Monday, June 30, 2014

The Struggle for Education

I am an inmate in the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). For a long time, I was also a computer programmer. The sad fact is, because I am a prisoner, the State of Tennessee is afraid of me. They have actively impeded my education, and if they recognized the level of skill I actually have, they would ensure that I never touch a computer again and ship me to one of the most violent prisons to languish. I have been threatened with just that.

When I was arrested in the 1990s, I had scholarships to study computer science. I was the product of an excellent public education system filled with dedicated professionals who are not paid what they should be paid by a state which allows its destructive campaign for retribution to soak up more and more of its citizens' hard-earned tax dollars.

History will judge us.

In the post entitled The Community Fountain, I argued that the principles of community lead us to the knowledge we should not poison the well of community, or the community fountain. No public project in our state more uselessly wastes our precious resources than the choice to spend money on prisons. Instead of recognizing our fault here and converting our prisons to education centers, as all studies say we should, we have passed a series of barbaric laws which vacuum up young men and women into a system which will brand them for life, ensure they never get a real chance at education, and then hold them idle for decades while their families and communities languish in poverty.

History will judge us.

A multitude of studies have confirmed what common sense should tell us: there is no better policy to end crime than diverting tax dollars away from long prison sentences and mandatory minimum laws, and either pocketing the net gain to pay for health care (a huge problem for lawmakers) or spending the same money to ensure better educational opportunities for all young people before they get into trouble, thereby relaxing the pressure of generational poverty that has continued to plague poor whites and blacks in the south ever since the Civil War.

But good sense is not in play here. As of now, we still blindly cling to a system of mass incarceration which is not a real solution, and we wonder why it does not work as it should. Prison, quite simply, has been designed to punish and oppress human beings, not to help them transform. Since private interests with political ties have become involved, companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and Global Tel Link, many people legitimately discuss the "prison industry." This prison industrial complex is beginning to resemble the military industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned against generations ago.

How long will it be before the people of the State of Tennessee actually start asking whose interests are really being served here? Do we really need this? Are any self-described fiscal conservatives reading this?

Meanwhile, the current Commissioner of Prisons in Tennessee, Mr. Schofield, refers to the Tennessee Department of Corrections as "a billion dollar company."

As taxpayers, citizens should be asking something like this:

"Mr. Governor, Mr. Representative, Mr. Senator, why do we spend so much money on the prisons? Why are around one hundred thousand former citizens of our State in your custody or supervision? Do I truly need to be protected from all of these people? How many of them are non-violent drug offenders? How many of them have clean institutional records that stretch for decades, but remain incarcerated with no end in sight? How much does it cost per year to warehouse these men away from their families and gainful employment? And most importantly, since I am a taxpayer and I have invested in your 'billion dollar company,' why is your product so defective?"

Academia has held the dual answer for a long time. A search on Google will confirm that people have long known there is no way to make the mass incarceration model work if the goal is to reduce crime. Education and religious community programs are the two best weapons we have against poverty, crime, drug abuse and repeat offenses.

But I want to focus the reader's attention on another fact I have witnessed first hand: once you have a felony record in the U.S., truly valuable education beyond a G.E.D. is difficult or impossible to obtain. If you visit TDOC's website, you will see the claim that extensive vocational training is available to inmates free of cost. While this is true to some degree, anyone with real experience in the system knows the reality is somewhat different.

In over fifteen years in TDOC prisons, I have found very few people actually being educated. The classes are seldom if ever accredited. The certificates obtained are often worth very little in the actual world. There are notable exceptions, such as the cosmetology school at the Turney Center and the computer class at South Central Correctional Facility. Other classes are filled with men who understand the certificates they receive will not get them a job, certainly not when discrimination against felons is legal for employers. They are understandably frustrated.

Since the Pell Grant was made unavailable to prisoners in the late 1990s, higher education is practically nonexistent for prisoners in Tennessee. Very few can afford it, and those who can have a very difficult time obtaining permission and practical consideration. Inmates are unilaterally banned from internet access. The studies say we should turn prisons into college campuses, but we find the idea revolting as a society. If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our only real goal with prisons is to discipline, to punish. We have chosen one hundred thousand Tennesseans and tied them to the whipping post, a course of action that is exactly contrary to the common good of our state. Our most valuable resource is humanity.

History will judge us.

I was an academic standout with a bright future as a young man. My community made it clear that they valued me, and they wanted me to stay in my home town and help it prosper. My value made the loss to my community greater than if only the victim had been taken away, an already unbearable tragedy.

So as a young man in prison who knew his value, I was determined to pursue the knowledge I had always wanted in the domain of software engineering in spite of my circumstances. When I was a child I had been fascinated by computers, and as a young man I had already obtained a high level of skill. But I wanted to be a programmer.

I could not afford distance learning, so I made a plan to obtain the syllabus of some degree programs and study on my own by buying the books and teaching myself. With my rare computer skills, I quickly found a job with access to a computer (without internet access) and a couple of friends who had similar interests and potential. But when I asked permission to receive the materials to study, I was flatly denied. In fact, I drew so much attention for a time that the books I had managed to obtain were quickly confiscated.

Those were dark days for me. As a prisoner, I was considered dangerous, and as a smart prisoner, I was considered all the more dangerous. The only explanation I got was from a sympathetic but careful employee of the education department who whispered to me, "They think you will hack their system." I had made the mistake of showing a few employees that I could already program in assembly language and BASIC, and because those employees could not understand what I was doing, they feared what else I might be able to do. I pleaded my case, sought help from people who had perceived my better nature, but no help would come. No one cared that I had been at the top of my class in high school and had never been in any trouble associated with computers. Because I was a prisoner, I was dangerous.

I got very depressed for a while. A lifetime is a long time, and the one thing I wanted to do most, a pursuit which would improve and educate myself, was disallowed. I considered suicide.

Instead, I finally rebuked the State in my heart and vowed to get that knowledge any way I could. Over the course of the next ten years, I smuggled about fifty textbooks into the prison and taught myself secretly at work, trudging through the difficult task of learning software engineering without much help or guidance. I had help from sympathetic people along the way, but my small group of friends and I taught ourselves the principles that would enable us to design and build around a dozen pieces of software, including everything from utility programs related to our work to a 3D racing game built from scratch using only Linux open source tools and the OpenGL 1.2 libraries. We used Blender to create 3D content, including animations for our cut scenes. I did almost all the programming, including physics and artificial intelligence. Later on for a graduate project, I studied the way particles in the atmosphere affect light from the sun and implemented real-time vertex and pixel shaders simulating atmospheric effects for a fairly complex streaming terrain engine, which I also built from scratch.

After accomplishing all I wanted as a programmer, I moved on to other pursuits, but I am intensely proud of the work I have done, and I do not feel guilty that I did it without the State’s permission. I consider myself a veteran in the struggle for education as a prisoner inside the TDOC.

Unfortunately I must hide my identity. I am somewhat embarrassed and quite angry when I say that for some people, I am too well-educated (my teachers would argue). I must remain a faceless voice to avoid being silenced. I can't speak openly. Yet. For now I must remain,


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