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Educating prisoners inside Stillwater Prison

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Stillwater Prison
Sgt. John Hillyard at the Stillwater prison.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Munt (AFSCME)

Inside Stillwater Prison, inmates are doing long, sometimes life sentences for murder, armed robbery, and other felonies. But when many of those prisoners went inside they were high school dropouts or people who hadn't had much education, or cared about school. Prison has changed that. Daily Circuit producer Maddy Mahon went inside the prison to find out what kinds of educational programs it offers.

Kerri Miller: What did you find? 

Maddy Mahon: Well it was actually my first time in a prison; I grew up in Stillwater so it was a force around me all the time, but I had no idea what it was. The prison itself is gorgeous, if you can say that about a prison. It's sort of a Shawshank style, big windows, beautiful tile floors, long long hallways and its set up like a tree, where everything branches off these main gates. And I got to see some of the cells, some of the windows. It was just very busy; you know, people saying hi, wardens and police officers everywhere, and these huge metal doors. So aesthetically it's a very interesting place. But there are also all sorts of interesting programs taking place inside the prison, which is why I'd gone out there in the first place. I'd heard about the education program. 

Miller: What'd you find out?

Mahon: Well I'd heard about Pat Pawlak and I was interested to go see some of the new tactics she was trying out. She's been doing some new programming including the character building class and a writing program.

Pat Pawlak: Hi I'm Pat Pawlak I'm the educational director here at Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater. I've been here for 18 years. I didn't want to be educating men to be better criminals; I wanted education to be a transformative process for them. And you find that they're hungry for a way to do that and to learn that and to feel that they have a purpose. 

Mahon: When I spoke to her it was just very clear that she was passionate about the program and the students. 

Miller: What I think is different about this is we think that prison is for some kind of punishment primarily, but also about reform but we would think that would be kind of straight forward. Learn how to read well, learn how to write well, the basics. But she's really taking a different twist on that. 

Mahon: Absolutely. When I was there 79 percent of the inmates had a GED compared with Minnesota's state average which is about 70 percent so these are men who are really committed to education; they have good basic skills, and Pat's really trying to get them ready to go out of prison and not only start college but move into career paths. They have classes in welding, in cabinet making and they have two computer science classes. 

Miller: So you met one of the inmates, his name is what?

Mahon: Nicholas Jefferson

Miller: So what's his story?

Mahon: Nicholas Jefferson was the youngest man I talked to. He was 27 when I met him. He went in in 2008 and his sentence is currently expected to expire in July of this year. They have this tutor program at Stillwater and an inmate there spoke to him about this program and said, 'do you want a job, do you want to have a life? You need a GED.'

Nicholas Jefferson: Hello, my name Nicholas Jefferson and I probably been in the program for about four  to five months. When I was in high school I never really applied myself I was always getting in trouble, just a bad child. When I got so far back, I just dropped out. I end up catching the case that I'm in here on, they said that you had to have your GED to get a job or whatever so I was like ok, let me go in here and try. And then, I passed like four out of five tests within two or three months and I was like maybe I ain't that far back, you know. It just gave me motivation to push myself to do something I never thought I could do, you know. 

Miller: So he kind of discovered he was a good student while he was in prison? That's kind of the disconnect for me. 

Mahon: Yeah, absolutely. And I talked to a few other men who had similar experiences. One found out he was great at welding, another found out he was really good at computers. And not only were they excited about the fact that they were gonna be better off when they got out, but a lot of these men have children or families and it was really exciting for them to be able to show this tangible change. They can say I have these degrees, I have these certificates. I'm really making a difference. Nicholas himself wasn't sure about a job but really felt that he was benefitting from the program regardless of what came after his release. 

Jefferson: I mean, I wouldn't say there's anything that scares me about getting out. I'm pretty sure it's a job out there for me, I don't know what that is yet you know what I'm saying. I never really had a job. I was always into the street stuff, making money the illegal way. It's a lot of things that I'm unsure about, but I believe that as long as I push and get my education and get my GED before I leave here, whatever I can get to, I'm pretty sure that I can get a job. But even if I can't, I know that I can still continue school to get a job, you know what I'm saying. It's never gonna end. 

Miller: So did Nicholas take the writing class too? 

Mahon: He didn't take the writing class, but right now he's in the Adult Basic Education program and we talked a lot about his ideas for how the education system overall could be changed to really benefit at-risk kids and young men like he was when he went to prison.

Jefferson: Like Pat said there are a lot of kids coming out of high school that aren't at the right level that they need to be. Can't read, write and to get these jobs that they need to get. And I feel like that's because it's not engaging enough. I feel like everything needs to be updated in the schools. All the books, everything that they're learning needs to be updated to make them feel like this is the hip thing to do but that's not going on right now so they're looking toward the streets. They see people in cars with rims. 

When I came here I was 21 and if it would have been more engaging stuff like more stuff that I could learn about like the right kind of history, like being a black man in America, that's a whole different topic in itself. If the schools tackle some of these things, the youth won't even get to see these gates because they won't be picking up no pistols, they won't be picking up drugs and running from police and thinking that's the cool thing to do because - you know what I'm saying - it's not. And you're gonna end up here and you gonna find out that all you gotta do here is the same thing you were finding to do in school. It just comes right back to the same thing - education education education - you can't go nowhere without it, you need it; there's no way around it. You gotta get it some way or another. You can get it the hard way, or you can get it the easy way.