Please note: This was published over a year ago. Phone numbers, email addresses and other information may have changed.
Learning Behind Bars
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Susan HerefordCurtis Stewart wants to give himself a Christmas present – a GED when he gets out of prison. A street kid since he was 13, and now an inmate at Columbia River Corrections Institution, at age 35 he’s hopefully on the last leg of his old life. Curtis, who calls himself Broken Arrow, recently transferred from the state penitentiary, and is finishing up a 28-month sentence at the facility, a 500-bed, co-ed minimum-security prison in North Portland. Curtis lives in a 50-person unit, one of eight arranged barracks-style with upper and lower bunkbeds, and showers and toilets on the opposite side of the large, open room. He earned the name Broken Arrow from his grandfather in his late 20s, when he sought out the other half of his heritage. Broken Arrow means peace, and Curtis believes the name from his grandfather better describes where he is and where he is going: his newfound hope for a better life. Hope is a beginning, but it will take much more to stay clean on the outside, to stop offending, according to the Portland Community College staff who work there. Part of the plan for the 10th grade dropout is to acquire educational skills and self-confidence. The new high in Curtis’ life is scoring well on a General Education Development (GED) pre-test that he recently took. The guy who has been high on weed, crack cocaine, meth, says the education he’s getting from the PCC classes are helping "stem new branches out every day." Julie Kopet, who manages the program for the college, says this fall marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI). "It opened and we opened with them," says Kopet. "I started it from nothing 10 years ago." The PCC program began with approximately 25 students and two part-time faculty who taught night classes to inmates that were on work release duty during the day. The first year, PCC served about 200 students. Now the program enrolls approximately 1,000 students each year in a variety of classes, including adult basic education, English as a second language, GED classes, life skills, job skills and computer training. The staff has expanded to 12 full- and part-time staff who teach days and nights. Teaching in a prison environment and in a co-educational facility produces its own set of challenges for the faculty who work there. "We are half corrections officers and half teachers," says Kopet. The PCC faculty, all of whom have master’s degrees, have also had additional training in corrections work. PCC also operates the Family Literacy Program at the prison, an adjunct program that allows inmates’ children, ages 4 to 10, to join their parents two Saturdays a month for art and reading activities. It consists of about 25 families and is the only such program in the state. The state Department of Corrections, who contracts with PCC for delivering classes at the prison, presented Kopet and her group with a Oregon Department of Corrections Best Practices citation in 1998 for its development and operation of the Family Literacy Program.At the prison, there are eight units – six general population units, two of which are mental health treatment units, and two separate drug and alcohol treatment units, each serving 50 to 70 inmates. Those in the drug and alcohol treatment program are given just two hours each day outside their rehab program for coursework. Currently, approximately 60 percent of the 500-inmate population are female. PCC staff work closely with drug and alcohol and mental health teams to coordinate the inmates’ progress. PCC’s work at Columbia River Correctional Institution is but one of several. In addition, PCC runs classes at the Multnomah County jails, and will soon expand to the new women’s correctional facility, Coffee Creek in Wilsonville, set to open in 2001. According to CRCI’s Lloyd Copeland, an institutional counselor, when inmates test below a certain educational level, they are required to take adult basic education and GED classes. "We push them through as a result, and probably release more GED grads, percentage-wise, than any other facility in Oregon," says Copeland.The success rate is worth noting because 50 to 80 percent of the students in the program have some type of learning disability in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics and social skills, according to PCC instructor Russ Oelheim. Oelheim, who also serves as the program’s learning disabilities specialist, says, "The research is very, very consistent, not only in the United States but in Canada. That we need to be there is not stating it quite strongly enough. Our presence is required more than ever, because the population we are working with is becoming lower and lower skilled and more needy."The upside, says Oelheim, is that because the job market is so good, students can leave jail and find work. Inmates, incarcerated for a variety of offenses, end up at the Columbia River prison for a minimum 13-month stay to a maximum of three years. A portion of the prison population has transferred due to good behavior from the state prison in Salem to serve the remainder of their term. Offenses, says Kopet, run the gamut, "from drugs to murder, sex offenses and rape, burglary, armed robbery, you name it. "Our philosophy is tough, but fair. A lot of learning goes on here," she adds.