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Hard times, hard lessons: program helps inmates get much-needed high school credits

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STONY MOUNTAIN -- He's a hard man doing hard time in a hard place -- yet every afternoon, for a brief and tranquil two hours, he goes to high school for the first time in his life.

He's 26, and he'll be in prison a long time.

No names, no discussion of the long criminal career that landed him in Stony, no details about where he grew up and went to school.

He seems to be the sort of chap you wouldn't want to cross, and if he wants to be referred to simply as a lifer on the gang unit, that's the way it will be.

Each weekday afternoon, he gets an escort from the gang unit to the tiny school deep within the bowels of the medium-security prison, and two hours later, he gets an escort back to his cell.

In between, for those two hours, this man is in high school.

Back in the day, "I made it to Grade 7," he said recently in a small meeting room just off the range where he'll spend a big chunk of his adult life. He was 12 years old the last time he was in a classroom.

Manitoba has a lot of adult learning centres run by school divisions and community agencies, a lot of places where people can go to finish high school; close to 1,000 alone attend the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre in Winnipeg School Division.

But none is like this school.

About 40 to 50 inmates at a time attend the school in Stony Mountain penitentiary, classes of 10 to 12 men studying their core subjects -- math, science, English, social studies.

The classrooms look just like smaller versions of a regular classroom. The computer lab looks just like a school computer lab, though these terminals have no Internet access and no link to the outside.

Science lab?

Uh, no, no science lab, not with its chemicals and equipment that can be made into weapons and used for purposes other than achieving positive learning outcomes.

If there is a common thread among the men sitting in these classrooms -- a thread beyond the serious criminal acts that put them here -- it's that they didn't thrive as kids in school. They didn't do well in school at all and were often long gone before it was legal for them to drop out. Some of them start their studies here with less than a Grade 6 education.

Federal officials call it Directive 720 -- without the jargon, in plain language, the directive says every inmate should have his Grade 12 or be as close to finishing high school as possible when he re-enters the world.

When politicians and teachers talk about reducing high school dropout rates and programs to keep students in school until 18, these are some of the guys who would have benefited.

"Most offenders we work with did not experience success in a school setting," understated Pam Booker, regional manager of education for the Prairie region for Correctional Services Canada.

But it's a different story now. "They have some motivation to improve their lot in life."

 

-- -- --

 

T is a 23-year-old inmate from Winnipeg who doesn't want to say what he did to end up behind bars.

Next month, he'll write the provincial Grade 12 English exam, the same one that senior high school students all over Manitoba will write.

"I'm doing Grade 12 English right now. I need four credits," T said, sitting at a table in the prison library while a couple of staff members hover nearby.

Like all the inmates, T has had cell studies, in which inmates work through written materials in their cells, then talk to the teachers who come by a couple of mornings a week.

"I started on the actual school just in August. I was on cell studies. The teachers come to you right on the range you live on," he explained.

Seeing the teacher in the classroom each afternoon is a lot easier: "If I run into a problem, I don't have to wait a week."

To T, Grade 12 language arts is "basically, your opinion, writing on stuff. We've done poems, read your own poems.

"I might not graduate in here, but I plan on continuing on the street."

The street -- T has gotten the message, he knows that he won't fare well out here without an education.

"I could get a job -- hope for the future. I want to get into an apprentice program," he said, aiming for a construction job.

T won't talk about his background, but it's clear he was in a high school a few years ago, because he can compare Stony's classrooms.

"It's basically the same thing, I would say. The teacher is there to help you. The people that are in this school are more serious."

Those two hours a day are precious, said T.

"It takes you to another place. You're occupying your mind with something else."

 

-- -- --

 

Prison isn't really the place where you want to ask your peer group for help, said Lance Laquette.

Even though there are guys on the range who've volunteered to be tutors, Laquette is hesitant to ask.

"There's a tutor on the range. There's guys that know their stuff," he said. "I'm not really the type to go up to someone to ask a question. That's the way I was brought up in jail."

Laquette is 26, grew up in West Broadway where he attended Mulvey School, then reached Grade 9 at Gordon Bell High School.

Reached Grade 9, and no further.

"I was a typical teenager who thought that school was a waste of time. Myself as a teenager, I never focused. A lot has changed for me.

"I've been in Stony Mountain going on for seven years now."

It was a big step when Laquette got a spot in the classroom in August.

"I've been taking other classes in cell studies. It's part of your correctional plan that you must attend school.

"It was different. You only see the teacher twice a week (in his cell); you basically teach yourself."

Because he'd dropped out in Grade 9, Laquette reckoned that after refreshing at a Grade 6 level, he'd be looking at a Grade 10 curriculum in Stony. But like any mature student, Laquette can challenge the grade level, using life experiences to make up ground.

"The Grade 12 course in English, I'm challenging that right now. I was skeptical -- I thought if I wouldn't be doing 10, 11, I'd be missing a lot. I excelled in it.

"English is helping me a lot. I never really wrote anything -- I've been writing a lot and putting my thoughts on paper."

He's also doing a math credit, having nailed grades 10 and 11 math already.

"I finished my science course," he pointed out.

Science is pretty much just biology -- chemistry is a prerequisite for a lot of university programs, but chem and physics credits have to wait until the men are free to come and go as they please. Even in biology, the experiments are at best virtual and conducted online.

Laquette's not sure if he's coming back next term -- it's up to prison staff to approve inmates moving on to another credit.

There can be awkward situations, Laquette said, giving a brief glimpse of life behind bars. Say a student from another unit wants to chat during school; it's perilous to disrespect someone by blowing him off or ignoring him, yet the staff get suspicious and can interpret two people talking as a recruiting effort.

"They say you're recruiting for gang stuff," Laquette said.

If he wasn't in class, "Basically, we sit on the range, whatever we can do to kill time."

Laquette won't say when he's eligible to get out, but, "I'm setting up for Red River College. I'm trying to get to university for basketball. I grew up playing street ball. That's all you have in this place, make yourself better.

"I'm a really good boxer too."

OK, basketball is good, boxing too, though neither is really a career option in Manitoba, especially at Laquette's age. What he aspires to through post-secondary education is "most likely a business and accounting type of deal."

His goals are "reachable ones, that's what I tell myself."

He'd happily go into a clothing or grocery business in West Broadway. "Everywhere you go in that neighbourhood, there's little grocery stores or convenience stores."

 

-- -- --

 

Jeremy Garton is an articulate young man with a vocabulary that belies never having been to high school.

"My education, Grade 7 to now, has been very sporadic. I've never officially finished a grade level," said Garton, who grew up in Calgary.

He's 29, sentenced to six years in 2009 for aggravated assault and theft over $5,000.

"I need four Grade 12 credits. I'm scheduled to write three in January -- English, science and social studies," beamed Garton, who has ADHD.

Garton is really high on his English teacher, whom he's not allowed to praise by name to the media. "The first group had a 100 per cent pass rate."

In Grade 12 science: "We don't have access to a lab. They have multimedia CDs. It allows you to do lab work on the computer system."

Compared to what Garton remembers about regular school when he was a kid, the prison school is "definitely better, because of the low number of students, compared to teacher attention. It's full one-on-one time with the teachers. I'm diagnosed with ADHD. I need a small classroom, low distraction.

"My dream is computer program systems analyst."

His uncle is a programmer who's helped him over the years. Garton speaks fluent IT language, despite having only limited access to computers behind bars and absolutely no access to the Internet.

He'd like to use the Ontario Student Assistance Program to attend St. Lawrence College in Kingston or Mohawk College in Hamilton, then go to university.

And he has goals: "The hard part is meeting them... With persistence, focus, I should get there."

 

-- -- --

 

Fabian Twohearts looks like a big, friendly, easy-going guy, a dad with an easy smile.

He's serving seven years for assault causing bodily harm and arson.

"I'm at the tail end of my sentence. I hope I can exit a new person. I want to recreate Fabian Twohearts."

Now 45, Twohearts' experience is pretty rare among inmates: he graduated from Winnipeg Technical College in 1990.

"I got a certificate of attainment at Winnipeg Technical College in production art. Everything I took back then is obsolete."

So now Twohearts wants his Grade 12 so he can go back to Winnipeg Tech and take the contemporary course in communications and graphic arts that will get him work.

He was raised in Fort Alexander on Sagkeeng First Nation. He spent a year at a former residential school. It wasn't technically a residential school at the time, but the same people ran it.

Things didn't get better when the family moved to Winnipeg in 1975 for his father's job. He went to William Whyte School for Grade 4, but the family moved often, and he bounced around Luxton School, Victoria-Albert School and Argyle High.

There was no stability, no roots, no continuity or consistency in education.

Adult learning is a whole different world, Twohearts said.

"Everyone who attends is in the right frame of mind. Everyone is focused on what they need to improve themselves.

"I felt there was a door and I had to go in -- I felt privileged."

He just finished Grade 12 English.

"I like to do a lot of poetry, short stories and stuff. The John Howard Society has published a lot of my work" in The Inside Scoop Quarterly.

 

-- -- --

 

Phaithong Traimany probably isn't the toughest guy in Stony Mountain.

He's 49, a refugee from Laos, a single father of six children in Winnipeg.

Traimany hesitates before answering questions, he explains, because he needs time to think about how to express himself in English.

When his family arrived in Canada, Traimany was 17 and was immediately enrolled in Fort Frances High School with students his own age, a level that was far too high for him.

"They put me in Grade 11, but I had no basics... I had no grade."

He landed in Stony after being busted for selling drugs. "It was not the right choice. It is a darkness I cannot see through," he lamented.

Traimany started his three-year sentence in May and started school almost immediately.

"I can see myself here, I learn a lot. I really learn, I don't waste no time... I've wasted enough time, 30 years."

He's already nearing eligibility for day parole, but needs education and employment skills.

"I would like to continue school. That's for sure. Do at home, get some tutor. I'm just doing my own thing, what I'm supposed to do."

Traimany reads more smoothly now. He has time to focus. There's no TV in prison. He spends a lot of time drawing.

He worked as a welder in Alberta. He thinks, maybe he'll return to that kind of work. But when he does get out, he'll come to a job as a man who values education.

"I couldn't even read a storybook to my kids. When I get out, I can read to them."

 

-- -- --

 

Which brings us back to the lifer on the gang unit.

He's been taking cell studies, but that only goes so far.

On the range, "You go through them at your own pace. They assign these booklets. There's step-by-step instructions in these things.

"It's hard to focus on the range -- you got how many guys running around? It's difficult concentrating with all the noise. The environment plays a part in being able to focus."

But in his two-hour stretch in a classroom with teachers, he can focus.

"I wish it was full-day. I feel a little rusty. I feel like I'm acquiring skills I didn't have before."

He's started Grade 10. "I'm working on a fairly long sentence," he acknowledged.

Time is something he has in abundance, with lots of time to finish Grade 12.

But the lifer on the gang unit won't stop with Grade 12, he vowed.

"I want to focus on something that they'd hire someone with a criminal record. Who'd hire a lifer?"

He's considering studying social work in university, so he can work with at-risk youth.

"I've been through it all, so it's not like I don't relate to it. I've had a pretty rough life.

"I've given up this gang s--t," he said. "I just want to get back home to my son."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 j1

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Updated on Saturday, December 17, 2011 at 9:33 AM CST: added photos

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