Equity & Diversity

An Inside Job

By Denise Kersten Wills — April 20, 2007 23 min read
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Barb Hagen guides her Saturn SUV north along an empty stretch of Vermont highway. The panorama outside her windshield resembles an Ansel Adams photograph—evergreens almost black in the weak morning light, snow-covered fields stark white.

She passes a yellow sign that warns “Moose next 5,000 feet,” then gets off the highway and glides along a country road. She checks the temperature gauge on her dashboard: 2 degrees.

Just before 7 a.m., she pulls into the parking lot outside Northwest State Correctional Facility, a cluster of low-slung brick buildings surrounded by chain-link fence and shiny curls of razor wire.

Northwest is one of Vermont’s highest security prisons. The men here have committed crimes ranging from drunken driving and drug possession to armed robbery, rape, and murder. Some are what Hagen calls “youngsters”—guys 18 or 19 years old—but there are many with gray hair.

Hagen always wanted to be a teacher. Like many of the country’s approximately 15,000 correctional educators, though, she never planned to work in a prison. Until eight years ago, she lived in Milwaukee and taught emotionally disturbed children in a public middle school. Then a Vermont software company recruited her husband, Tim.

“Tim and I always laugh,” she says, “because we moved here for his work, but I found the job I’ve always wanted.” She doesn’t mention the more obvious irony: that she found her dream job in a place that would give some people nightmares.

Ask her about it, and she’ll mention the flexible curriculum, the grateful students, and the lack of school bureaucracy, but the reason she works here has as much to do with her belief that public schools often fail their most troubled students.

Hagen works one-on-one with a student at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Vermont.

Hagen leaves her cell phone and wallet in the car and steps into the February morning. She is a tall woman with short hair and gold-rimmed glasses with lenses that darken in sunlight. She is 51 years old and does not own a single dress.

Inside the prison’s main building, Hagen enters a corridor with controlled doors on each end. She punches her time card and puts her car keys into a sliding drawer. An officer behind a glass wall exchanges them for her work keys. Hagen leaves the corridor, and the heavy door clanks closed behind her.

The rules at Northwest outline a narrow existence. The men who live here aren’t allowed to drink or smoke, though some buy contraband cigarettes for around $3.50 apiece. They have access to computers, but can’t print documents or protect them with passwords. They’re not supposed to become friends with officers or teachers. They can’t have CD players or cell phones. There are no conjugal visits.

Still, some of the inmates—especially those who have done time out of state—are fond of saying that Northwest seems like day care compared with “real” prisons. The 261-bed facility is relatively informal, and inmates call many of the correctional officers by their first names. The cells look like college dorm rooms, equipped with radios and satellite TV. In certain units, “residents” are given keys to lock and unlock their doors when they want.

Hagen follows a shoveled sidewalk past a building draped with roof-to-ground icicles. The prison yard doesn’t look as oppressive as one might expect, thanks to the rolling farmland and tree-lined mountains visible beyond the chain-link fence.

Inmate Joe Lehman (left) teaches HTML classes.

She approaches a small brick building with a green-and-white sign that says “Community High School of Vermont.” Run by the corrections department, the school is spread across the state’s nine prisons and eight of its probation-and-parole offices, an arrangement that allows inmates to work toward high school diplomas even if they’re released or shuttled from one facility to another.

CHSV has been called Vermont’s largest high school. It has 3,500 registered students, but that figure includes everyone who signs up for a class or comes to one of the school’s branches—even men and women who have already finished high school and want to learn a new skill or just pass some time. On any given day, about 500 people attend classes at the 17 sites. Last year, the school graduated 129 students.

It’s not possible to flunk out of CHSV. There are no grades. Neither is there a limit on the amount of time a student can take to complete a course. The school uses portfolios to demonstrate students’ mastery of Vermont’s high school standards. Most classes at Northwest are capped at five men, who move through requirements at their own pace. If one of the guys stops coming to school for a few weeks, he can pick up where he left off.

The vast majority of prisons in the United States offer inmates some education, though many programs have seen budget cuts since the 1980s, even as the number of people incarcerated has soared. Community High School is unusual in its emphasis on high school coursework over GED preparation.

In 1998, the state passed a law requiring all inmates under age 22 who don’t have a diploma to attend school. Northwest had about 30 or 40 prisoners who fell into that category, and Hagen and another teacher, Jenny Estey, launched a campaign to lure them into class.

“Their school experiences for the most part were so negative, we have to get them excited about education,” Hagen says. Instead of marching the younger inmates into class, the teachers decided instead to offer a choice: During certain times, the youngsters have to either come to school or stay in their residential units; they can’t just hang out in the prison yard.

“Once we get them hooked,” Hagen says, “we can’t get rid of them.” There are guys who spend eight or 10 hours a day in the education building. After they get past their school phobia, it becomes a safe place. For some, that means knowing they won’t be preyed upon by other inmates. For others, it’s having enough structure and oversight to keep themselves out of trouble.

Before she started at Northwest, Hagen spent a year working in a greenhouse. It was fun for a while. She loves getting her hands in the dirt and watching things grow, but she missed her classroom role as counselor, problem-solver, motivator, and disciplinarian. “I’m a fixer,” she says.

Some Northwest convicts, Hagen says, get hooked on the school.

She interviewed for a couple of public school positions before deciding she didn’t want to return to the same obstacles she’d battled for 20 years in Milwaukee. In the public middle school where she’d worked, she was only supposed to help students assigned to her, and she felt there were too many things she had to do for the wrong reasons. “People are so hung up on assessments that they forget about the kids, and I admit I was number one on that too,” she says. “You have all these goals that aren’t kid-related.”

By far the hardest thing about working with troubled middle-schoolers, though, was that she couldn’t save them. No matter how hard she tried, the other forces in their lives were too powerful. Many ended up in prison. “I had always thought if I ever changed jobs, I would want to go to the other side and see if I could help them,” she says. “Because I couldn’t help them as youngsters growing up.”

On her first day at Northwest, Hagen wasn’t sure what to expect. “Everybody was looking at me. I’m looking at them, and we’re trying to feel each other out,” she says. “I spent a couple days just walking around and seeing what was going on.” It didn’t matter that the pay was far less than what she had earned in Milwaukee: She felt immediately comfortable here, as though this was where she belonged.

Hagen occasionally encounters people who object to her work, who believe prisoners shouldn’t have the opportunities she helps provide. “They say, ‘Why are you on the offenders’ side?’” she says. “But the thing is, the majority of guys get out. You don’t want to make them into worse people. I’m making sure they get skills so there are no more victims. They’re coming out, and they’re your neighbors.”

Studies have shown that prison education significantly reduces recidivism, but that’s not the only justification for Community High School, according to superintendent Robert Lucenti. “You need to have safe institutions,” he says. “The best way to provide that is through pro-social activities.” And in addition to increasing the likelihood that ex-cons will become taxpayers, he sees benefits for future generations: “Children rise to the educational level of the parent. If you can ingrain in that offender a value for education as a way to better himself, he will pass that on to his children.”

Almost immediately after Hagen unlocks the doors and turns on the lights, guys in gray sweats and dark blue uniforms begin filing in. There are no correctional officers in the building, but there are security cameras in most rooms. Hagen carries a radio that beeps and murmurs every few seconds. In seven years, she’s never had to call for help, but she also never turns her back on students—a policy she adopted after a middle-schooler attacked her from behind.

Except for the graduates of Hagen’s baking class dropping off trays of cinnamon buns, fudge, and cookies they made the day before, the early arrivers have jobs in the school. They run the library, computer lab, and a career-and-transition center Hagen helped launch a few years ago. Some earn up to $2 per day, but most work just to keep busy. When the school’s janitorial position opened recently, more than a dozen men applied.

There’s no bell to mark the 8 a.m. beginning of the school day, and only a few students wander inside. Many inmates sleep until lunch. Others have group therapy or would rather watch TV. Some get caught with drugs or start a fight and wind up in “the hole”—solitary confinement—and even the regulars go through rough patches when they just can’t handle school.

Few are required by law to attend class. The state now sends most young offenders to other facilities, and Northwest hosts therapeutic programs for sex offenders and violent criminals, many of whom tend to be older. Only 15 or 20 of the current inmates are under 22, and about half of them already have diplomas.

Hagen’s plan for the morning is to offer math instruction, which means waiting around for students to appear. She teaches a few scheduled classes, but spends much of her time working one-on-one with students when they seek her out. Sometimes she’ll have five guys in her room studying five different subjects.

A student arrives at 8:30, but he’s called away to the dentist before he and Hagen get to work. In the meantime, she has plenty to do. Instruction accounts for only half of her job; she spends the rest of her time on paperwork, coaching and counseling, organizing programs and events, and generally making sure the inmates have what they need.

All day, guys stop by her room: Does she have a pen? Could she print something? When is the GED exam? They speak softly and seem to hang on her every word. A few, including men Hagen’s age or older, call her “Mom.” It’s a reflection, she says, of her role as one of the few nurturing women in their lives.

The other teachers here mention the emotional toll of working with a group that needs so much, and describe how they sometimes have to hold back so that they can save some feeling for their own families. Hagen decided long ago not to have children. “I knew I couldn’t do justice to both,” she says. “I couldn’t teach all day and then be home with kids. It’s a job that is too demanding, at least in the fields I chose.”

Jenny Estey leads a reading class.

There have been times when she’s gotten so stressed or frustrated that she cried. “I hate it. It doesn’t happen often,” she says, noting that her students and colleagues are usually shocked to see her in tears. “It’s the inability to help somebody, be it the way they act or something out of my control. It builds and builds and builds, and if I get too many of them in a day, I just need to step back.”

Around the corner from Hagen’s room, Joe Lehman and Blaine Bouvier run the computer lab. Lehman, a heavy 41-year-old with Coke-bottle glasses, had his own computer business until he was arrested for an Internet-related sex crime. Now he teaches HTML classes at Northwest. The inmates aren’t allowed to access the Internet, so they create Web sites and upload them to the prison’s intranet.

Lehman is scheduled for release in just 29 days. “Do I really want to get out?” he says in a tone that suggests he’s only half joking. He’ll get $300 at the gate and then have to find housing and work—tasks made exponentially more difficult by his status as a sex offender. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be allowed to work on computers, by far his most marketable skill.

Bouvier, a 24-year-old with a bowl haircut and a goatee who works as CHSV’s lab technician, understands Lehman’s reluctance. “The longer you’re in jail, the more you become numb to the jail experience,” he says. He pauses for a moment, then adds with a wry smile: “When I get out, I’m going to build a razor-wire fence around my house just so I feel at home.”

Along with motivational posters (“You Can’t Change What You Don’t Acknowledge,” one reads) and samples of student writing and artwork, the education building’s narrow hallway is decorated with reminders of the realities that await inmates on the outside. One student project outlines average annual household expenses in Vermont: $6,000 for rent, $4,800 for food, $1,000 for heat.

In the afternoon, men crowd the library.

The challenge of meeting these basic needs brings a large percentage of ex-cons back to prison. In the career-and-transition center, prisoners Scott Lawson and Chris Wilder work full time with soon-to-be-released inmates. They teach men how to budget for rent and be good tenants, help them write résumés and practice interviewing, and talk about how and when to disclose criminal records.

Lawson and Wilder tell stories about older guys nicknamed Chief and Big Joe who shoplifted or vandalized just so they could keep coming back to Northwest, but they also describe how the smallness of the prison grates on them. Wilder, a broad-shouldered guy with short dark hair and a soul patch, was kicked out of the Army, and he shrugs when reminded that he could have ended up in Iraq. “I’d pretty much take that over this,” he says.

Still, he knows how hard it can be to stay out. He found a good-paying masonry job when he was released in 2004. But when his girlfriend threw him out, he went to New York, where he had a place to stay. Crossing the state line violated his parole and cost him another two to seven years.

Wilder talks about his childhood—single mother on public assistance, family of six living in a trailer—without implying that it explains his charges of burglary and sexual assault. “I started out kind of rough,” he says. He landed in prison in 1997 and spent much of his first few years in the hole.

“I feel like one of the old guys around here now,” Wilder says. He turned 30 this year and has gotten in two fights in the past two years—a big improvement—and for an inmate, he has a surprisingly busy schedule. In addition to working in the transition center, he helps out in the kitchen, tutors other inmates, and is organizing a prison talent show. Next week, he’ll be one of five prisoners receiving CHSV diplomas.

Between visitors, Hagen plans the upcoming graduation, a formal cap-and-gown ceremony. She’s got to get graduates’ invitee lists and order tassels for the caps. She also needs to send files on recently released students to the school’s branch in the local probation office. And with spring around the corner, the garden requires her attention.

Hagen didn’t start the garden, but it has become one of her many projects here. Out of four acres adjacent to the school building, she and a group of inmates last year managed to pull nearly 30,000 pounds of award-winning okra, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and other produce—most of it organic. (No corn, though; the tall stalks would provide a great hiding spot.) They donated half to a food bank and used the rest to supplement the prison’s otherwise-scant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.

During 10-hour summer days spent planting, hoeing, and picking, the inmates learn about irrigation and fertilization, botany, entomology—and perhaps most important, about work and responsibility. They also earn high school credits in science and can work toward a Master Gardener Certificate from the University of Vermont, a credential that boosts their chances of finding a job once they’re released into this rural area.

Chris Wilder was sent back to Northwest on a parole violation.

Courses with an obvious practical application are popular here, and the school imbues its curriculum with as much vocational education as possible. In addition to the garden and computer lab, there’s an auto shop and print shop, and Hagen teaches culinary arts and sanitation courses in the kitchen.

As Hagen has found, conventional teaching methods don’t work for prisoners. “Most of them were dumped out [of school]. They were told: ‘You’re not successful, you don’t fit,’” she says. “I can’t stand at the front of the room and lecture. That’s never worked for these guys.”

When a new student arrives, Hagen sits him down and asks what he needs: Individual instruction? Group lessons? Job skills? Remedial reading? Advanced math? “Some of them look at me and say, ‘No, you’ve got to tell me,’” she says. “It’s the first time they’ve ever had a say in their education.”

She does her best to cater to inmates’ interests. Each student gets a graduation plan, so he knows exactly what he needs to earn a diploma. If she or one of the three other full-time faculty members can’t teach a subject, they look for an adjunct who can. She loves the flexibility of this approach. “Here,” she says, “everything is student-related.”

Jenny Estey arrives around the time Hagen gets her next pupil, who wants to review multiplication. Of the four CHSV staff members at Northwest, Estey most resembles a typical classroom teacher. The 36-year-old mother of two speaks to students as though they’re rambunctious 7th graders instead of convicted criminals, which they don’t seem to mind. She paces the hallway, poking her head into rooms to see who’s here, who’s sleeping in, what’s going on. “I’m trying to drum up business,” she says. “This is our mid-quarter slump.”

Estey is excited about an idea that hit her in the middle of the night, when she got up to let her dogs out. Her plan is to offer a current-events and geography mini-class centered on An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary about global warming. “It’s going to be awesome!” she says, explaining that many of the inmates worry about the environment, and like high school students everywhere, they’re enthusiastic about watching movies in class. She’ll post sign-up sheets right away and start the class next week.

In most schools, basing a whole class on Al Gore’s movie would be politically impossible, but at CHSV there are no parents or school boards to contend with, and the administration gives teachers lots of room for creativity. Where else, Estey asks, could she put her 3 a.m. inspiration into effect so quickly?

Another of her strategies for getting guys to come to class is to venture onto their turf. She leaves Hagen to her planning and heads over to the dining hall. It’s a clear day, and the sun is bright now. The weeks-old snow is hard and shiny on the open fields, like frosting on a wedding cake. But even buried under the ice, the garden’s manure gives off a smell that cuts through the air.

Estey joins the officers and inmates in the chow line. Today’s offering is chicken nuggets. Citing her diet, she opts instead for a large scoop of cottage cheese. She snags a table and commences, between bites, to stare down students who have been skipping school.

There was a time when Estey’s husband didn’t like the fact that she would eat with the inmates. He’d been watching the HBO series Oz, a drama that depicted a much harsher prison life. “He said, ‘Don’t you know they crush up glass and put it in the food?’” Estey laughs. Her grandmother, too, had worried, especially when she learned Estey worked with murderers. “I told her, ‘No, grandma, the murderers are the nicest guys in the whole place,’” she says. “It’s a crime of passion. They’re sorry. They’re remorseful. And when they get out, they’re not going to do it again.”

The prison’s vocational classes are popular.

Still, Estey prefers to not know how her students ended up in state custody. “I don’t ask,” she says, “and if they start talking about it, I really don’t want to know.” Shortly after she started teaching here, a caseworker warned her about a student. “He was in for molesting a child. His M.O. was to get in with the mother and earn her trust,” Estey says. “After I found that out, I just couldn’t look him straight in the face anymore. It biased me.”

In the seven years they’ve worked together, Hagen and Estey have seen plenty of volunteers and adjuncts show up on their first day, only to panic when the heavy door clanks behind them. Some stick it out for a while. But it’s common knowledge here: Either you’re immediately comfortable, or you never are.

Estey had what she describes as a “Beaver Cleaver upbringing”: stay-at-home mother, dad with a 9-to-5 job, parents who never fought. The contrast between her childhood and the inmates’ personal histories helps her see them as more than criminals.

Hagen’s background is just the opposite. She spent much of her childhood in a neighborhood bar, surrounded by family members with drinking problems.

Though Hagen says she has never felt afraid here, there are usually one or two inmates in the prison who make her uneasy. “What will happen is, I won’t know the gentleman who comes in and I’ll get this reaction,” she says. “It’s that gut reaction. You just know in your psyche that you can’t trust them.”

She’ll ask the correctional officers about the offender’s record, which almost always turns out to include a history of violence against women. Some of them invade her personal space or show up at the school building without a reason. “They can’t comprehend that I’ve been married 29 years because most of their relationships aren’t like that,” she says. She explains that some inmates believe the only reason a woman would want to work in a prison is to find a man: “Their world is that small.

”By the time lunch is over, the icicles are dripping in the noon sun like stalactites in a wet cave. Men crowd the library, reading papers, working on the computer, scanning the shelves. The collection reflects the inmates’ interests: There’s a good deal of self-help (three copies of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of Do Your Own Thing with Macramé), a scattering of literature, a heavy dose of thrillers, and lots of Bibles.

While Hagen reviews carbohydrates and proteins with a man studying nutrition, Estey leads a reading class. Her five pupils, two under age 22, follow along as she reads aloud. Getting through a novel is almost impossible, given students’ sporadic attendance and frequent displacements. To make lessons modular, Estey relies on short fiction.

Today’s selection is “The Lottery,” a story by Shirley Jackson, which, Estey says, contains good examples of foreshadowing. She pauses every now and then. “What does ‘profusely’ mean?” she asks. “A whole bunch,” one of the younger men mumbles, seeming at once both vulnerable and proud. “You’re so smart!” Estey coos.

An hour later, Hagen emerges from the school. She leads a group of men through the yard, where inmates in bright orange coats and matching hats are lifting weights and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is playing on the outdoor speakers. Without commenting on the appropriateness of their music selection, she nods to a correctional officer, then continues down toward CHSV’s other outposts at Northwest: the greenhouse and auto shop.

Inside the greenhouse, Andy Wood is tending to the cherry tomato plants. At 34, Wood is nearing the end of a 20-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. He dropped out of school in 9th grade, arrived in prison at 18, and spent years resisting help. “I was a punk kid,” he says sadly. “I thought I understood responsibility and I really didn’t.”

Teachers here each have their pet projects, and Wood became one of Hagen’s nearly two years ago, when he arrived at Northwest. He had already earned a GED, but Hagen convinced him to finish high school. He had never worked with plants, but she enlisted his help with the garden, and eventually put him in charge of the greenhouse, where he now spends up to six hours each day.

Andy Wood runs the greenhouse.

The greenhouse gives Wood a little taste of freedom. “I’m able to be down here completely by myself,” he says. “In a sense, it allows me to be a normal human being.” Finishing school and managing the greenhouse have rebuilt his self-esteem; when he does get out of prison he’d like to work in horticulture, maybe even become a forest ranger or run his own landscaping company.

He walks over to his favorite specimen, an ornamental plant called coleus that has red leaves with bright green edges. “It’s tough, but it’s also soft,” he says. “That’s me.” Like many of the inmates, Wood looks years older than his age. There’s a quietness about him that makes it difficult to imagine his violent past.

Hagen and Wood have an understanding—if it weren’t against the rules, you might be tempted to call it a friendship. When he describes her as a wonderful teacher, he’s not thinking so much about academic lessons as what she’s taught him about his own worth and about life’s possibilities.

“He’s one that I think really will succeed,” Hagen says, though she knows better than to count him among her success stories until he’s been tested beyond the chain-link fence. There have been others like him who came back when she’d hoped never to see them locked up again.

“It doesn’t depress me,” she says. “It ticks me off.” When a former student boomerangs, he’ll usually drag himself over to face Hagen’s disappointment. “Some of them will just slink into the building,” she says, “but if they didn’t think I cared, they wouldn’t come and see me.” After a sharp “What were you thinking?” she’ll help him figure out how to do things differently next time. “They want to figure it out, too. They really don’t want to be back here,” she says. “It sounds Pollyannaish, but that’s me.”

“True or false,” Hagen reads aloud from a PowerPoint slide. “Potato salad that has been prepared in-house and stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit must be discarded after three days.” The students gathered in the dining hall—five inmates and a woman hired to oversee the kitchen—seem thrown by this one, and Hagen warns that it’s a trick question.

The answer—part of the ServSafe test for food service industry certification—is false; the potato salad could keep for seven days. The prison’s rules are more stringent; it has to go after three to five. As Hagen moves through increasingly complicated material, her students shout out the safe cooking temperature for beef, the proper way to thaw chicken, and the expiration time for eggs.

Offering the ServSafe program was Hagen’s idea; her parents ran a restaurant in Milwaukee, and she knows the credential virtually guarantees a job. The late afternoon class is also the closest Hagen will come today to traditional classroom teaching—and that’s fine with her. “The actual instruction, that’s not my strength,” she says. It’s all the other stuff that brings her satisfaction.

She knows she’s doomed to fail nearly as often as she succeeds. But she focuses on the former student who’s a college sophomore now, and the one who met her for lunch so he could introduce his fiancée. “If I can help one person a year, I did my job,” she says.

When she pulls her Saturn out of the prison’s parking lot, she’s thinking about the men she leaves behind. On her way home this afternoon, she’ll pass the University of Vermont, where she takes school-administration courses. “It’s a logical step,” she says, but adds that she has grown certain she wouldn’t want to leave teaching.

“You get more done on this level,” she explains. “I like the direct contact with students too much to go into that.” It wouldn’t be the first time she’s turned down the chance at a promotion; when the prison’s assistant superintendent position opened up two years ago, she was encouraged to apply.

Hagen will keep the guys in the back of her mind tonight, working out solutions to their many problems, brainstorming ways to get their lives on track. And when she returns in the morning, they’ll be here waiting.

Denise Kersten Wills is Teacher Magazine‘s associate editor.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher Magazine as An Inside Job


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