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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Voices: The Media / High Schooler in Adult Prison?

I can walk into almost any school in the country and find out what the students are studying. But my latest request for the most general information about the schooling of a teenage girl in Indiana Women's Prison got me five or six recitations of the Privacy Act.
Oddly, when the girl was first placed in the prison, officials there were only too eager to give me details. Yes, prison Superintendent Dana Blank assured me back then, Donna Ratliff would be getting a full high school program at the women's prison, and Blank pointed to a couple of textbooks on a table behind me. One was a John Saxon basic algebra book, which many math educators regard as inadequate even in a regular classroom. The second was an 8th grade text in American history. The latter was a particularly odd choice. Donna had completed the first semester of her freshman year. Blank also reminded me that Donna would attend a GED class, though at 14, she wouldn't be able to take the test for two years.
Not that time mattered a great deal for this young girl. Still an immature teenager, she was facing a 25-year prison sentence—12 and one-half years with good behavior—for setting the house fire that took the lives of her mother, Glissie, and older sister, Jamie.

Not Age-Appropriate

In that early meeting in the superintendent's office, I was more than curious about the GED class. Donna had told me that when class members got their "work" done, the teacher pulled down jigsaw puzzles from the shelf and let them do the puzzles. Donna liked this. And Blank assured me it was an important activity—helping the girl develop hand-eye coordination. My wife, a school administrator and expert in child development, pointed out that hand-eye coordination was something one emphasized in kindergarten, not high school.
It's not realistic to expect the staff at an adult prison to know much about what's an appropriate high school curriculum. I lamented to Indiana state Superintendent of Education Suellen Reed that the people at the Department of Correction didn't seem to know what they were doing about educating kids like Donna. Reed's reply: "Tell me about it."
But why are high school kids in adult prisons in the first place? We don't send adult offenders to juvenile facilities. Yet waivers for serious crimes often land the kids in adult prisons. Although a few states physically separate juvenile and adult offenders and even offer a regular high school program to the juveniles, Indiana isn't one of those states. In fact, Indiana offers high school courses at only 2 of its 10 facilities, though many older offenders would benefit more from such courses than they do from the GED programs.
As far as I can determine now, Donna Ratliff's schooling is something of a jigsaw puzzle itself. Recently, she was learning about lines and angles, which I took to be geometry but which is really a sewing class. She's earning high school credit for this. Donna takes accounting along with the adult offenders, also for credit. On Tuesdays, she is enrolled in something called "food fundamentals.'' No credit here, though I'm not sure why sewing counts and cooking doesn't.

Where Are the Books?

Clearly, none of this adds up to a basic high school curriculum. Yet this is where it gets particularly indefensible. Donna is earning an English credit in a course that emphasizes writing and grammar, heavy on the grammar of course, if Donna's description is reliable. Where is the literature? I asked in a recent meeting with Blank and her assistant. Where's the poetry? Where are the novels? The plays? The short stories?
Studying Dickinson, Thoreau, Wilder, and all the rest helps people develop empathy. And, Lord knows, Donna needs to learn empathy. But Blank and the others didn't seem interested. They just looked at me, and the assistant reminded me of the Privacy Act. As for the rest of Donna's core classes —history, science, and math—she does these by correspondence. Four days most weeks, a teacher from Indianapolis Public Schools sits with Donna as she does "lessons.'' I've asked Donna whether the teacher gives her direct instruction. No, she mostly answers her questions when she gets stuck. No class discussion, of course. There's no class.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

In my experience, even smart and highly motivated people find it difficult to earn a high school diploma through correspondence. Even in home schooling, somebody usually provides direct instruction every day. I have no doubt the Indianapolis Public Schools will grant high school credits to Donna, just as they do with kids at the Indiana Girls School. And eventually Donna may get a diploma. But credits and a diploma are one thing. A high school education is something else. If Donna were at a private juvenile treatment center, such as Crossroads in Fort Wayne, she'd be in small classes with regular teachers who engage students in discussions and assign special projects that allow them to dig deeply into a subject.
It was just such alternative housing that Huntington County Judge Mark McIntosh recommended when he sentenced Donna. But under current Indiana law, the Department of Correction makes the final call. And despite the repeated requests from state legislators, clergy, child advocates, and my newspaper, the department continues to refuse to honor Judge McIntosh's recommendation. Sometimes correction officials cite cost, sometimes they argue they would be making an exception of one offender, sometimes they say they don't want to interrupt Donna's treatment.

Future Stock

Those of us who've been pressing for a juvenile placement aren't trying to make Donna's sentence easier. We're not "soft" on juvenile crime. But Donna suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by several family members — documented in court records and social agency reports and recounted so movingly by Fox Butterfield in The New York Times. She's the third victim of this family tragedy.
What will become of her when she's released from prison? She'll be just 25 years old, eager to have a job, get married, and have children, all the things that young people look forward to. The adult prison isn't providing either the schooling or the intensive counseling that will prepare her for life beyond the prison gates.
Donna's not alone. Today, about 80 kids under 18 are housed in Indiana's adult prisons. Most will be released when they're still young. And most will lack a good education and the psychological development to make them responsible, tax-paying citizens. So who are we being tough on?
End Notes

1 F. Butterfield, "A Fatal Fire, a Girl in Prison, And a Tangle of Justice Issues," The New York Times, 3 December 1996, sec. A.

Larry Hayes has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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