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Enrolled in a school of hard time

In prison, GED preparation classes are in great demand among inmates

Math teacher Rena Almeida, who used to teach in a public high school, says she gets more respect from her prison pupils. Math teacher Rena Almeida, who used to teach in a public high school, says she gets more respect from her prison pupils. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

Rena Almeida stood at the front of Classroom 3015, teaching students how to calculate the area and circumference of a circle. Using a blue marker, she energetically jotted mathematical formulas on the dry-erase board.

Her seven pupils, dressed in dark green uniforms, listened attentively, pencils in hand. Thin strips of sunlight from the barred windows fell across the desks at the front of the small, box-like classroom, a natural accent to the fluorescent lights overhead.

Classroom 3015 is on the third floor of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Plymouth, where Almeida, a 65-year-old, 5-foot dynamo, teaches GED, or General Educational Development, preparation classes to inmates.

It's a place that many inmates want to be.

More than 100 of them are on the class's waiting list. Sixty-four percent of state prison inmates in Massachusetts do not have high school diplomas, but only a handful of them are enrolled in GED classes at any given time.

"There are waiting lists for every class we have," said Connie Cardillo-Backoff, educational coordinator at the prison. Some waiting lists "are as small as 10; the GED class usually has at least 100 people or more on it."

It's also a place that prison officials say more inmates need to be, for society's sake. Providing inmates with educational opportunities is an important aspect to public safety that is often overlooked by the public, according to Paul Chiano Jr., program director at the Plymouth County Sheriff's Department.

"The people who are in here are getting out," he said. "And they're coming back into the communities, our community. And the question is: How do we want them coming back into the community?"

The classes and programs not only offer a high school equivalency diploma, they also teach responsibility and accountability, he said.

"The more well-educated the individual is, the more thoughtful the individual is," Chiano said. "The more thoughtful the individual is, the more likely they're going to think about the consequences of their actions before committing the actions. And that, in the end, will create fewer crimes, fewer victims, fewer people back in jail."

The educational offerings at the Plymouth prison go all the way from kindergarten-level reading to 12th-grade mathematics, creative writing, and literature. Classes meet three to five times a week. The inmates read William Shakespeare and novels such as "A Time To Kill," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Fahrenheit 451," and "Night," an autobiography of a concentration camp survivor. The inmates are also assigned homework.

GED classes are available only to prisoners who are serving sentences. Approximately half of the facility's 1,600 county, state, and federal inmates fall into this category; the rest are awaiting trial.

Forty men are enrolled in the GED prep program, which covers grades 9 through 12; 37 participate in pre-GED classes (grades 5 through 9); and approximately 200 are enrolled in adult basic education classes (grades K through 4).

Almost all of the classes at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility are funded through grants, according to Chiano. Through the work of Cardillo-Backoff, the grant money has increased from $19,800 to $271,000, he said. This helps pay for textbooks, pencils, paper, and full-time teachers.

Almeida is one of eight full-time instructors at the prison. She has silvery hair and wire-rim glasses, and this day is dressed in a matching blazer and skirt. When she's standing by the dry-erase board, she's all business and speaks at a rapid-fire pace, but is still quick to laugh. And despite her petite size, her voice fills the small room.

Before arriving at the prison 10 years ago, Almeida worked in the Plymouth-Carver public schools. The biggest difference between teaching in prison and in a public high school? "You get more respect from these guys," she said.

"Seriously. And you don't have to deal with parents. Like, 'You kicked my kid out of class; you have to take them back in.' With these guys, if they don't cooperate, that's it; they're out, they're gone," she said. "And they know it."

Almeida has taught inmates of all ages, from men in their 20s to those in their 60s. She offers them encouragement, like, "Guys, that's all there is to it," and "It doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a rocket scientist or go to Harvard, but you will pass this [GED] test."

But she's careful not to sugarcoat the challenges they will face, even if they succeed and get their GEDs.

"They know it's going to be difficult," she said. "I tell them they'll have to work twice as hard to get half as much. If you're honest on a job application and you tell a person, 'I've been incarcerated,' . . . some people won't take them. It's just that stigma. It's very difficult."

Completing homework in prison is no easy task, either.

"I'll tell you what hard is - they have no room to write," Almeida said. "Some of them are in five-man cells, and they're not that big. They don't have any writing space to speak of. They're doing their work on the beds."

During the day, the prison's common areas are typically noisy, with inmates playing cards, watching television, and talking on the phone.

"They get discouraged, too," Almeida said. "Because the cellmates stay up half the night, or they'll get teased by other inmates who say, 'What are you doing that for? You're not going to make anything of your self anyway.' "

But there are success stories. Teachers receive notes or phone calls from alumni, telling them that they eventually received their high school equivalency certificate, or that they got a job.

"We had a guy who just came back last week; he was getting bailed out right away for some minor thing, and he had been in my class. . . . He left here before the test," she said. "He was walking down the hall, yelling back, 'Hey, Rena, it's me. I want you to know, I got my GED when I got out!' "

"I said, 'Oh, that's great, but you know, look, here you are, getting arrested again.' "

One former inmate who called recently said he was joining a painters union, a job that paid $33 an hour. Another recently said he applied to join a plumbers union.

"There was one guy who actually had tears in his eyes," Almeida said. "He said it was the only positive thing he'd ever done in his whole life. He was so pleased to be able to call his grandmother and tell her."

She paused, and added: "It's an accomplishment, that piece of paper."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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