Mentoring and Empowering Students through Corrections Education
By: Darrell Miller
As I stood in an ice-cream line with my daughter in the mall in June 2019, I heard a startling “Ay-yo, Miller!” Distracted from my daughter’s thoughts on chocolate ice-cream with rainbow sprinkles, I saw a former student smiling, wide-eyed, and sharply dressed. At no more than 27, he told me where he was working and how good life was going for him. In turn, I expressed how proud I was of him, of the exchange we were having in the mall and was hopeful for more.
It had been more than one year since our last exchange, where “Ay-yo Miller!” participated in a Flagger course offered to men in an all-male, adult correctional facility. At the time, as a Dept. of Education (DOE) staff supervisor working in this setting, the certified education team and I delivered a range of instructional offerings. These offerings included low literacy and numeracy refresher skills, secondary credential and/or high school diploma instruction, several vocational trainings, and evidenced-based practices on evaluating one’s thoughts, to bring about change in decisions and behaviors (MRT®). Living in a small state like Delaware has many benefits. Our education program is one of four DOE run programs in maximum security facilities in the state, our supervisors/administrators meet regularly, and our instructional teams meet at scheduled intervals, sharing best practices across programs. An important shared perspective and practice is the ways in which workplace and employability skills are integrated into our programs to support student transitions back to the workforce.
Another small-state benefit is that Delaware’s correctional system is unified, meaning the prison is not separate from jails. While the percentage of admissions to maximum security facilities has decreased by 13.4% from 2018 to 2019, 60% of the population are of Black and another 5% of Latin descent (Planning, Research, and Reentry Office, 2019). As staff supervisor, it was important to ensure instructors had qualified offender instructional aides to support learning in the classroom. It was equally important to demonstrate inclusive hiring practices, comprising of instructional aides from similar backgrounds including people of color, relatable age groups and those who earned their high school diploma within our program. These aides, including fellow corrections learners, are hired to support the certified Department of Education instructor. They go through a screening process and have earned a minimum of a GED or high school diploma. Having students identify and connect with these men emphasizes the benefits of life-long learning while supporting the goals and achievements of students and the mission of the education department. Of 2,946 student statewide enrollments (academic, vocational and MRT®/Life Skills) in 2019, 62% of students were of Black and another 9% of Latin descent, where 147 students earned their GED, 39 earned their high school diploma, 418 completed Life Skills and more than 1,200 earned a vocational certificate providing industry specific competency skills (ACE Network, 2019).
For more than 10 years, I have worked with teams to support adult students in correctional education as a computer instructor, special education instructor, education diagnostician, or staff supervisor. It was in 2010 when I first made contact with “Ay-yo Miller!” I delivered one-to-one services to students in a separate setting, and at a different Delaware correctional institution. He was approximately 18 or 19 and was sentenced to several years. While providing instruction, I learned about his previous experiences in school, his ambitions and connections with friends and family. Over time, he accepted that I genuinely cared about his future, as I do all students that enroll in our programs. Working with adults in these settings comes with benefits, including feelings of joy among students and staff, as we celebrate an academic achievement or conversely reorient goals for a post-incarcerated future. There are also challenges, and the obstacles may be numerous at times, but having a team of educators who are truly dedicated to impacting student lives is what this work is all about.
My first year of teaching in 2004 was with Brooklyn, NY 6th – 8th grade students diagnosed with emotional disabilities. Identifying strengths and developing positive relationships with my students, while providing academic instruction was a balance requiring routine, patience and persistence. These qualities were required for facilitating and promoting learning in this middle school environment, and my colleagues in the correctional setting will agree that these qualities are essential there as well. It was here, that I found my calling to support students impacted by what is acknowledged as traumatic experiences today. Many of my students have experienced a number of challenges throughout their lives including, but not limited to, food insecurity, exposure to violence, absentee parents and undiagnosed learning issues. The work that happens in the classroom and the relationships that are built extend beyond the achievement of a credential. Educational attainment and mentoring have an important role in reducing recidivism (the tendency of a convicted person to reoffend). Studies have shown that educational attainment can lead to better preparation for transition back into communities and the workforce upon release. As a Black male having Latin and Caribbean descent, I consider my role in education a privilege, providing essential instructional resources and support to all students who may need a second chance, particularly those from Black and Latin communities.
Darrell Miller, D.B.A is an Education Associate with the Adult and Prison Education Workgroup of the Delaware Department of Education. His primary interest is in building sustainable connections with employers by understanding their organizational needs, while supporting community and prison education programs meet those needs with students who face and overcome their obstacles.
Planning, Research and Reentry Office (2019). Delaware Department of Correction Annual Report . Retrieved from https://doc.delaware.gov/assets/documents/annual_report/DOC_2019AnnualReport.pdf
ACE Network (2019) Prison Adult Education 2019 Annual Report. Retrieved from http://nebula.wsimg.com/f6778628a0974716de7369109091978b?AccessKeyId=9128F0A622211D9BF249&disposition=0&alloworigin=1