Sue Deckelman, a teacher of 35 years, is leading a lesson on Marco Polo. She asks her students what the region known in Polo’s time as Persia is called today.
The guesses come tentatively at first, and then more rapidly.
When someone hits it — Iran — Deckelman smiles and glances back down at her text. Many of the students in her GED class were just months ago reading at an elementary-school level. Some, presumably, were taking part in drug deals and gang-related crimes. But Deckelman doesn’t know what any of them are in for — that information isn’t available to her.
The class is part of the most successful GED program in Montgomery County, based on graduation rates — offered at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, the county’s maximum-security prison.
The jail’s Model Learning Center is in many ways no different from any other county school. It has a Montgomery County library, a computer lab, and a handful of classrooms. Its teachers are employees of Montgomery County Public Schools.
But teachers like Deckelman face different challenges than other MCPS teachers do, and take their rewards in smaller doses.
“School has never been a positive thing for [the inmates],” said Barbara James, chief education administrator for the jail. “The teachers have to be able to work with somebody who’s in an environment that hasn’t been positive for them in the past. And they have to be able to do things over and over and over again. … They have unlimited patience”
“We all don’t walk in the same shoes and travel the same road. A lot of these young individuals, this may be the first time in their life they’re safe, they’re sober,” said Robert Green said, warden of the Boyds facility. “We have a captive audience here. We have 700 people here — shame on us if we don’t do anything with them.”
THREE YOUNG PEOPLE — Schmouree Fordyce-Williams, 20, Daniel Smith, 19, and Chris Benbow, 17 — pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court to charges in connection with the Sept. 6, 2004 rape and robbery of a 19-year-old woman in her Potomac home. Gujan Lee, 18, is scheduled to go on trial in Circuit Court in September and Kevin Croker, 18, faces adjudication in juvenile court.
Fordyce-Williams and Croker were seniors at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac at the time of the crimes, and Benbow was a sophomore Frederick Douglas High School in Prince George’s County.
All three of the students have been given the chance to continue their education.
Fordyce-Williams, the only defendant being held at the Boyds facility, said in a May 10 hearing that he is a current senior at Churchill, even though he has been incarcerated since September.
He refused through his attorney to be interviewed for this story, and corrections employees are not allowed to discuss individual inmates.
However James explained that high school students incarcerated at the jail continue their education under the auspices of their former school through MCPS’s Home and Hospital Teaching program, which sends teachers to the jail to teach such inmates one-on-one.
If they complete the coursework, such students receive a diploma from their high school.
Other inmates who are younger than 21 and do not have a high school diploma but were not students at the time of their incarceration have compulsory classes. In some cases, life skills classes are compulsory too.
BUT MOST of the Model Learning Center’s classes — the GED program, basic reading, English as a second language, keyboarding, salesmanship, plumbing and others — are optional and considered a privilege, part of a new model of integrated academic and behavioral education that proponents say is the future of corrections.
The three-year-old jail was designed around the corrections model of direct supervision, where cells are arranged in pods around a living area and guards are not separated by glass or other barriers from inmates.
Direct supervision has drastically reduced altercations and incidents between inmates, Green said.
It is critical to create an environment in which inmates feel safe, Green said, noting that 90-95 percent of all weapons found in jails were made for defensive reasons. Eliminating the fear of predation by another inmate eliminates the need for violence.
Take the youthful offenders unit, where 32 inmates were working on map reading skills on June 2, while another was working one-on-one with a Home and Hospital teacher.
“Probably today, in that unit, five six different gangs — I’m not talking about one or two, I’m talking about major gang members,” Green said. But “they leave that at the door. … Here our rival gang members who shot at each other on the street, they’re in there learning to read a map together, or whatever that life skill thing is.”
The direct supervision design facilitates 24-hour-a-day programs such as the Moral Reconation Therapy program in the youthful offenders unit — a 14-step behavior modification program that includes education, cognitive therapy, and goal-setting. Inmates under 21 automatically start in the Moral Reconation Therapy program, but may opt out if they wish. Most go forward in the program, James said, even though participation confers no reduction in their sentences.
“IF YOU LOOK at the history of corrections it’s very cyclical. In the '70s it was all about labor — they had some of the biggest working farms in the state of Maryland,” Green said. “They went to the '80s and got real into trade programs — plumbing and all that. ... They did all or nothing. They didn’t get a good mix. We’ve got a great mix here. We’ve got work skill for the 40-year-old man that has a high school [degree] that’s never held a steady job. … We have something for the youthful offender that comes in the door and doesn’t have an education and wants to get one.”
That menu of offerings — academic classes in the morning and life education in the afternoon — is all funded by James’ $258,000 annual budget for the Model Learning Center. With 337 inmates taking classes last month, according to James, the Learning Center is likely one of the most cost-efficient ventures in the county.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The learning center programs’ success may have largely to do with the fact that participation is mostly self-selecting. Disruptive and violent inmates belong in the jail’s segregation housing unit, Green said, where they cannot threaten or interfere with the populating wishing to use the jail’s resources.
Still, the integrated education approach taking hold at MCCF is replacing the outdated models Green described.
“We talk about these things like recidivism. Everything else we were doing in corrections hadn’t impacted much,” he said. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key sure didn’t work. You’ve got to try something different. And we’re doing something different here and it’s being done very well.”
ALONG WITH a few broadcast channels for news, the jail’s television system offers a collection of educational channels selected by an advisory board and provided by contract with Comcast Cable. History Channel, yes. Jerry Springer, definitely not.
Green recalls a fight between inmates that he says is evidence the jail is doing something right. “Two inmates who got in a shoving match over whether they were going to watch Animal Planet or History of the Pyramids,” he said. “If two people are going to argue about something, that’s a good thing.”
The TVs only come on at certain times when other programs aren’t taking place. In most housing units, the sound is sent to headphones by wireless transmission, making the housing units strangely tranquil, even at peak times.
The whole prison is pervaded by that sense of order. One doesn’t notice the quiet until someone points it out.
Green, who has worked in corrections for more than 20 years, said that the biggest challenge in his job is overcoming the image of corrections portrayed by film and television and “to educate people what America’s jails truly do.”
James, education administrator for the jail, walking the hallway outside the learning center classrooms, speaks warmly with a library volunteer, and then a group of public defender’s office interns touring the jail.
She says that there is ultimately no distinguishing the effect of her program’s academic offerings and the corrections facility’s job of helping steer inmates toward the societal center.
“It’s equally important, because this is a local facility,” she said. “The greatest majority of people in here are going to go back out into the community. So you want there to be a change. Why wouldn’t you — we all live in this community.”