Connection, rebirth starts with behind bars education outreach
Wayne Wells was surprised to find a passion for learning in a surprising place.
Wells, the director for correctional education at Lamar State College Port Arthur, has found many of the students he teaches at area jails, and prisons fully embrace the classes he and other instructors teach.
“What I’ve discovered since I’ve been teaching in the prison system is these are guys thirsty for knowledge,” he said. “They’re looking for instructors and professors to come in and teach, because they want to learn and they’re eager to be there.”
The program has been in place for more than 20 years, Wells said. LSCPA staff travel to the Mark W. Stiles Unit, the Larry Gist State Jail and the Federal Correctional Institute to teach all kinds of classes, ranging in topics from automotive repair, HVAC, welding and building, and even some core curriculum classes in science, math and art.
Several classes can lead to inmate student certificates, and some can even be used as credit for a two-year degree.
The program does wonders to help reduce recidivism, officials said.
Albert Faggard, who teaches art appreciation and drawing at the Stiles Unit, says inmates who take these classes and receive certificates or degrees are much less likely to wind up back in the penal system.
“I think the main thing is that it’s really a good program for everybody involved,” he said. “If you keep somebody off the streets, it’s a good thing for everybody.”
Faggard has seen the effects of his classes among his own inmate students and he’s even seen a good bit of talent.
“I think it makes a difference with the people that are incarcerated,” he said. “They’re actually really good students. They’re people that are just trying to get ahead in their lives. They’ve made some mistakes and they’re trying to improve. They want to come out with something they can hold on to so they can get a career.
“You have to be buttoned up, because they’ll read the book quicker and they’ll know the subject better than you do if you don’t watch it.”
Wells entered into his position last August and has made keeping the program strong one of his focuses.
“Having been a principal prior to this role, professional development and staff development is critical to the success of any school campus department when it comes to student learning,” Wells said.
“The leader must make sure they are staying at the cutting-edge with providing those instructors opportunities so the people can continue to learn how to teach and understand there is a process. We have to learn to follow it, especially if we want to see our students be successful.”
He also made sure to keep the program together.
“During the transition from one leader to the next, things can fall by the wayside, and I had to make sure I didn’t disconnect from any other faculty or my staff, make sure to let them know I have an open-door policy whatever we need to discuss,” Wells said.
Wells teaches the Learning Frameworks class, which is required by the state of Texas for all new college or university students to take.
The class helps teach students best practices for tackling the demands of college education, including topics from handling ADD/ADHD to doing research at the library.
In particular, library research is substantially limited for inmates, but Wells has ways to accommodate the challenges.
“You do have libraries at the prisons but they are not accessible with online research because it’s a penal institution,” Wells said. “We do the best that we can when it comes to that chapter.
“Everything in the book is applicable to them if they want to be a successful learner, if they want to be a student that would want to go through the system and not have to struggle.”
Faggard is quite proud of the work some of his drawing students produce.
“There’s a lot of talented individuals in there,” he said. “They have a lot of free time. I teach them classically and most have improved. It’s not an easy class; I work them hard. If you’re going to learn to draw you’re going to draw right and you’re going to improve. I can help them do that, and they enjoy that. It’s a release for them.”
The limits with Internet access at the correctional facilities have affected the classes since the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting stay-at-home orders.
In-person classes are no longer held and no digital platforms are available to continue the classes during the pandemic, but students can complete coursework paper packets.
Wells has been working on finding the best ways to cope with the lack of instructor interaction.
“I feel for them because for some content you have to have that instructor,” he said. “You have to have a person that’s an expert in that area who can present that material to you so that you can definitely understand, and if you have questions, be able to converse or engage in discussion.”
Faggard said the program is worthwhile, for inmates and the greater community.
“You don’t want to go to prison, and that’s anywhere,” he said. “It’s just not a nice place. These men, they’ve made some mistakes, they know that. They want to grab something they can improve their lives with, and I enjoy teaching them. I really do. I think we’ve got a really good program.”
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