Originally created 11/30/97

Makeover changes prison education



CAMILLA, Ga. - Marcus Alexander had plenty of chances to finish his education, but life on the streets of Columbus proved too attractive.

His is a story repeated thousands of times behind the bars and rings of razor wire that surround Georgia prisons. When it became a choice between completing school and making easy money, the temptation of the quick fix won out.

"I had a number of opportunities to get my GED, but being out on the streets, I resorted to a life of crime," said Mr. Alexander, a former drug dealer serving six years at Autry state prison on a parole violation. "I only looked at the dollars. I didn't look at the consequences."

Now Mr. Alexander has gotten religion and a dream - to open a bakery or restaurant some day. And he's one of the 3,000 inmates Department of Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner is counting on to get a GED, high-school equivalency degree, this year.

That's a more than 50 percent increase over last year, when Mr. Garner fired all the system's teachers and told Derek Allen and Lewis Freedman - two department supervisors involved in education - that the program would have to get by on about 70 percent less money.

"I plan to use this to further my education," said Mr. Alexander as he completed a morning GED prep class. "The ball is in motion, and I'm just waiting. I'm almost there. I can taste it."

Mr. Garner's decision to lay off more than 200 teachers last year drew fire because he announced it during the holidays. Also, many were skeptical of his claim that more inmates would get GEDs in a new system with no full-time teachers and a budget slashed from $14 million to $4 million.

"This was not a cold splash in the face," Mr. Allen said. "This was a bath you get thrown into.

"But we're swimming."

They're doing it with the help of Thomas Technical Institute's expertise in running a state-of-the-art distance-learning program, classrooms that can cost $60,000 to equip, part-time teachers earning $20-an-hour and an edict from Mr. Garner that education be a priority, especially for first-time inmates.

They're also doing it, according to union officials who represent guards, with former prison teachers who were fired, then rehired as lower-paid correctional officers.

Earning in the range of $25,000 a year, in some cases they are making half of what they did as prison teachers, union officials say.

"It's an outrage," said Tyrone Freeman, director of the Georgia State Employees Union. "They're still teaching. They're supplementing the classes."

"Basically, the Legislature has been sold a bill of goods by Wayne Garner."

Michael Light, a DOC spokesman, said he doesn't know of any former teachers who were rehired as prison guards and then sent back into the classroom.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Freedman noted many of the teachers fired last year have since gotten jobs in Georgia schools.

Andrew Jones was among those slated to get walking papers.

Before joining the DOC, Mr. Jones had been a coach and educator in the Thomasville school system for more than 30 years. One of his sons, Mike, was a starting defensive back at the University of Georgia, while another, Shawn, quarterbacked Georgia Tech to a national football championship in 1990.

Mr. Jones worked as an education supervisor in the department when Mr. Garner made the change. Now he's the department's GSAMS distance learning coordinator.

Mr. Jones acknowledges he was initially skeptical of the new program.

"I was very apprehensive. Not knowing can be very frightening," Mr. Jones said.

However, Mr. Freedman said the number of inmates getting GEDs had grown little in recent years while the state's prison population mushroomed.

Corrections officials speculated inmates attended classes merely to get out of work details.

"We built a program 20 years ago, and we probably became complacent," he said.

Autry Correctional Institution south of Camilla in far Southwest Georgia is the new system's showcase.

The interactive class can be beamed to about a dozen prisons across the state at the same time. Education is single sex: different classes are held for men and women so they won't interact, or more accurately, act up.

At Autry, 20 or so students sit at desks while a part-time instructor supplied by Thomas Tech runs through a two-hour lesson in math, English, social studies, science and arts and literature, the subjects covered on GED exams.

TV-type monitors show classrooms at other prisons hooked into the system. Microphones hang from the ceiling so inmates can ask questions and be heard by inmates at each site, as well as by the teacher at Autry.

At the head of the class is a white blackboard linked to the system. When the instructor or a student writes something on it, the message is seen at each location.

"It helps their self esteem to get in front of the camera," Mr. Freedman remarked as an inmate completed a math problem on the board.

The state has GSAMS sites at 17 prisons. Jones and Thomas Tech officials wouldn't mind seeing the offerings expanded.

"I don't know of anything that can't be taught via GSAMS," remarked Stacy Marshall, continuing education coordinator at Thomas Tech.

Currently, besides GED preparation, inmates can get literacy training and elementary level schooling in the system. Where they are placed depends on how far they advanced before being locked up.

Mr. Jones said the average inmate enters the system reading at a sixth-grade level.

Nonetheless, he's planning on the Autry site providing computer repair classes and other instruction in the future to help give inmates the type of skills they will need once they are released.

"Ninety-five percent of them will be getting out some day, and they need to be prepared," Mr. Freedman said.

"There is so much you can do with these inmates," Mr. Jones added. "If we teach them some marketable skills, once they get out of this place, I won't have to worry about them breaking into my car."

By James SalzerMorris News ServiceCAMILLA, Ga. Ä Marcus Alexander had plenty of chances to finish his education, but life on the streets of Columbus proved too attractive.

His is a story repeated thousands of times behind the bars and rings of razor wire that surround Georgia prisons. When it became a choice between completing school and making easy money, the temptation of the quick fix won out.

"I had a number of opportunities to get my GED, but being out on the streets, I resorted to a life of crime," said Mr. Alexander, a former drug dealer serving six years at Autry state prison on a parole violation. "I only looked at the dollars. I didn't look at the consequences."

Now Mr. Alexander has gotten religion and a dream - to open a bakery or restaurant some day. And he's one of the 3,000 inmates Department of Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner is counting on to get a GED, high-school equivalency degree, this year.

That's a more than 50 percent increase over last year, when Mr. Garner fired all the system's teachers and told Derek Allen and Lewis Freedman - two department supervisors involved in education - that the program would have to get by on about 70 percent less money.

"I plan to use this to further my education," said Mr. Alexander as he completed a morning GED prep class. "The ball is in motion, and I'm just waiting. I'm almost there. I can taste it."

Mr. Garner's decision to lay off more than 200 teachers last year drew fire because he announced it during the holidays. Also, many were skeptical of his claim that more inmates would get GEDs in a new system with no full-time teachers and a budget slashed from $14 million to $4 million.

"This was not a cold splash in the face," Mr. Allen said. "This was a bath you get thrown into.

"But we're swimming."

They're doing it with the help of Thomas Technical Institute's expertise in running a state-of-the-art distance-learning program, classrooms that can cost $60,000 to equip, part-time teachers earning $20-an-hour and an edict from Mr. Garner that education be a priority, especially for first-time inmates.

They're also doing it, according to union officials who represent guards, with former prison teachers who were fired, then rehired as lower-paid correctional officers.

Earning in the range of $25,000 a year, in some cases they are making half of what they did as prison teachers, union officials say.

"It's an outrage," said Tyrone Freeman, director of the Georgia State Employees Union. "They're still teaching. They're supplementing the classes."

"Basically, the Legislature has been sold a bill of goods by Wayne Garner."

Michael Light, a DOC spokesman, said he doesn't know of any former teachers who were rehired as prison guards and then sent back into the classroom.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Freedman noted many of the teachers fired last year have since gotten jobs in Georgia schools.

Andrew Jones was among those slated to get walking papers.

Before joining the DOC, Mr. Jones had been a coach and educator in the Thomasville school system for more than 30 years. One of his sons, Mike, was a starting defensive back at the University of Georgia, while another, Shawn, quarterbacked Georgia Tech to a national football championship in 1990.

Mr. Jones worked as an education supervisor in the department when Mr. Garner made the change. Now he's the department's GSAMS distance learning coordinator.

Mr. Jones acknowledges he was initially skeptical of the new program.

"I was very apprehensive. Not knowing can be very frightening," Mr. Jones said.

However, Mr. Freedman said the number of inmates getting GEDs had grown little in recent years while the state's prison population mushroomed.

Corrections officials speculated inmates attended classes merely to get out of work details.

"We built a program 20 years ago, and we probably became complacent," he said.

Autry Correctional Institution south of Camilla in far Southwest Georgia is the new system's showcase.

The interactive class can be beamed to about a dozen prisons across the state at the same time. Education is single sex: different classes are held for men and women so they won't interact, or more accurately, act up.

At Autry, 20 or so students sit at desks while a part-time instructor supplied by Thomas Tech runs through a two-hour lesson in math, English, social studies, science and arts and literature, the subjects covered on GED exams.

TV-type monitors show classrooms at other prisons hooked into the system. Microphones hang from the ceiling so inmates can ask questions and be heard by inmates at each site, as well as by the teacher at Autry.

At the head of the class is a white blackboard linked to the system. When the instructor or a student writes something on it, the message is seen at each location.

"It helps their self esteem to get in front of the camera," Mr. Freedman remarked as an inmate completed a math problem on the board.

The state has GSAMS sites at 17 prisons. Jones and Thomas Tech officials wouldn't mind seeing the offerings expanded.

"I don't know of anything that can't be taught via GSAMS," remarked Stacy Marshall, continuing education coordinator at Thomas Tech.

Currently, besides GED preparation, inmates can get literacy training and elementary level schooling in the system. Where they are placed depends on how far they advanced before being locked up.

Mr. Jones said the average inmate enters the system reading at a sixth-grade level.

Nonetheless, he's planning on the Autry site providing computer repair classes and other instruction in the future to help give inmates the type of skills they will need once they are released.

"Ninety-five percent of them will be getting out some day, and they need to be prepared," Mr. Freedman said.

"There is so much you can do with these inmates," Mr. Jones added. "If we teach them some marketable skills, once they get out of this place, I won't have to worry about them breaking into my car."