Inside the wire: Two longtime educators now teaching GED® classes to inmates at TDCJ’s Polunsky Unit

(Part 1 of a two-part series)

Reprinted with permission from 
The Lufkin News 
By Gary Stallard

Education Door Inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Polunsky Unit - past the rolls of barbed wire, past the security checkpoints, past the seemingly endless gates, one of which leads past Death Row – there's a door marked "Education." Inside the door is a classroom, one no different from any high school classroom save for the guards outside the door. There are bookshelves and a chalkboard, desks and work tables, a teacher's desk sitting below walls filled with instructional and motivational posters.

Sitting at the work tables are approximately 30 inmates dressed in white jumpsuits dealing in various ways with an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Some tap their feet restlessly, or drum fingers on the tables, while others engage in nervous conversation.

Today is the day they're supposed to get their GED® test results.

None are more anxious than the two teachers sitting in front of the room.

Educators - Betty Lewing and Marcia Waller Betty Lewing and Marcia Waller both spent years teaching in the public school system. Waller retired from Lufkin ISD a couple of years ago and now works as a substitute teacher for the Unit, while Lewing has worked with LISD and Scholastic, Inc. Lewing also spent a brief period teaching classes at a Diboll prison; her experiences there impacted her in such a way that she's chosen to continue working with inmates.

"I loved working with Scholastic, but my heart was always in the classroom," Lewing says. "Deep down, I always thought I wanted to go back to teaching in the prison. I realized those inmates are people; they're not monsters like some people think. I wanted to do that again."

Lewing has been with the Windham School District, which is responsible for Correctional Education in the state of Texas, for the past four years. She says her job is not only to teach the men what they need to know to pass the exam; it's also to instill the purpose behind the success, whether it's for those hoping for parole and the start to a better life, or those who simply want to experience some sort of success while incarcerated.

Once she got involved, she couldn't wait to share her experiences with her friend Marcia Waller.

"Betty called me and said they needed some substitutes and asked if I'd be interested," Waller said. "I put her off at first because I just wasn't sure about it. I finally sent in my stuff and got approved.

"When I got here, I loved it. It was a pleasure to go to work. Those guys are polite and respectful. All they want is someone to show some interest in them, and to treat them like human beings."

The two women say don't measure their successes by scores, however. They measure them by the response of the inmates, who express the utmost respect to their mentors.

"They don't have to be here, and they don't have to care," an inmate says. "But they give us everything they've got, and the only reason they could have for doing that is because they care about us."

Educators with students The classes are divided into two sessions. The first begins at 7:45 and ends at 11 a.m.; the second starts at 11:45 and ends at 3 p.m. There are 28 students in each class, and Lewing instructs them in each part of the GED®, given four times per year: Reading, writing, social studies, math and science.

"I still hate math," one man moans. "This stuff has got me doing problems in my cell. Just once, I want to beat it."

Another man holds a book by Dean Koontz. He says he never cared for reading before studying the GED®; now he reads everything he can find.

"This dude's scary," he says, nodding at the author's photo. "I never knew reading would actually be something I'd have fun doing."

The men are direct and brutally honest. None offer excuses or explanations for why they're in their current situation. The prevailing comment is "I messed up."

And not every inmate was receptive to the idea of taking the test. School was never a priority in their other lives, and to them, it makes less sense now. But as one man states, "Prison isn't rehabilitation. It's punishment. Education is rehabilitation."

"A lot of their negativity comes from not having success in school before," Lewing says, "so they don't have any good memories of what they went through in school. So much of my job is reassuring and encouraging them and making them believe they can do it. They're not used to being told, 'Yes, you can.' They've heard 'No, you can't' a whole lot more."

Some of the inmates laugh at Lewing, saying she cries for them over any little failure. One even counts out loud the number of Kleenexes she uses when discussing some of the unit's success stories.

"I swear, if I'd have had a mama like her, I think my life would have been a lot different," a man says.

"I think that's why they respond to Betty and me so well," Waller says. "We laugh with them, we cry with them. We're willing to take part in something that is important to the majority of them."

Each student has different reasons for wanting to pass. Some of the men say their biggest reason for passing the GED® has to do with their plans once they're released. One 53-year old inmate says he knows he'll never get to retire, but getting his GED® will allow him to continue his education on the outside, where he plans to help run a family business.

Others have different motives.

"I have sons who come to visit me, and this is the only way I can ever be a role model to them," an inmate says. "I talk to them about how important education is, and how hard I'm trying to prove that to them."

"When my mom comes to visit me, I can tell her I'm studying for my GED®, and that I'm going to use it to make a better life when I get out," another man says. "It makes her proud, and I haven't done that for her very much."

Another said he's the only member of his family to get this far with his education; still another says he plans to use his GED® to get into college.

Those are the men who see a future in which they can wear so mething other than white jump suits.

Polunsky Unit Fence Unfortunately, not all the men are working toward their GEDS® with plans for using them upon release. They're not getting out. Some are serving life sentences, which begs the question: Why bother with the trouble of studying and testing?

"On the outside, I spent too much time fighting for respect," one man said. "I didn't know anything about self-respect. Doing this has given me that in a way nothing else in my life has."

Some of those men have decided to use what they've learned in positive ways.

"We've got so many kids coming through here, babies really, and they still have a chance to turn things around," one inmate who runs religious services says. "We can help them get the education they need so they'll never have to come back here."

They have messages for anyone willing to listen. For those youngsters who hate school, one says, "I know if I'd tried this hard to get my education when I was younger, I wouldn't be here now."

Some mentioned feeling left out in school; they weren't tagged as "college material", so they got no guidance in other directions.

"When I was in school, I had no idea there were opportunities for people who weren't really book-smart," he says. "Counselors in my school only worked with the people who were going to a university somewhere, people who had high test scores. No one told me how to learn how to make a living that didn't mean going to some big college.

"They've got to understand, a person has to have money to live, and if he doesn't learn how to get it the right way, he'll get it the wrong way and end up in here."

Polunsky Unit Wire Hanging over the "Education" doorway is a row of pictures of smiling men dressed in the caps and gowns of graduates. The first photo has seven men – the first graduates. Lewing says they've had as many as 52. That's how much progress the program has made in a few short years, and those pictures are testament to the impact people such as Lewing and Waller are making. They're not just giving knowledge for test scores; they're instilling a little hope, something in pitifully short supply in such an environment.

"I had a guy who passed the test after a couple of tries, and when I handed him his certificate, he had tears streaming down his face," Lewing said. "He said, 'I finally did something right.'"

She says another man told her, "I really struggled taking that test. The hard part was knowing I wouldn't be in your class any more. For those three hours every day, I forget that I'm in prison.'

"He's in for life without parole," Lewing says. "He'll die here.

"That's so powerful to me. How can you not love a job, love going back to something, when you hear that kind of thing?"

December 22, 2013

To read Part 2 of this two-part serie please click here

 

Other articles that may interest you:

Message to WSD employees:
State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC) 2017: NOW – Oct. 31!

Together We Can! - secctexas.orgOnce again Windham School District is privileged to support the State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC), allowing employees to make donations to eligible charities of their choice. Employees at every campus have the option to participate, and WSD is proud of the legacy employees promote through caring for others.

The Windham School District raised $22,314 statewide last year for SECC, topping the 2015 total of $20, 470.
This year's WSD goal is $24,800!

If you are on a unit, you will need to turn in your SECC contribution, cash or payroll deduction (the easiest way!) ASAP to the school office or WSD designee. Donations will then be sent to Dina Valenta in the WSD Administration Business Office and become part of the WSD campaign total. Charity choices and codes are found in the SECC booklets at each school site or go to http://www.secctexas.org/. Forms should also be available at your work site.

SECC Silent Auction winner Marlise Golden celebrates her winnings and the opportunity to help others in need.

SECC Silent Auction winner Marlise Golden celebrates her winnings and the opportunity to help others in need.

If you are in the WSD administration offices, please visit the Superintendent's Office to make your gift to the charity or charities of your choice! Donations may be made with checks, cash or payroll deduction (the easiest way!). In addition, WSD Administration's Annual SECC Silent Auction is scheduled for Oct. 5 in Huntsville (10 a.m. – 2 p.m. ) All employees and WSD friends are welcome to participate, and the auction features hundreds of items in a wide variety of values. Unit and school fundraisers may also involve silent auctions, bake sales, food sales and other events. Everyone is encouraged to also enjoy participating in SECC events held by TDCJ and other agencies.

For the third year, WSD fundraising for SECC will include the sale of official WSD shirts and jackets to school district employees. New items will be hoodies and unit vests/aprons. Proceeds will go to designated SECC charities. More details regarding shirt orders and will be emailed to employees in mid-September.


How do WSD employees help us meet the overall WSD fundraising goal?

  1. Make a cash, check or payroll deduction donation at your job site.
  2. Order a new WSD shirt or hoodie (profits to SECC!) –or a few! – Details to be announced soon!
  3. Participate in WSD fund-raising activities at your site for SECC.
  4. Enjoy the privilege of helping others in need!

SECC Silent Auction bidder Melinda Cobb bids on special items while supporting her favorite charities.

SECC Silent Auction bidder Melinda Cobb bids on special items while supporting her favorite charities.

Unit employees should be sure their donations are sent to Dina Valenta in the WSD Business Office in Huntsville, preferably as a campus group.
Do not use truck mail. Please hand deliver or use U.S. Post Office (campus donations need to be sent through the registered mail with tracking number; do not send cash through the regular or truck mail).

Your participation and donations are appreciated! Please join us in helping make a difference in many lives!

In Dallas: Habitat for Humanity partners with WSD - Windham School District proudly partners with Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, increasing career opportunities for former offenders and providing additional job training for those who return to the Dallas area. While supporting employment in areas such as warehousing and home construction, Habitat for Humanity offers individuals the chance to give back to society and also rebuild their own lives.

WSD implements training by The Flippen Group for educator development, student leadership - Capturing Kids Hearts (CKH) training by The Flippen Group was recently implemented by Windham School District for staff and students striving for educational achievement and positive life challenges for the district’s youngest students.

WSD donates more than $20,000 statewide in 2015 State Employee Charitable Campaign - Windham School District employees opened their hearts and checkbooks in September and October of 2015, donating $20,000.82 to the State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC). Using payroll deduction, cash or check donations and profits from a statewide sale of "We Are Windham" polo and t-shirts, WSD employees generously made gifts to local, state and national charities of their choice.

Make a positive difference in countless lives through the 2015 State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC)!

SECCSECC is a two-month charity fundraiser that allows state employees to conveniently make monetary donations to charities of their choice, helping those in need. The SECC will be held Sept. 1 – Oct. 31. SECC involves many state agencies and entities, and WSD is a well-known as a generous supporter. Last year WSD employees contributed an amazing $11,884, proving WSD a leader in giving.

WSD employees participate by making gifts through the Windham campaign, no matter where they work geographically.  WSD employees may participate through job assignment sites to include TDCJ facilities statewide, as well as WSD administrative offices in Huntsville. Unit and regional employees will participate in the WSD campaign at their job site.  Administrative employees in Huntsville will participate in the WSD campaign at their job site.

Donations may be made through payroll deduction or via check and cash.  Each WSD unit campus should designate an SECC contact person, who will then pass on campaign information. Make this person known to the WSD unit staff.   

All employees are invited and encouraged to join the WSD effort for SECC and easily make a great difference in many lives!  

Note to employees:  Specific campaign details will be communicated to units by email. WSD employees should be careful this year to mark their donation materials with “WSD” at the top of all forms, to differentiate from TDCJ’s separate contributions.

 

Success Stories

Success Story IconNEW - After more than 16 years - "I graduated from the electrical program in 1998. I found my Windham teachers were real people, and they..."

Success Story IconCognitive Intervention Success Story -
"I graduated from Cognitive Intervention and the course has had a major impact on me and my behavior".

Success Story IconNEW - Making a positive impact - "I am very excited to be learning a new trade and to be securing employment for myself in the 'real world.'"

Success Story IconPolunsky Unit Success Story -
"He [Mr. Leblanc] taught me things that even the guys rebuilding transmissions for many years didn't know."

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WSD in Images

Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
WSD’s Business and Image Management & Multimedia (BIMM) class offers students the opportunity to learn viable graphic arts and computer skills, helping them prepare for jobs after release.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.
Students at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit strengthen writing skills during a literacy class.