Taking lessons to those behind bars is learning experience for teacher

Q&A

May 17, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- A few years after she began teaching high school English, Carolyn M. Suman, looking for a challenge, opted to leave public schools to teach at a state prison.

She became the first female teacher at the all-male Maryland Correctional Training Center, part of the state prison complex south of Hagerstown. She began her 26-year career there by instructing inmates in English and math, helping them earn high school diplomas.

Today, Mrs. Suman, 52, is education supervisor -- or principal, as she says -- at the 3,000-inmate prison, where education programs vary from basic literacy to college-level courses.

"Every day here is a challenge. I learn something new almost every day," said Mrs. Suman, who has master's degrees in education administration and correctional education.

About 100 students each semester are enrolled in college-level courses. Last weekend, about two dozens inmates graduated with associate degrees from Hagerstown Junior College. About 300 inmates have earned such degrees from the college during the past 25 years.

Q: How do you overcome the public perception that prisons coddle inmates by offering them weight-lifting, cable television and high school and college education programs?

A: The public perception is the same as mine was before I started working in prison, because I was so uninformed about the daily routine in prison.

Learning is a lifelong experience, and I'd never consider it coddling someone to educate them.

If the public could see the pride in our students' faces when they get their certificate or diploma -- or just learn to read or write a letter -- they would see how this accomplishment might represent a huge step in the right direction for the student that a free person might take for granted.

Any small accomplishment builds self-esteem, which helps them move away from being a victim or victimizing someone else. Once they've tasted success -- no matter how small -- they want to achieve more.

Q: What kinds of prisoners are eligible for the two-year degree program at the Maryland Correctional Training Center?

A: Inmates who have a diploma from a high school or through the General Education Development exam may apply. If they do not have prior college, they must pass the American College Test exam.

They must be within five years of a parole hearing or a release date. They must be infraction-free for six months prior to entering the program.

Q: In your experience, what are some of the difficulties in teaching inmates? How do you overcome those difficulties?

A: The challenges are the same as with students in public schools.

We have the advantage of placing students in classes based on grade level at which they test when they come into the institution. We have an upgraded system and the option of adjusting class levels based on student's progress.

Many of the students come to us with a background of truancy and unhappy school experiences, so it's a challenge to help them realize they are capable of learning and that education is a necessary, lifelong experience.

Q: Charles Dutton, star of TV's "Roc," is your most famous success story. What other kinds of successes have you seen?

A: Herman Fix, who returned for the graduation [on Saturday], is a success story. He has his own business in Atlanta as a consultant and headhunter. He participated in the program while incarcerated and worked as the coordinator of the program for HJC when it first started.

Another graduate is now admissions officer for a prestigious college in Baltimore.

The greatest successes may be in hearing from those graduates who are continuing their education on the streets, getting good jobs, raising families and not returning to prison. For these men, all these things spell success.

Q: The U.S. House has voted to bar prisoners from getting Pell grants, which are one of the main ways inmates have of paying for education. If inmates aren't eligible, what impact does this have on your program and others?

A: The men who are in the college program have often started out in one of [the literacy or high school] programs and have earned their diplomas or certificates to be eligible for college, another step in their lifelong learning.

There are other state and federal resources which have been the mainstay of correctional education for decades, so we will continue to use them.

Any form of education, academic or vocational, is so important that we will find a away to continue.

We've learned to be creative with what we do get, so even though losing any funding would be painful, we will continue as many programs as we can.

Q: Is this a case of politicians doing what's politically popular? The general wisdom is prisoners who earn degrees have lower recidivism rates.

A: I don't think it's a matter of politics; just a matter of serving

their constituency. We have had the opportunity to do a lot of education of many facets of the public since the Pell grant issue was raised.

Regretfully, citizens often only hear about the problems in prisons. There are so many of the positive things that we've had the opportunity to share that we still feel positive things will work out.

Q: How do recidivism rates among college participants compare with the general prison population?

A: In my 26 years in prison, I've seen very few college graduates return, at least at the Hagerstown complex. This, of course, does not mean that some haven't, but most that I see return usually are at much lower levels.

Since such a small percentage can ever have the opportunity to attend college, it may be difficult to measure recidivism based solely on this.

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