VOICE WRITING CONTEST – FIRST PLACE WINNER – NON-FICTION CATEGORY

Books for Crooks

I’ve been attending college all my life. Generally, those who pursue a university education do so either by attending classes or learning through correspondence. I’ve been living on campus for twenty years. Some of my associates might consider me a professional student. Citizens, however, would more accurately identify me as a career criminal. By the time I was sixteen, I had earned a Master’s Degree in Crime through Con College. During the past twenty years, not only have I learned how to hot-wire cars and bypass complex alarm systems, but I’ve also learned how to break into sophisticated vaults and bust out of secure prisons. I’ve spent twenty years learning the tricks of the trade, all of which were taught to me by my professors: criminals. Occasionally, I would spend a semester or two within the community-job placements that allowed me to apply theoretical teachings in order to fully develop my skills. Despite my best effort, I never seemed to make a passing grade. I never seemed to master the art of crime. As a result, my co-op placements were always terminated. In the end, I found myself back at Con College sitting in a small 6 x 9 room enduring more lectures. After nearly twenty years of studying crime and trying to learn how to steal the cheese from the trap without getting caught, I decided to take up a new profession. Nearly two years ago, I enrolled in correspondence courses through Athabasca University.

There are many challenges and pressures which many post-secondary students who earn their degree through distance education are confronted with. Faced with employment responsibilities and academic deadlines, some students are overwhelmed with the difficult challenge to manage their time efficiently. Others may struggle to not only afford the rising cost of tuition fees and academic related supplies but also rent and other living expenses. Both time and money seem to be important factors that hinder the post-secondary endeavours of many students. Despite these obstacles, with the aid of both student loans and family support, most students will endure and overcome their academic woes. Prisoners who pursue a university education, however, are not as successful as other struggling students. While prisoners may have an overabundance of time on their hands, funds for post-secondary education are not so plentiful.

Like all university students, prisoners serving time in Atlantic Canada are also required to cover costs associated with a university education. Unlike many university students, however, prisoners are not entitled to receive financial assistance through Canada Student Loans programs or other lending institutions. Prisoners live a penurious existence, and they enjoy only the comforts and opportunities that they themselves purchase from their limited prison salary. In all fifty-three CSC-operated institutions (CSC Payment 5-6), prisoners may earn a maximum bi-weekly salary of $69.00. Accordingly, it is impossible to shell out thousands of dollars for post-secondary education using this meagre income. Since the vast majority of prisoners hail from poverty stricken backgrounds, they are unable to secure financial assistance from family members. Thus, prisoners are expected to finance educational endeavours themselves.

Prisoners not only struggle to scrape together funds enough to cover course and tuition fees but also payment for supplementary resources and stationery supplies. Even though the institutional authorities provide academic-related items to students enrolled in a General Education Diploma (GED) program, the corrections system will not provide the same to prisoners enrolled at a university level of study. For example, prisoners are required to cover costs of supplementary resources such as a dictionary or a thesaurus. Similarly, basic stationery such as printer paper, pens, and pencils are items for which prisoners are forced to pay. Even postage for correspondence to the university or assignments to a tutor further taxes limited resources available to prisoners. Payment for any one of these items quickly exhausts the skimpy institutional allowance prisoners receive bi-weekly.

For years, many people have had a false impression about conditions inside of CSC-operated institutions. In recent times, a common term used to describe Canadian penitentiaries has been “club fed.” This term connotes a resort-like environment in which prisoners reside. In the same vein, there is another common misperception regarding educational opportunities available to prisoners while serving a sentence within a federal institution. Influenced by media and even CSC propaganda, many citizens are of the opinion that their tax-dollars are being used to finance vocational trades and university degrees for convicted criminals. Although I wish that were true, it is nothing more than a myth. Nevertheless, the CSC is a master at deception. It paints the best possible scenario to create an illusion that “the Correctional Service of Canada is determined to succeed in its goal of educating inmates so that they may compete lawfully in the community” (CSC Atlantic 1). In reality, very little is being achieved behind the walls of most Canadian penitentiaries. Even though some offenders would like to pursue a higher education, prison authorities refuse to provide opportunities and financial support.

Nevertheless, the CSC ingeniously communicates the illusion to society that offenders have available to them a wide range of both trade oriented and post-secondary opportunities. Posted on its website (CSC Atlantic 1), the CSC suggests that “25% of all inmate students” and “fewer than 10%” of offenders within the Atlantic region are actively participating in vocational trades training or university studies, respectively. Despite such claims, vocational trades have not existed at institutions within Atlantic Canada since the mid-80’s. Furthermore, during the previous decade, I have not met another inmate who was enrolled at a post-secondary institution in any of the institutions at which I had been housed in the Maritimes, including several other institutions across Canada. Today, the only CSC funded educational opportunity available to prisoners in the Atlantic region is a GED.

The CSC openly admits that “offenders generally pay for their own post-secondary studies, unless it can be demonstrated that the education addresses a very specific need” (Atlantic 3). However, this implies that under certain conditions the CSC will finance post-secondary education. These conditions are outlined in paragraphs 15 and 16 of the Commissioner’s Directive 720:

15. Offenders may be required to pay a part or the full cost of their participation in a post-secondary education program.

16. In reference to paragraph 15, the institution may pay a part or the full cost if the following criteria are respected:

a. the offender meets all criteria for post-secondary education as established by the applicable Ministry of Education or any other educational organization recognized by the Ministry;
b. the past educational record of the offender regarding completion of programs is considered satisfactory by the institution;
c. the course is considered as a priority in his or her correctional plan;
d. the course is from a recognized and accredited provincial education organization; and,
e. the payment of the participation of the offender is within institutional budgetary limits (3).

To duck financial responsibility, authorities within the Atlantic region refuse to incorporate post-secondary education as a priority in an offender’s correctional plan. In fact, even though I had met all of the prerequisites outlined above, I had been unsuccessful for nearly a decade to have post-secondary education listed as a priority in my correctional plan. After I was transferred to a maximum-security facility in Quebec, prison authorities immediately incorporated post-secondary education as a priority. In addition, they agreed, in writing, to fund half of all post-secondary expenses. As a result, I invested nearly eight thousand dollars toward my educational endeavour. As per the agreement, CSC were supposed to match this amount. While I was housed in Quebec, prison authorities contributed $596.00 toward fulfillment of their commitment. However, that proved to be the only contribution I would receive from the CSC. Shortly thereafter, my security classification was reduced to a medium-security status, and I was transferred to New Brunswick. Despite the earlier written agreement, CSC reneged on its earlier pledge. Prison officials at Dorchester Penitentiary argued that since they hadn’t authored the original agreement, they were not going to honour it. In addition, they further cited budgetary limitations as another justification to abandon this contract.

During the course of the past few months, I have had numerous discussions with various CSC officials at Dorchester Penitentiary regarding financial support for post-secondary education. As a result of my inquiries, I have discovered that insufficient funds is not the issue but rather an arbitrary decision of upper-level managers who do not support financing prisoners’ university education. Collectively, institutional budgets have a surplus of hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the fiscal year. These funds must be spent or the various departments whose budget was not exhausted may be reduced by this amount from the upcoming year’s budget. Instead of using these funds for educational opportunities, prison administrators go on a yearly shopping spree and spend tens of thousands of dollars on unnecessary items. Despite both an earlier commitment to fund 50% of my educational expenses and a budget surplus of thousands of dollars annually, Dorchester Penitentiary officials continue to shirk their prior pledge.

As a society, we expect a correctional facility to actually “correct.” To some Canadians, “correct” does not mean housing an offender in resort-like environments in which an inmate’s educational needs are catered to. In other words, some members of society are not enthusiastic about having their tax-dollars spent on post-secondary education for a convict. However, price of an education pales in comparison to cost of incarceration. Annually (CSC Facts 15), incarcerating a male or a female costs Canadians tax-payers on average $66,381.00 and $110,473.00, respectively. Thus, if the source of society’s complaint is truly monetary, educating offenders would be cheaper in the long run.

While many citizens may have a bitter taste in their mouths about financing education for offenders, the alternative is an even bitter pill to swallow. If prisoners are not afforded a realistic opportunity to change the course of their lives and secure gainful employment upon their “graduation” from “Con College,” they will continue to wreak havoc in society. When you think about it, void of emotionally charged views, there are not many other career options available to aging, uneducated convicts. Accordingly, many cons will resort to the only thing they have ever known. I can assure you that criminals will not accept a life sentence of minimum wage employment over the proceeds of crime.

It takes a special kind of criminal to be able to hang up his guns and turn his back on yesterday’s lawless lifestyle. By the time many criminals decide to take up a new profession and explore brighter horizons, they are wading so deep in the cesspool of crime that crawling out of the darkened bowels of the penal system toward the light is hopelessly blinding. Many have been lurking in darkness so long that they are unable to see beyond their cement tomb. Thought of a better life outside of prison walls is simply an enchantment that many are only able to admire through a chain-link fence and fantasize about what could have been. What could have been if they hadn’t played around with drugs, if they hadn’t committed that initial transgression, or if they hadn’t quit school. In the end, many offenders will fall victim to the perils of this lifestyle. Some will escape these walls by lethal doses of heroin. Others will embrace the dark unknown of the hereafter swinging from the end of a makeshift noose. And a few will be murdered by their peers. Many, however, will never be liberated from this criminal lifestyle after entering through the revolving doors of a penitentiary.

Few offenders possess the academic background and intestinal fortitude required to both pursue and succeed at a university level of study. Those who do are stymied by financial hardships and bureaucratic hypocrisy, both of which impede an offender’s attempts to become a productive member of society. Unfortunately, books for crooks are not a priority for Corrections Canada.

Works Cited

Correctional Service of Canada. Atlantic Correctional Programs: Educational and Employment Programs. 10 Oct, 2004. < http://-atl/programs/educational-and-employment-programs.htm >.

Correctional Service of Canada. Commissioner’s Directive 730: Inmate Program Assignment and Payments. Ottawa: CSC, 1999. 5-6.

Correctional Service of Canada. Basic Facts About Federal Corrections. 2001 Edition. Ottawa: CSC, 1999. 15-20.

Correctional Service of Canada. Commissioner’s Directive 720: Education of Offenders, Ottawa: CSC, 1999. 3.

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