Clerk

The heat and humidity here have been unbearable in the past few days with temperatures teetering as high as 100 degrees. In the afternoons when the sun is at its hottest, you can smell the stench of the receding flood waters.

In the mornings, however, after the last of the inmates have shuffled off to their work assignments and the sun is still young, the quiet yard smells of sweet carrot peels and reminds me of the mornings I’d spent at the little park down the block from my apartment building. It was the only park in all of downtown, a swatch of greenery tucked in amongst the glass and concrete high-rises. It surprises me now how much I miss that park, and I often wonder why I hadn’t bothered visiting more often.

I dwell on this small, missed opportunity every morning when I’m crossing the yard to report to work at Education Services.

The Education Services department houses everything from the anemic leisure library to the law library and all educational programs and classes including Adult Continuing Education Classes, correspondence courses, and vocational training programs. Currently, I serve as a clerk for two GED preparation classes.

The job is painfully mundane. From 8 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., Mondays through Fridays, I staple packets of course material, sharpen pencils, and grade papers. Before I was assigned as clerk, there was talk of becoming a tutor and possibly even teaching a writing class to students having trouble passing the essay portion of the GED exam; so far, nothing’s come of it. Hopefully, this clerk position is only tentative and I’ll have more responsibilities in the future. I feel intellectually starved having gone from being a web developer to stapling papers.

The instructor I assist, Ms. Williams, teaches two, two-hour classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s hard to tell sometimes who’s more bored: the students or Ms. Williams.

After taking roll, she spends 10 minutes folding and tearing sheets of copy paper, which I dispense to the class (I guess the prison can’t afford proper notebook paper). Then, with a mouthful of sunflower seeds, she begins the lesson, a spelling test with words she pulls at random. Between each word, she pauses to pull a husk from her mouth which she places into a napkin. Then, exhausted from chewing, she calls it a day and lets the class out an hour early.

Surprisingly, Ms. Williams gets paid about twice as much as teachers who work in traditional high school classrooms, a fact that may shed some light on why the United States has such little interest in reforming its prison system, which incidentally has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Any reform that might lower the incarceration rate would result in the loss of too many high-paying jobs.

My first paycheck came to $12.25–that’s 25 cents an hour. Inmates who work in education are paid among the lowest salaries (starting at 16 cents an hour) while those in UNICOR are paid the highest, anywhere between $100to $300 a month depending on rank. Granted, stapling papers isn’t exactly worthy of a large salary, but this fact does underscore how little value is placed on education, a contradiction to one of prison’s primary goals: to facilitate rehabilitation.

Further evidence of the low importance placed on education is apparent in the many education classes that are axed each year, the latest being restaurant management, drafting, and creative writing, not to mention the indifference I faced from the staff when I expressed interest in correspondence courses.

In the month that I’ve been here, I haven’t met one person with a college degree, and many don’t have high school diplomas. The connection between a low education and the potential for criminal behavior seems obvious, so would it not stand to reason that education is the most important tool prisons have for reducing recidivism and thus upholding public safety?

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