NEWPORT Benny Nettles is principal of the Arkansas Correctional School at Grimes Unit, a men’s prison facility of the Arkansas Department of Correction in Newport.
“We have inmates who tell us, ‘No one in my family has ever gotten a high school education. You’ve given me the chance to be the first one,’” Nettles said. “We have other inmates who say, ‘No one in my family has a high school education, and I don’t want one, either.’”
However, after a few weeks in GED classes, even the reluctant inmates make some effort.
“A few tell us, ‘You can’t make me go to school.’ They get written up for being ‘Out of Place for Assignment.’ They lose their privileges; they get locked up in isolation,” Nettles said. “Most of these men decide they’ll attend classes.”
Charles Allen has been chief educational officer of the Arkansas Correctional School District for 21 years. ACS is organized like other school systems in the state. Schools in Arkansas’ 11 prisons are funded by the Arkansas Department of Education, supervised by the Arkansas Department of Correction and accredited by the independent Correctional Educational Association.
“When I was hired, ADC wanted to make school mandatory for inmates who lacked a high school diploma or GED,” Allen said. “We achieved that goal in 1996. Today, 50 percent of inmates come into prison without a high school diploma or GED. We know lack of literacy is a major reason for incarceration. Our studies show inmates who leave prison with their GED are 20 percent less likely to return.”
Nettles said the four GED tests are Reasoning Through Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies.
“The new GED test is much harder,” he said. “It goes deeper into algebra and trigonometry and has more science and social studies.”
Currently, Grimes has 239 students enrolled in GED classes from a capacity-filling population of more than 1,000.
“We run a four-day schedule. That is statewide,” Nettles said. “Morning school opens at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m. A different group of students comes to class from 12:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.”
To determine his educational level, every inmate takes the Test of Adult Basic Education when he arrives.
“Steve Templeton teaches Level 1: Basic Education for Nonreaders,” Nettles said. “These students can read some words but not in sentences. Their average age is about 50 years old. A lot of them dropped out in second or third grade to go to work.
“Marvin Armstrong teaches Level 2: Lower Intermediate, the equivalent of first through third grades. Phil Kimmer teaches Level 3: Higher Intermediate. At these levels, we teach reading, writing and math.
“Tracy Dowell teaches Level 4: Pre-GED, and John Carter teaches Level 5: GED. At these levels, the focus is on higher math and essay writing. We use science and social studies to reinforce their writing skills. Most of these men are 30 or younger. They can read well and have computer skills. Some of them quit school or were incarcerated in 11th or 12th grade.”
Textbooks are shared from one class to the next. For classroom work, teachers pass out and collect paper and pencils. There is no homework.
“Most of our students have learning disabilities,” Nettles said. “All our teachers have training in special needs.”
ACS teachers meet the same requirements as those in public school, plus are also required additional training.
“We require nine hours of Adult Education courses,” Nettles said. “New teachers receive 40 hours of orientation, and all teachers have 40 hours of in-service training each year. Our teachers are trained in race relations, equity and inmate mentality. Every year, our security staff gives a refresher on dealing with inmates, the games they play. Our motto is ‘Security first, education second.’ Not only teachers, but students, must feel safe.”
Dowell has been teaching Pre-GED at Grimes for 12 years.
“It’s similar to high school,” Dowell said. “We spend a lot of time with math, some on science and social studies. The main difference is the students are older.”
Classrooms have Smart Boards, projectors and televisions.
“We can’t have a science lab, but I show ‘Teacher Tube’ videos of science experiments,” she said. “In social studies, we cover history, geography and government. Students have a lot of questions when we cover how the legal system works.”
Students receive instruction in the computer lab, though they are not allowed to access the Internet.
“My favorite students are the older ones,” Dowell said. “They are more reasonable. The young ones are still putting on a show for everybody. The men who want to learn encourage the others to be quiet and not interfere with their learning.”
“We have gangs here,” Nettles said, adding, “When we assign students to classes, we make sure we don’t have 10 of one gang and five of another in the same room.”
New inmates are constantly being admitted to classes.
“In each subject, we go through a cycle about every three months or so,” Dowell said. “In math, for instance, I will start with fractions, percents, probability, then progress to geometry and algebra. Then I start over.”
Ultimately, the inmates will take the GED test on a computer. Most of the questions require written answers, some a paragraph or more in length. All math questions are reading problems.
Allen described the graduation ceremonies.
“Statewide, we have over 4,000 students in our GED classes. Each May, we bring those who have earned their GED to the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern. When a gentleman or lady walks across that stage and gets that piece of paper, I see the thrill on their faces. Even a big old burly guy, you can tell he’s welling up. When you think of their age and their situation, achieving a GED deserves to be celebrated.”
Asked how she feels about teaching at Grimes, Dowell said, “Since I’ve heard these men’s stories, I’m much more compassionate than when I came here. Most of these men were put on this path not by their own choice. The public schools failed them. If you can’t read, what are you going to do? Their mom and dad, grandparents and brothers have been to prison. The men feel no shame for what they’ve done because everybody in their world does the same things. The students who want to learn really appreciate our efforts,” she said.
“Several years ago, the ACS did a study,” Nettles said. “Every inmate who returns after he or she is released costs the state about $25,000 a year. ACS schools spend $800 to $900 per year to educate that same inmate. Getting a GED doesn’t guarantee a man won’t come back, but it increases his odds.”
For more information, visit the Arkansas Correctional Schools website at arkcs.arkansas.gov.