History and Description of the Arkansas Correctional School
The first formal education program in Arkansas prisons was begun in 1968. The England School District started a night program at Tucker, and the Gould School District started a night program at Cummins. These were limited in their outreach, but they were a step in the right direction. These programs continued for several years.
In 1973 the General Assembly passed Act 279 which established a school district within the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC). The purpose as stated in the act was to provide “elementary, secondary, and vocational-technical education to all persons incarcerated in the Department of Correction facilities who are not high school graduates, irrespective of age…” The Board of Corrections serves as the school board for the School District.
The ADC School District had nine teachers its first year — four at Cummins, two at the Women’s Unit, and three at Tucker. The average daily attendance the first year was 315. As of the 2005-2006 school year, the school has 89 licensed teachers, 7 classified employees, and 4 part-time employees. There are currently 21 sites that have Arkansas Correctional School personnel providing services to inmates and parolees.
The school has made consistent progress over the years. In 1973 there was compulsory attendance for those inmates who scored below a fourth grade level on a standardized test and who did not have a high school diploma or GED. The school board began raising the compulsory level in increments so that by September 1997, compulsory attendance is required for inmates who do not have a high school diploma or GED.
Inmates normally attend school twenty hours a week. At most units, inmates attend school for one-half day each day. At some units, adjustments must be made to the norm. Because of inmate work schedules or security status, some inmates may attend school one and one-half days per week, two full days a week, or several evenings a week. The ADC School District must be flexible in its offering of classes. Many scheduling problems must be met with creative scheduling. The primary goal is to remove as many barriers as possible between an inmate and the pursuit of his or her education. Because of this commitment, there are teachers who go beyond the standard classroom and go onto death row at Maximum Security Unit to work with death row inmates. There are teachers who go into protective custody barracks and administrative segregation barracks to work with inmates who cannot or will not function in the regular prison population.
When inmates enter the Arkansas Department of Correction, they undergo an orientation process at the Diagnostic Center. During this time, the inmate takes a battery of tests. One of these tests is to indicate the inmate’s level of academic performance. Inmates are also asked about their past participation in school. If an inmate does not have a verified high school diploma or GED, he or she is automatically enrolled in school when he or she reaches the initial unit. Students in school are retested on a periodic basis to determine advancement.
The idea of compulsory school attendance for adult incarcerated felons has been challenged in the federal courts. In “Rutherford v. Hutto,” an inmate, James Rutherford, challenged the state’s right to force him to attend school. Basically, he contended that he had a right to remain ignorant. The court ruled that the state can require an inmate to attend school. Requiring school attendance is not unlike requiring an inmate to work while he is incarcerated. A year later, in 1974, another inmate, Samuel Jackson, filed suit against the state, basically stating that while the state can force an inmate to attend school, the state may not force an inmate to do school work. In “Jackson v. Hutto,” the courts ruled if the state can force an inmate to work on the various jobs he may be assigned to do, then the state can take disciplinary action against an inmate who refuses to do school work. The state may not punish an inmate for not doing work he or she is unable to do. If an inmate refuses to do assigned work he or she is capable of doing, the teacher may take disciplinary action against the inmate.
Inmates are placed in classes with other inmates who function on the same level based on their score on a standardized achievement test. Most units place inmates based on their reading level since success in most subjects is contingent on reading skills.
The Arkansas Department of Correction School District has some challenges other school districts do not have. Most of the prison schools have over 100% turnover of students each year. Because of the constant change of students, teachers must provide for an open entry, open exit style of delivery of instruction. In the lower levels, there is a heavy emphasis on the teaching of reading, language arts, and math. As the student progresses to higher levels, more emphasis is placed on the five areas tested by the GED test — language arts writing, social studies, science, language arts reading, and mathematics.
A variety of instructional methods is used in self-contained classrooms. An instructor normally teaches all subjects to a group of students who are functioning on approximately the same academic level. Computer-assisted instruction provides a good supplement to classroom instruction. Prison educators are finding that inmates respond well to computers because inmates perceive computers as non-judgmental and non-intimidating. Sometimes an inmate is reluctant to actively participate during instruction for fear of revealing low academic skills. The inmate can receive assistance from a computer without a threat of ridicule. While there are computers in all unit schools, there are computer labs at Varner, Wrightsville, Cummins, Tucker, Pine Bluff, Grimes, Delta, East Arkansas Regional, Ouachita, and McPherson Units. Other instructional tools which are used are video programs such as “Another Page,” and “GED on TV.” Instructors also use PowerPoint and Smart Boards for instructional purposes. Curriculum materials consist of books and material appropriate for the adult learner.
During the thirty-six year history of the school district, 18,841 inmates have earned their Arkansas High School Diploma (GED).