Christopher Zoukis Interviews Janice Chamberlin

Christopher Zoukis Interviews Janice Chamberlin

CZ: Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? Who are you, and what do you do?

Janice: For the past 14 years, I’ve been teaching in a state prison in Indiana.  I’m the “mama bear” to 50 adult men each day. They range in age from 17-74, with abilities from Kindergarten to 12th grade. The average guy is under 5th grade. We study the five subjects necessary to pass the GED test.

I’m also an author and speaker.  I wrote Locked Up With Success:  A Prison Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap in Any Classroom.  My “mission” when I speak is to spread the word about the value of correctional education. In addition, it seems counterintuitive, but I stress how the answer to public education is right under our noses – in prisons.

As if I’m not busy enough, I’m also beginning an exciting new venture.  I am putting my successful system online for anyone who is working on their GED. I have an organized but simplified way to help students pass the test as efficiently and quickly as possible. They’ll have personal access to me when they have questions or concerns. The emphasis will be on math because that is the biggest challenge for most students. The other emphasis will be on how to write an essay.

CZ: Why did you decide to go into the field of prison education in the first place?

Janice: It’s probably the “rare bird” who decides as a child to be a prisoner teacher when he or she grows up.  It certainly never crossed my mind. I don’t think I even knew the possibility existed.  Most prison teachers fell into it, as did I.  In the early 1990’s, I lost my public school teaching position due to the dreaded “pink slip.”  Seventy-seven teachers lost jobs that year due to a reduction in force. I took a position as a case manager in child welfare.  Several years later, I saw a posting for a correctional educator.  As soon as I interviewed, I realized it was the career for me!  I took the plunge and moved from working “on the streets” to “behind bars”.  It’s been the most rewarding teaching I’ve encountered.

CZ: And as you indicated, you’re the author of Locked Up With Success. What drove you to write such a book? What was your inspiration?

Janice: Several things drove me to write this book.  One, every time I went to a social event, people kept asking me about my teaching in the prison.  They loved to hear the stories, asked tons of questions, and many friends commented that I should write a book.  For years, my dad said, “Jan, you should write a book” nearly every time I saw him. He is a retired teacher and has always inspired me.  That reason alone would’ve been enough for me to write a book.

Two, I slowly realized that my classroom methods could work in any classroom.  I’d see behaviors in my adult prison students that I also would see in very young children. Third, I saw a need for a “manual” to assist new prison teachers.  In some ways, because of security issues and diverse student needs, correctional teaching is different than what is taught in traditional educational college courses. Those three reasons added up to what is now called Locked Up With Success.

CZ: Prison education is a controversial topic. Some people say that those who go to prison don’t deserve an education, much less a taxpayer-funded one. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Janice: As a matter of principle, I believe all human beings deserve a second chance.  Even if others disagree with me on that, which I’m sure some do, it’s practical to offer programs and activities to keep prisoners busy and productive.  Busy, productive people don’t get into as much further trouble.  Bored prisoners get into more fights, damage property, or drop into depression.  So let’s assume a person doesn’t care about either of these reasons. Then let’s look at our pocketbooks and be pragmatic.  95% of prisoners will be released in their lifetime. 50-70% will return to prison again to cost taxpayers another $25,000-$30,000 per year per prisoner. That’s a lot of money to spend because we’re angry at someone.  Research shows that the only thing that lowers the chance of recidivism, or returning to prison, is education and age.  To me, the choice is clear.  We continue to pay more than the cost of a college education each year to keep prisoners locked up, or we can pay a little to educate the prisoners, lower their rate of return, and decrease our annual tax bills in the long run.

CZ: You make some very good points. Though, it should be noted that the PEW Center on the States released a report on recidivism back in March (2011), stating that prisoners are recidivating at a rate of around 40%-43% for the first three years after release. I think that the numbers are, in fact, higher than you’ve noted. Regardless, you are correct that this is a problem that needs to be solved and that education is the most cost-effective method of enacting this change, the lowering of recidivism rates.

Being informed of the issues at hand, what are your thoughts on restoring prisoner eligibility to Pell Grants or other federal funding for college and career courses? Also, what level of study do you feel is the most beneficial to the prison population in general?

Janice: In general, the most beneficial level of education in prisons is basic adult education.  Approximately 70% of inmates do not have a high school diploma or a GED.  So practically speaking, the bulk of education programs and monies should be funneled to that level.  That being said, I must add that vocational programs that target employable skills are crucial, too.

I’m totally in favor of restoring Pell Grants or other federal funding for career and college courses. It makes no sense to cut these funds, which is happening more and more.  The recidivism rate for a prisoner who earns a four-year degree is as low as 1 or 2 percent!  Unfortunately, returning these funds to prisoners is not going to happen overnight. The ugly reality is the politicians are cutting deeper, and the general public doesn’t understand what a fiasco this is.  Our first goal is to stop the bleeding, keep spreading the word about the importance of correctional education, and then build the programs back up.  Alternative and creative funding needs to be pursued, too.  Maybe if we build a strong movement, some philanthropic individuals and agencies will come forward. Women like Warren Buffet’s sister Doris give me hope.  Her Sunshine Lady Foundation is holding at least one prison college program afloat.

CZ: This is all very interesting. Besides the lofty idea of education for prisoners, do you have any other projects that you’re working on?

Janice: Yes, Christopher, I have two projects right now.  You always need to have projects, you know?  I’m looking for other prison educators who have stories for a new book I’m compiling.  These can be sad, funny, inspirational, instructive, or anything that others would appreciate.  I hope to have this ready for publication by the end of the year.  Contributions and questions are welcome and may be sent to me at [email protected] by the end of August.

Secondly, I’m stretching my teaching skills by starting a new website named Best GED Tutor.  This is a monthly subscription service for those who want to study for and finally pass their GED.  I’ve coached over 1200 students who have passed, so it’s time to expand this across the country. I’ve made it as inexpensive as possible.  A student will receive a phone consultation from me, where we’ll set up an individual study plan for him or her. Then questions and coaching will occur at the preference of the student.  We’ll use a combination of phone, email, instant messaging, and Skype. Sometimes, I’ll simply make an audio recording and send the answer.  I believe there is a market for people who need flexibility, don’t want to attend actual classes, but still need that occasional one-on-one attention.

CZ: Well, thanks for your time and for allowing me to interview you. It has certainly been a pleasure. Just two final questions for you: One, where can Locked Up With Success be purchased? And secondly, do you have any final comments?

Janice: It’s been a pleasure for me, too.  I was honored and humbled when you asked me for an interview!  Locked Up With Success is available as a paperback and as an ebook.

My final comment is this: I wish you luck with all your endeavors.  You’re expertise and dedication to correctional education is serving many people in a positive way!