Classes behind bars open doors

Courtesy Photo

By Stormie Sanchez, Staff Reporter

At 5 a.m., eight men in matching white outfits file into a sparsely equipped classroom. On the wall there is an old green chalkboard. In the middle of the square of tables is a malfunctioning projector. The equipment is old, but it works. 

The men are inmates at the Clements Unit Prison in Amarillo. They will spend the next six hours studying and working on car engines. They are the first students in the diesel mechanics classes that Amarillo College began offering at the institution in January. The inmates, who pay for the classes, say they are eager to gain employable skills for when they are released.

“I want to make sure I don’t come back to this place. I’ve been here since 1986. I want a legal way to make a living,” said William Curry, a student in the class. 

According to a national research, people who have access to an education in prison are 43% less likely to end back up in prison than those who do not. 

“This gives us an opportunity to do things the legal way,” Curry said. “This is knowledge we can always use.” 

Paul Montgomery, the instructor for the course, said that when it comes to anything technical, more people are retiring than entering the fields, leaving a demand for skilled laborers. “As far as skills go, they are going to be super employable. We go over a lot of real-world scenarios,” Montgomery said.  

The students share stories and go over homework while they wait in line for coffee. It feels like an ordinary morning in an ordinary shop class. 

 “The students pay for classes just like AC. Each class is 9-18 days and worth three credit hours,” Montgomery said.

Linda Muñoz, the dean of technical education, said these education classes are offered to inmates who are eligible for parole in two years or less, and will lead to associate of applied science (AAS) programs once these inmates are released.

“Eventually we would all love to see that there are full AAS program there. Right now, we’re just starting with this one program and building other programs,” she said.

 Many of the inmates in the diesel class have spent the majority of their lives in prison. For most, education never seemed like an option. 

“I never saw college as something that would happen in my life. I’ve been here for 30 years,” said Keith Swindall, a diesel mechanics student at the prison. “I’ve hurt a lot of loved ones in my past. This gives me a chance to make up for some of that, especially my parents and my kids.” 

Everything in the shop is locked away. Any time a student requires a tool, it must be checked out from a secure room. The serial number is logged, and if it isn’t accounted for by the end of class, the shop is put on lockdown. Despite feeling like a normal classroom, the reality that it is within the barbed wire fences of a prison is always lingering. 

Montgomery said that when he was hired, he was unaware the position was at the prison. When he found out, he was shaken; something that still causes his wife to worry. “She was a little freaked out too. She gets nervous if I don’t call by 12:15 or so. She starts to worry because it is prison.” 

After a few weeks, however, he said being at the prison has become normal. “You see all the prison shows and movies and there is a lot of violence. From a teaching standpoint, it’s not like that. They ultimately want to be here and care about their teacher,” Montgomery said. 

The students echoed that sentiment and said they respect their instructor.

“He’s got a good attitude. That’s something we don’t get very often. Mr. Montgomery wants to help us,” said Allyn Doyle, a student in the class.

“Mr. Montgomery told us from day one, he wants to see us succeed,” said Wayne Reibert, another one of the students.

Outside of the classroom is the auto shop where the students get hands-on experience working on vehicles. Despite some hiccups, the students maintain a positive attitude.

“When we started this shop was a disaster. There were parts from one end to the other. We’re having to find what parts are missing. It’s slowing us down, but it’s a good thing. It’s teaching us to troubleshoot,” Reibert said.

Montgomery said it has been difficult getting everything the students require into the prison. “We weren’t prepared. Getting all the equipment I need and getting all the teaching materials in here – there is a lot of red tape.” Ultimately, however, he said he enjoys his job. “It’s rewarding seeing them blossom, seeing the light bulb turn on when they learn something. I hope to see them in the field when they get out.”

Chris Taylor, the youngest student in the class, said he wants to learn as many skills as he can while he is in prison. “We’re supposed to rehabilitate ourselves, but if we don’t have any classes, how are we supposed to learn to be better members of society?” Taylor said. “We’re here because we want to be, not because we have to be. We’re willing to pay for it, and it makes for a better learning environment. We’re all eager to learn.”

Taylor said prison is a system that is designed to make people feel like animals or numbers. “You don’t ever hear anything good coming out of a prison. They focus on the negative, not on the positive,” Taylor said.

But Taylor said the AC class is different. “Here we are able to feel like humans again.”

Swindall said being able to take college classes is restoring his hope. “This is building my confidence, making me believe in myself and giving people a reason to believe in me.”

Joe Sauceda, whose classmates nicknamed “Antisocial” due to his preference for learning things on his own, said it’s difficult to get people to come to the prison, which could lead AC faculty members to turn down teaching opportunities at the prison.

“We are still human. We still have dreams and feelings,” Sauceda said. “We still want to be a part of society and we are trying.”

Swindall said that deciding to pursue a degree has been life changing. “You’re never too old to look at yourself. You have to look at the past so you don’t repeat it,” he said. “You have to learn to believe in yourself.”

Once the lab starts, the students are busy working on their motors, and can no longer talk, but Swindall ends the interview on a positive note. “Thank you to everyone who has opened this door to give us this opportunity; otherwise we would be stuck in the same rut,” he said. “This is a way out.”

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