Left Behind: Children of the Incarcerated

By Joan Flora, Pattie Sloan, and Dorothy Flora, three teachers challenging the status quo

imgresOrange is the New Black, Season 2 is scheduled to be released in two weeks by Netflix. Here’s the gist: the television show is based on Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, who was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for an old crime of transporting drugs.  Random House Publishers describe the book:

The well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.  Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

As with most television, people either love this hit show or find the lead character insufferable.  While we think it’s a compelling story, we’re not critiquing the book or the show, and we’re not studying either in our classrooms, but we have students who have parents in the prison system, and that affects us because it impacts students’ achievement.

Oregon isn’t alone in this scenario:  nationwide 2.7 million children under age 18 have a parent in prison or in jail.  Michael Leo Owens of The Guardian writes:


In our previous posts we’ve connected literature with today’s poverty, how poverty impacts students’ learning, and pathways out of poverty.  So what’s the link to parents in prison and students living in poverty? According to Harvard’s Bruce Western and University of Washington’s Becky Pettit’s research, prison seems to be a guarantee of generational poverty:

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 8.16.04 AM

Note the impact of race and education levels on the male work force: black men, especially if they fail to obtain a high school diploma or a GED, face the worst odds of supporting their families.  And the ability to support a family doesn’t necessarily get better after prison.  Check out the impact of prison on earning power:

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 8.21.11 AM Long-term prison sentences are poverty traps for families.  Bruce Western claims that prison “has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

  • One in four African-American children have or have had a parent in prison.
  • Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than to hold down jobs.

But there’s good news here, right?  Because this blog is about hope, right?

We haven’t found a silver lining to incarceration.  It’s a profound, disturbing experience, but Joan’s mother, Dorothy, a retired teacher,  shared her experiences in helping inmates into society via a prison GED program in Alaskan Correctional Center:

The ten years I spent tutoring GED students in an Alaskan correctional center were vastly different from my years as a public school teacher.  My GED students were all felons-murderers, thieves, prostitutes etc. Was I ever afraid? Never! These students had come to class because they wanted to do so.  For most of them, a GED diploma was possibly the only positive goal in their lives, and their ages ranged from 18 into the 60s.

imagesTheir abilities were greatly varied.  Approximately 60% were average, 35% had learning impairments, and 5% were above average.  In my ten years with the prison system, 650 students were enrolled and 250 graduated, about 38%.  Constant transfers and discharges greatly affected their rate of success.

My job was to administer placement tests (TABE, tests of adult basic education), determine a course of study for each student, tutor in five subjects of math, reading, social studies, science, and writing, and administer trial tests.

When new students entered the room, I greeted them with a handshake and learned their first names.  This gesture seemed to ease the tension because most inmates approached the class with apprehension. I explained the TABE tests, the trial tests, and the scoring needed to pass any test. I always stressed that reading was the key to passing the tests, even math. Since much of the instruction was on the computer, I had to teach older students how to use the computer.

A perfect test score was 800.  On the trial test we demanded 470 to pass and 450 to pass the final test in every subject.  A final minimum average of 450 was needed to graduate.

The computerized TABE test covered all five subjects, and it took from three to five periods to complete.  The results determined the course of study for each student.  The 60% average group usually scored between 7th and 9th grade level.  These students needed instruction in most subjects.

Learning disabled students scored between pre-kindergarten and third grade.  The tests would be too difficult for them, but I encouraged them to get instruction without ever letting them know their unlikely odds.  Eventually, though, they stopped coming to class.

The top 5% scored at a 12th grade and college level in all subjects. I immediately started the trial tests and most had passed all final tests within a two-week period.  They were all avid readers.   The other two groups were not.


Dorothy Flora, retired teacher

Math was a difficult hurdle for both male and female inmates.  I had to instruct them in the basics-adding, subtraction, multiplying, and division.  60% of my students had retained none of this from grade school.  Some were able to advance up to basic geometry and pass the test.  Only a small number of women were able to do so. However, writing was easy for my female students; for the men, it was a challenge and many could not pass that one test.

When a student was given his diploma, the entire class cheered and clapped.  For a day or so that student exuded such a “high” about achieving what probably was the best goal of his or her life.  Students always thanked me and my supervisor for our help. It made us feel so good to be teachers!

Unfortunately, only 10% or so used their GEDs to better their lives.  The rest returned to former companions, former environments, and without the help of a support system, they were unable to avoid a life of crime.  I felt such disappointment when I read about them in a police report or saw them back in custody.  I had done my best for them.

So what is the answer?

As unwavering believers in education as a pathway to opportunities and options, we stand by helping our students demystify the profound challenges they face by integrating our curriculums with relevant issues and facilitating students’ critical and creative thinking into problem solving.  We know there is no one answer to complex, multi-faceted, long-standing issues, but we think real hope lies in awareness and in action.


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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