(Reprinted from the Gainesville Sun, June 19th, 2013)
LOWELL RECEPTION CENTER — The room of cinderblock walls painted a pale yellow with a bank of computers on one wall and books on the other could be a school anywhere. But the students were in light blue prison scrubs, and the room was carved out of a dorm that holds more than 80 inmates incarcerated for homicide, sex crimes, grand theft, assaulting the elderly and more.
One day — whether next year or in a dozen years — each of the inmates in a unique educational program at the Lowell Reception Center will leave the state prison for women in northern Marion County. The program, led by Gainesville veteran and Zen Buddhist KC Walpole, aims to give them at least a fighting a chance of making it on the outside.
“I would match our program with any prison educational program in America,” said Walpole, who began working in prisons in 1995 as part of his training to be a dharma teacher. “Getting out and getting a life is not enough. There has to be that piece of cosmic glue that goes beyond getting a job. That’s where education comes in.”
The goal is for these inmates to leave prison with a 12th-grade education and, in the process, a GED. The Lowell complex of prisons near Reddick makes up the largest concentration of incarcerated women in Florida. The Lowell Reception Center, which opened about a year ago and has about 760 inmates, has multiple missions, including reception, in-patient mental health, and faith- and character-based programs.
Walpole first got linked with Lowell around 2002 when 12 inmates asked him to teach Zen there. In 2006, he started teaching mind-body stress reduction — a mix of meditation, yoga and communication. Assistant Warden for Programs Djuna Poole has responsibility to make sure the prison has adequate educational opportunities. That led to the creation of the New Century program with Walpole.
“I have to reach out for the community. These programs are done by volunteers,” Poole said. “The true story is told when the inmate walks out the gate. Is she going to make it or not?”
This year, the prison and Walpole launched the New Century computer-based education program in three dorms in which dayrooms were converted to learning centers. The computers are state surplus, but they are good enough to run education software that allows the inmates to work at their own pace toward a 12th-grade level. Inmates who have a grasp of the work serve as tutors for inmates who need help.
“I enjoy it. I enjoy helping others because I know there was a time when I didn’t understand things and people came and helped me,” said Catherine Williams, who had some college classes before a conviction six years ago for trafficking cocaine.
“If any of the ladies have questions or are having a hard time, we help them so they have a better understanding,” Williams continued. “If they are really frustrated, we take them to the table and do one on one.”
Some inmates provide tech service on the computers when bugs invade. Among them is Chrissandra Brewster, who has been in Lowell for a year and is scheduled for release in 2024 on a conviction of attempted sexual battery on a child under the age of 12. Brewster said she often would watch her uncle do technical work on computers and learned from that experience.
“I’m the head tech and take care of the computers. I help program them, and if there’s any maintenance to be done, I do that,” Brewster said. “My uncle is always working with computers, and it’s just kind of in the blood. He does a lot of programming. There’s really not much I don’t know how to do.”
Inmates are required to spend a certain amount of time in the program, including mandatory night classes on dealing with re-entry, financial literacy and small business to prepare for their eventual release. Stetson University is set to send Stetson students and a professor to help with instruction and to study the program, Walpole said. Inmates may write small-business plans that could be eligible for mini-grants to start a business when they are released, he added.
And education is just one aspect of the program. Each dorm has several pod families to help inmates deal with frustrations, squabbles and other aspects of life that arise in a prison. Heading each family is a “grandmother,” generally a calmer inmate with high integrity. “Grandmas” take a special class to learn how to handle the dorms.
Donna Elliott, who has been incarcerated since 2003 on a grand theft conviction, is one of them. “My role as grandmother is to love and nurture. Everything goes through me. Anything that goes on in here I have to oversee. I try to see that everyone is happy and adjusts well,” said Elliott, who has three grandchildren outside Lowell. “This has stretched me. It’s allowed me to see women on a different level. When you get 84 or 86 women together, and the personalities, you have to deal with the anger and the hurt. There are a lot of breakdowns in here, and you just have to love them through it. And when you have to discipline them, it’s tough.”
The goal of both components is to provide the education and the social skills the women will need to succeed after their release. Walpole said the cost to the Department of Corrections is miniscule — $1.16 per inmate a day in the first year and 37 cents a day per inmate thereafter. “How can you beat that?” he said. “You do this across the state, and you are going to make a difference.”
It already has made a difference to Carolyn Clark. The 61-year-old is nine years into a sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon — a hammer — and aggravated battery on a person age 65 or older. A longtime crack cocaine user, Clark is scheduled for release in November 2014. She had never worked on a computer before and often lifts her arms and shakes them in joy when she masters an assignment.
Clark would like a certain kind of job when she’s out — it’s a topic she knows intimately and might now have skills to match.”During my activities of getting high, I contracted HIV. I’ve been a survivor for 15 years. I’m very, very healthy,” Clark said. “I want to be an HIV facilitator. Our past doesn’t have to be our future.”