Locked Up and Learning: Education from Behind Bars Part II

By Camaron Abundes   
NewsWest 9

FORT STOCKTON- Clad in head to toe white jump suits at the Fort Stockton Lynaugh unit, it's hard to distinguish one inmate from the next but for teachers like Guemecindo Urias each have a distinct story and past.

Urias teaches English as a Second Language, a course you can find in just about any school in the State but in Urias's classroom there is more at stake than just a grade.

"Every class that we have here helps them, and helps us and the state reduce recidivism," Urias said.

Urias says for whatever reason the people in his class never assimilated and even if they've lived in the United States for years most don't speak English.

According to a study prepared for the Criminal Justice Policy Council in 2000, High risk offenders who learn to read behind bars are 37 percent less likely to re-offend.

"That's one of our goals is to keep them from coming back," Urias said.

The average student enrolled in the Windham School District is a high school dropout.
"I never thought that I would say I am a sculpture as a teacher, but that is exactly what I consider myself. I have to chisel away at things that have caused them to callous themselves to life, so they realize, the person that has the same potential as you and I have is still in there,"  Teacher Kathy Pena said.

Pena says by choice or through lack of opportunity most inmates never learned the basics like math, reading, and how to deal with conflict. She says most have drug and alcohol related issues.

"They have this constant struggle in their life," she said, "but if they can realize that even though it's going to be harder for them now, because of the drug and alcohol abuse, they can rebuild."

Six months prior to release, inmates go through "Changes" and "Life Matters," two courses that cover everything from parenting skills to social skills.

"At first I felt like I was a person that know one really understood but going through "Changes" it allowed me to look at myself and see that now that I am someone and I can change and I can also be successful at if I just work at it," Inmate Wesley Frank, said.

Frank, who is locked up on charges of injury to a child, says he no longer just reacts, but now is thinking first.

"It's helped me to deal with others," he said.

Family history is something Kathy Pena says most inmates must overcome.

"A lot of these things are shocking to me," Pena said about the personal stories she hears from inmates," but I just try to continue to express and show them they have the potential to change. It is their decision."

Frank believes he is a changed man.

"I believe what I have learned here, I will take with me for the rest of my life," he said.