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My Life With Lifers: Book Review

By Dr. Elaine J. Leeder

Book review by John E. Dannenberg

Dr. Elaine Leeder, Dean of the of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University, offers a concise, compassionate view of the life and psyche of California prisoners serving term-life sentences. After a long career that has included volunteering to teach prisoners in New York State, and, later, for a decade in San Quentin State Prison, Dr. Leeder has blended her deeply personal humane support of the underdog with her expertise as a sociologist to show that people “thrown away” by society upon being convicted of murder are still people, capable of rehabilitation and eager for the chance to gain the tools for reintegration into society through intensive education while incarcerated.

My Life with Lifers chronicles Dr. Leeder’s interaction with life-sentenced prisoners at San Quentin in a round table discussion group she leads at the facility, called “New Leaf on Life.” Each month, Dr. Leeder brings a guest speaker – a professor or student – to lead the group in discussion on a topic far removed from prison life. The speaker engages the lifers’ minds in thought processes that take them to new levels – daring them to learn, interact in dialogue and yearn to learn more. Many of the prisoners also participated in college-level classes offered by volunteers from a local private university.

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Overview of New Mexico’s Prison Education Programs

By Christopher  Zoukis

The New Mexico prison system takes a comprehensive view of prison education; their educational programs are governed by the New Mexico Corrections Department Education Bureau.  The bureau works in conjunction with other agencies, organizations, and the community to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to obtain vocational and academic skills.  The aim of their programs is to reduce recidivism and help inmates become responsible and contributing members of society.  Image courtesy corrections.state.nm.us

Range of Educational Services

New Mexico offers many types of educational programs to inmates.  Parenting courses, English as a Second Language courses (ESL), vocational classes, employment related classes, and college-level coursework are some of the main features of their overall programming.  Placement exams allow bureau staff to effectively steer inmates to the programs that would most benefit them.  There are also programs to address special needs of incarcerated individuals.  Taking coursework while imprisoned allows the inmates to earn certifications, certificates, and even college credits.

Assessments Offered to Inmates

The bureau offers a wide array of exams that allow it to place prisoners in appropriate programs suited to both their level of education and demonstrated skills.  Some basic tests offered by the prison system include the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) that measures basic skills in reading, language, and math.  The test is standard in the education field and is suited to the diverse range of adult learners.  Once an inmate has taken the exam, staff members are better able to determine which types of programs would be most advantageous for individuals.

The Employability Competency System Full Battery (CASAS) assesses skills for the bureau’s vocational and post-secondary programming.  The Act WorkKeys exam also helps determine placement by assessing employability skills.  The Choices assessment takes inmates’ own preferences for future employment into consideration while also helping them determine careers that best meet their skill sets at the time of their assessment.  The Keytrain assessment relates to state employability and allows inmates to determine their eligibility for a range of employment options in New Mexico.  These are just a few of the assessments offered through the bureau.  There are others that determine college level placement, intelligence tests, and language deficiencies, for example.

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