March 3, 2013
Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Letter #267: Prison Education
I went to my annual “Committee” this past week, which is where a small group of prison officials meets with you in a tiny office and checks up on how you’re doing and makes adjustments to the “program” they have you in and adjust the security level, or custody level you’re held at (Maximum, Level 4, Level 3, Level 2, Level 1). It’s all based on a point system, except this game is like golf, where you want the lowest score.
I stood in my Case Manager’s office (no room to sit) and spoke with my CA counsellor on speakerphone—very high-tech stuff. He noted that I had just completed five years, am no longer considered a flight risk, so they’re dropping me from high to medium custody, and my points dropped down to 14 (from 42 when I first came to prison), making me a Level 2, thanks to no disciplinary write-ups. The committee was going just ducky up until that point. Then, he said, “Now, we don’t have record of you having a GED certificate. Did you graduate High School?” Uh-oh. I knew then that I was in trouble.
See, the prison system is not required by law to rehabilitate inmates. However, they are required to care for your health and feed you. Oh, and if you don’t test very high on a reading test, you’re required to attend school every day for six hours until you finally get a General Education Diploma, or GED. My first week in prison I scored the highest possible on the reading test, finishing it 20 minutes ahead of the next guy. I got a 12.9, which essentially means I read at a 12th grade, 9th month (high school graduate and above) level. This kept me out of basic education. Until now.
It turns out, if they don’t have a high school diploma or GED on file for you, they lower your score to a 9.0 (a high school freshman) to make it appear that you need their basic education, since they get Federal money to educate for the program. I found this out while standing in that tiny office, and it sounded like cheating to me. I don’t like cheaters.
The problem is, I was home-educated, and I never received a little piece of paper—though I graduated at age 15. Ironically, fifteen years later, when I was recruited by Verizon Wireless, they just needed me to show a diploma or GED. So, I took the GED test, scoring in the 99th percentile. Now, with no proof of that ever occurring, I’m facing basic education.
My counsellor—tasked with managing my incarceration to the best of his ability—told me that my scores had been artificially lowered and he was recommending me to start ABE3—the equivalent of 6th grade. Then, Dr. DelSordi, the school vice principal, said he’d recommend I be in ABE4, the equivalent of high school since, “Christopher is pretty smart.” Gee, thanks. In my family, being “pretty” smart is like being called “dumb.” Then came the kicker: when I told them that I’m enrolled in full-time college classes, they said that college is optional and beyond what they require. I’d still have to produce a diploma or GED … and they won’t let me take the test until I’ve sat through months of classes. What an awesome example of government efficiency at work!
I was not a happy camper. The whole scenario seemed unreal. The system is designed for screw-ups: if you get a lot of disciplinary write-ups, the staff pays attention, and you get premium placements in jobs or vocational training. Me? I just want to keep doing my best to follow God’s direction for me. And then, I heard God speak to my heart. “What if I need you in that classroom?” I recalled how He’d led me out of the church choir to the Community Choir. I couldn’t help but see His hand of favor on so many areas of my life. “Here I am; send me,” I responded. And then? I had my GED certificate sent in, so they won’t threaten me with their basic education again. See? I am pretty smart, after all.