Inmates say learning life skills in prison has changed them

Program focuses on social skills, self-esteem and more

Trish Mehaffey
Published: August 18 2013 | 6:53 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 7:13 pm in
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MITCHELLVILLE — Heaven Griffin, 26, bluntly said her mother died of alcoholism and she didn’t want to follow in her footsteps.

Griffin, an inmate at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, looked down as she said her prison time stemmed from being intoxicated. She was found in her car intoxicated and her two children were in the back seat. She received probation, but her probation was revoked last year when she didn’t follow up with treatment and continued to drink.

She said when she’s released next year that her life will be different because a 12-week Life Skills Program she’s taking in prison has changed her outlook on life.

“I’ve learned how to apply for jobs, how to interview for jobs,” Griffin, of Sioux City, said as she became more animated talking about the future. “I like computers. I never knew you could do all this stuff (on computers) because I only saw them being used by my aunties for chatting with men. I’d like to help others, maybe be an adolescent treatment counselor.”

Tools for success

Other inmates interviewed at the prison said they felt, possibly for the first time in their adult life, that they would be successful on the outside because of this program. The class focuses on social/personal development, self-esteem, vocational goals and respect and accountability.

“They are always working on some aspect of their lives,” said Marsha Buckingham, Life Skills Program specialist. “We work on social skills, job interviewing, how to put together a resume, learn about women’s health, talk about self-esteem and personal development. We want them to find out who they are and set goals that are attainable.”

Buckingham said speakers from various backgrounds and careers also come in to talk about their careers, struggles and work experience.

Looking for answers

Lisa Hill, Ankeny High School associate principal, said she was impressed by how the class seemed to reach the inmates, much better than their experience in public school. She wrote a dissertation for her Ph.D. last year in an attempt to figure out why she kept seeing some of her former students end up in the prison system. She conducted interviews with 25 inmates, ages 18-29 at prisons in Mitchellville, Fort Dodge and Rockville, about their K-12 public education experience. The inmates Hill interviewed remain confidential and were not offenders quoted in this article.

Hill said Ankeny and other schools’ curriculum had been focusing on the “whole child,” meaning their social/personal, academic and career goals, for many years, but the offenders kept telling her that they felt they didn’t have a voice in school and were only supported in academics.

“But their education in prison was different,” Hill said. “They got more out of the Life Skills class and felt like it was more relevant for them.”

Hill said public education teachers or administrators might benefit from speaking with Buckingham about her success. The key is for the teachers to develop a positive relationship with the students and listen to them. Some teachers may be prepared to look for personal/social issues and might need some training, she said.

Buckingham, who has been in corrections for more than 10 years as a corrections officer and counselor, said she only took over the program last February and this will be her second graduating class Sept. 5. The graduates wear caps and gowns and receive a certificate for completing the program.

Building new skills

All the inmates interviewed said the biggest reason they believe in themselves is because “Ms. Buckingham,” as they address her, cares about them beyond academics.

“She’s invested in us,” said Charlotta Coleman, 39, of Burlington, lightly pounding her hand on the table. “You don’t know how much she cares about us.”

Coleman’s crack cocaine problem led to serving time for first-degree theft. She had been clean for the last few years until her brother died in 2012, when she relapsed.

“I graduated from high school with a 3.4 (GPA) and I was a good student, but this class helped me open up,” Coleman said. “It helped me to forgive and love myself.”

Betty Kendall, 49, of Newton, said the class helped her with self-esteem and to trust herself again. Kendall got addicted to prescription painkillers stemming from a legitimate medical condition, but then she started selling them to others. She wants to stay clean and give back to the community in some way.

Dorothy Bray, 47, of Waterloo, was hesitant to say what led her to prison but she finally admitted she got involved in a drug ring and was convicted of money laundering. She said the class has given her the courage to think she could start her own cleaning service one day. She also wants to be a better mother to her five children and leave drugs behind.

“Ms. Buckingham is so great and always supportive,” Bray said. “She reminds me of my mom — a school bus driver. She died three years ago. I think she would be proud of me today.”

After hearing compliments, Buckingham said laughing “there have been days when they didn’t like me.” She keeps them on a rigorous schedule, leaving no idle time because the goal of the class is to transition them back into society so they won’t be back. The women have lectures and computer labs in the evening, along with their day classes.

Besides the life skills class, the women also take other educational classes, many working toward a GED and vocational certificate, Buckingham said. The prisons have a partnership with the Des Moines Area Community College, which provides full-time instructors at the facilities.

Sandra Smith, director of Correctional Education, said all inmates are encouraged to get their GED if they do not have a high school diploma, but only inmates 21 and under in an adult prison are required by state law to have a minimum of 15 hours of education classes per week.

All inmates are classified, based on individual needs, when they first come into the prisons and that classification determines what educational and treatment programs they will take, Buckingham said. Not every inmate at Mitchellville is in the life skills program.

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