Prison Education: An Instructor Who Cheats?!

Prison Education: An Instructor Who Cheats?!

I am angry! Ok, I said it. I, a 25-year-old federal prisoner with bright red stars tattooed on his hands, am angry. I note my appearance and age because of the irony of the situation. The description that I just gave you of myself probably doesn’t inspire a general feeling of moral behavior or ethics. But both are front and center in the issue at hand.

The other day, Mr. Batton and Mr. Rigney (a GED tutor) brought me a new man. They introduced the man as a “well-learned man who educated himself from behind bars.” He has salt-and-pepper hair, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and comes across as a decent guy. Moreover, he was inquiring about becoming a GED tutor in the Education Department. All of this made him a potential asset to the Education Department. But boy, was I wrong.

Today, I went to Dental…yet again. While waiting at 9:00 a.m., the man came out of the Medical Department wing and sat beside me. We struck up a conversation about his educational past. After all, I was a familiar face, and the last time I had seen him was in the Education Department, where we spoke about him becoming a GED tutor or ACE (Adult Continuing Education) instructor.

He explained he had just done time in Indiana State Prison. This piqued my interest because Dr. John Marc Taylor, the author of the Prisoner’s Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, had spent several years in Indiana State Prison. Dr. Taylor had even earned numerous degrees while in that system. Furthermore, I recently read an article from the Correctional Education Association’s website on Indiana’s prison education scene. Stephen Streurer, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association, authored the article.

The man started to explain to me how great it was there. He said that Indiana University offers courses to all prisoners. It is my understanding that the courses are free to prisoner participants. However, I recently heard that they have since stopped providing free courses to prisoners (Editor’s Note: This program is no longer offered as of 2016). Regardless, the man explained that for an Associate’s degree, the Indiana State Prison System gives the recipient one year off of their sentence. This is to be applauded. It provides a tangible incentive to educate oneself while in prison. Stephen Streurer’s article verifies the time credit portion of this.

Here is where I took umbrage. He began to explain to me that he had not only earned an Associate’s Degree through Indiana University but that he had helped other prisoners do the same…by cheating. He explained that they would sign up for a portfolio course where they had to write papers. They would give him the work, and he would do it for them…for a price. He even went to the extent of explaining how widespread his assisted cheating was. He said that it got to the point where he was writing so many papers/business plans for people in a particular business class that he had to adjust his writing style accordingly. He said he could even use a previously graded paper/business plan if it had not crossed the desk of the professor who had graded it the first time.

I was outraged! How dare a man like this discount all of my hard work in my studies! How dare he soil the reputation of the prisoner-student with this filth! How dare he jovially say, “Glad they never found out. If they knew of all the cheating I did on my own courses, they would probably take my degree.” The worst part was that he was bragging. All of this entertained him. He seemed to relish his ability to outsmart a system designed to educate the disenfranchised. To him, outsmarting the system implied he was more intelligent than the system. This rationale is formless, chaotic, and devious. It is sometimes referred to as ‘ethical pragmatism,’ a prevalent doctrine that always turns out to be the doctrine of self-interest. His unseemly crowing about his academic swindle left me feeling sick. 

The truth of the matter is that I feel defrauded. I feel cheated myself since I work so hard to make good grades without the aid of cheating. I feel cheated for Indiana University because this charlatan compromised the integrity of the degrees that they’ve awarded to prisoners. And as an educator, I think this man undermines the success of much-needed programs like Indiana University’s. As I said in the beginning, I am angry.

This blog brings forth three truths that need to be voiced.

One, I came to prison five years ago without a moral compass. Yet, I have discovered a new path through extensive religious and college study. I consider this a triumph. Just five years ago, I might have agreed with this man’s philosophy on cheating. That’s a sad and sobering thought. Yet the fact of the matter is that I disagree with it at the present juncture. I have grown morally and socially responsible. 

Two, programs for prisoners like the one offered through Indiana University are needed and carry inordinate value. They help thousands of honest prisoner students obtain an education and change the trajectory of their lives. These programs very much might result in the difference between returning to prison or living in general society, between poverty and prosperity.

Three, I have already stepped up and done what I can to ensure this con artist doesn’t taint any more degrees. I have spoken to Mr. Batton about this man and plan on speaking with Mr. Rigney. If I have anything to say about it, this man will not be in a position of power, authority, or accountability. Allowing him to become an instructor would be unethical and disrespectful to the educator’s profession.

From my perspective, one is not often commended for being honest or employing ethical reasoning. Moral and ethical pragmatism saturate the environment of the American prison system. It’s just the way it is. But my hope – and the hope of millions now and in the future – is that I can break the bonds that bind me mentally and physically through obtaining an education. I, for one, am in the race of my life. A race that I hope and pray will end with a college degree, an enlightened mind, and waking up to my mom cooking breakfast. God willing, one day, this will be my reality.

Editor’s Note: The program at the University of Indiana is no longer offered.