Part 2: Teaching Behind the Wall

By: Sarah Platt Email
By: Sarah Platt Email

Each year thousands of men and women are released from prison, a lot of times they're no better off than when they were convicted. But education programs in Indiana Prisons aim to help inmates learn skills to help them become productive members of society. Sarah Platt continues our in depth look at those programs in Part 2: “Teaching Behind The Wall."

Prisons across the country are overflowing with inmates and many of those convicts don't have an education. But with good behavior, they can earn a GED or even a college degree if they pay for it. Of course, getting an education depends on how much offenders put into it and the choices they make once they're on the other side of the prison wall.

The Indiana State Prison in Michigan City is the state's oldest maximum-security facility. Two thousand of the state's most serious criminals live there. A majority of them are serving time for murder, like Josh Shireman. He has just two years of a 70-year sentence behind him.

“Before I came to prison I was out there doing the wrong things because I wasn't prepared to live my life in society,” says Shireman.

Others are serving decades for drug charges. “I sold drugs and I used drugs,” says inmate Greg Black, whose serving time for dealing drugs.

So while some come from the school of "hard knocks" many are "transferring" to learn the basics of reading and writing. Some graduate to higher levels, whether learning how to write a business letter or use thinking skills to discuss politics, even Shakespeare.

“There are some students that don't wish to participate and they tend to weed themselves out pretty quick,” says Paul Petroff, who teaches inside the prison. He motivates students with a "Quote of the Day." “It is great to see the change that takes place over the passage of time,” adds Petroff.

“He takes time to relate and break things down,” says inmate Tyron Stephens. Although many have years to go before even a chance at release, some tell us they're getting an education to better themselves and set an example for their own children, even if from behind bars. “One day I will be returning to society, I want to be equipped, to do the things out there that I need to do, taking care of my children and other family members,” adds Black.

So what about the inmates who are never getting out?? One lifer admits class helps him pass time, but he also says it's an opportunity to send younger "wannabe" criminals a message. “I feel that by getting an education, I'm able to talk to the younger kids who are coming in here and help them out, so they don't come back,” says Serwatka.

Helen Gabriel is Supervisor of Education at the prison. She says learning behind the wall can actually be better than learning outside. “We have the students for as long as we need them, to bring them up to a certain standard, that's what we do.”

The community college professor turned prison educator 12 years ago. In those dozen years she's helped quadruple the number of students. “I'm sure that most of the student will tell you that it was worth it, the struggle was worth it, teachers will tell you that too, the struggle was worth it.”

“It's hard to believe that a person can in prison say 'I'm a better man,' but I have become a better man,” says inmate Tom Marshall. Marshall is doing time for burglary, now working towards a GED.

“We're giving them that second chance and it's up to them to take that opportunity and run with it,” says Gabriel.

“As of right now, I feel like I'm getting a second chance, feel blessed to do that,” says Black.

Prisoners who get an education can get time taken off their sentences, saving the state some money in the future.

It costs more than 16 thousand dollars a year to house an inmate at the Indiana State Prison. Gabriel tells us students earned enough time off their sentences last year to save the state more than seven million dollars in the future.

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