, the outlooks and behaviors of aggressive students will improve.

4. At San Quentin State Prison, inmates meet regularly to write, read, and critique their own compositions and those of their peers. While sitting in a circle, one inmate at a time reads what he has written about himself and his life. Other inmates listen supportively, realizing how much emotional work went into the writing and sharing. The program accepts lack of skill in return for genuine expressions from the heart. “The class provides living proof that stories possess the power of transformation—but only when they’re allowed to be told.”

Schools already teach creative writing. Perhaps when a student first appears to be depressed, angry, aggressive or withdrawn, writing in a private space could be encouraged. When I taught special education, I maintained a space for students to express negative feelings by writing, drawing, or talking into a recorder. As quickly as possible, I invited each student to read what had been written. After listening, I often suggested, “Let’s tear this up and imagine all your negative energy changing into something positive.” In every situation, the child returned to a peaceful state of mind.

This type of writing must accept incorrect grammar, spelling, curse words, and content. The key lies in building trust. Once trust has been established within a small group of students, writing can be shared while sitting in a circle with peers.

5. Technology also can be used to transform prison inmates. At Folsom State Prison, classes enable female inmates to master architecture and engineering skills, which later open doors to employment.

We already recognize the importance of technology to children and teens. Instead of insisting that technology be reserved as a reward for the “good” students, we could utilize tech interest to redirect challenging students into positive and productive paths. Teaching technology most certainly will open employment possibilities.

Early in his article, Green states that each of the five programs strives to help inmates exchange violence for constructive activities. Before we lose another child or teen to violence, failure, or hopelessness, we might consider these five ideas currently benefitting inmates. Which ones could be implemented in schools? What would we be willing to give or pay to transform the lives of at-risk children and teens before they reach the prison level? Continuing the same old practices will result in the same outcomes. Accepting new ideas in education offers hope.

Work Cited:

Green, Marcus. “Signs of Life: Small Steps Toward Change.” YES #77, Spring 2016: 6 – 9. Print.


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