By Michael Walton
Edward Bohna says his job is just like that of any other principal, except his students serve time — including life sentences — for crimes ranging from assault and armed robbery to murder.
Bohna, 55, leads the school at SCI Fayette, a state prison in Labelle. Inmates take traditional academic classes and learn vocational trades.
But they’re still inmates in a maximum security prison, an environment where things can go wrong at a moment’s notice and with significant consequences. During a recent housing block tour, Bohna heard reports of a possible incident — maybe an assault on a staff member — elsewhere in the 53-acre facility encased by barbed wire-topped walls and fences.
Still, the principal said he isn’t bothered by working in a prison. His reward comes from the feel-good “light-bulb” moments he regularly witnesses. There is the ‘ah-ha’ moment when an inmate who entered the system reading at a first-grade level reaches a higher level of comprehension, and others when prisoners proudly receive a GED diploma in front of family members at a graduation ceremony.
Teaching is teaching, whether the student is a child or a man, Bohna said. And the work done by him, his educators and other prison staff is aimed at one overarching goal: preparing inmates for life after prison.
“We all play a part of the puzzle,” Bohna said. “It’s treatment. It’s education. It’s the counselors on the blocks. We all have a role to play in making a well-rounded inmate so that when he gets out, he’s not coming back in here.”
FIGHTING FOR FUTURE
Recidivism — the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend after their release — is a major challenge for the nation’s criminal justice system.
Nearly two-thirds of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested for a new crime or parole/probation violation within three years, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report . Seventy-five percent were arrested within five years. Pennsylvania was among 30 states included in the study, though the report did not provide state-by-state breakdowns.
The Department of Corrections most recent recidivism report, released in 2013, put the statewide three-year recidivism rate at about 60 percent, a figure that remained relatively stable going back a decade.
Comparing rates between states is difficult because recidivism definitions change from one state to the next, said Patrick Armstrong, a policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Ann Schwartzman, the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s adviser and policy director, said addressing recidivism is complex and difficult. In-prison programs and services, probation and parole practices, and wider criminal justice policies all affect the phenomenon.
But the public safety and public spending motivations for reducing recidivism are clear. Society is better served when prisoners become productive tax payers — as opposed to tax burdens — after they’re released, Schwartzman said. Pennsylvania budgeted $2.6 billion for corrections, probation and parole in fiscal year 2016-17.
Since its inception in 1787, the Prison Society has worked to improve how the state punishes and rehabilitates criminals. Benjamin Franklin and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush were among the group’s early members.
Education can play a key role in reducing recidivism when used along with other efforts to help inmates navigate the pitfalls posed by issues such as housing, employment and rejoining family, Schwartzman said. She credited Corrections Secretary John Wetzel with instilling a spirit of humanity and respect within the state system in recent years.
“If you treat people like human beings and you treat them with respect, then you get that back,” Schwartzman said.
TESTING AND TRADES
The state Department of Corrections opened SCI Fayette in 2003. Built with an 1,800-bed capacity, the facility holds about 2,100 inmates, according to the most recent population report.
Pennsylvania’s 26 state prisons house 51,000 inmates. Upon entering the system, each is tested for their educational level, among other things, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said. They’re given a reading and math score, and those without high school or GED diplomas are required to take 360 hours of classes.
After that, they can opt out of further schooling, but most continue to pursue a GED certificate, Bohna said.
Bohna oversees a teaching staff of six academic educators, each who teach about 80 students a day, plus seven vocational educators, each who teach about 30 students per day.
Trade programs are the school’s most popular offerings. The welding program has a two-year waiting list. The end goal for prisons enrolled in vocational programs is certification in a trade — the same as would be earned from a program on the outside.
While eating a prison-food lunch in SCI Fayette’s cafeteria, Bohna described his management style as “laid back” and “open door,” and he called his staff a “small family” — words not generally associated with incarceration and prison.
But that philosophy showed when he walked the prison school’s hallways. He greeted teachers and inmates alike, joking with them and asking how things were going.
Every day presents different challenges, Bohna said. He equated his job to running around, constantly putting out little fires.
The school’s popular barber shop program presented one recent example. Staff are pushing to expand the program in to a state-licensed full cosmetology school, an achievement they hope to reach any day. But that curriculum requires mannequin heads, hands and feet with long hair and nails. Guards resisted the idea of bringing mannequin into the school. They could be used as props to fill an empty bed during an escape attempt.
Bohna and instructor Carrie Holman needed a solution. They worked with the guards and eventually agreed on a way to securely store mannequin parts when not in use.
Holman said inmates oddly enough can’t wait to start getting full cosmetology licenses. It’s the sort of excitement that she loves. A former college instructor, Holman said she left that job because she was sick of trying to teach students who came from relatively well-off families, had every opportunity to succeed and still came up with excuses about why they couldn’t finish an assignment or study for a test.
“It’s having people who want to learn that’s exciting about this,” Holman said.
While academic and vocational programs are largely intended to prepare inmates for life on the outside, even those serving life sentences can benefit from getting involved in education, Bohna said. Education makes a calmer inmate, he said.
Many lifers become tutors. Darrell, 49, a South Park man serving a life sentence for murder, works with other inmates and staff on a project to cover prison school walls with murals. He discussed the effort as he and other prisoners painted images of the International Space station and the solar system on to a starry background.
“It’s a collaboration,” Darrell said. “It gives these guys an opportunity for success. It gives them a skill.”
The Department of Corrections does not release inmates’ last names.
Bohna helped the inmates select the scenes and uplifting quotes that will one day be scrawled across the prison walls.
The space mural will contain a quote from Nelson Mandela, the late South African anti-apartheid icon who spent 27 years in prison before becoming the nation’s first black president.
The quote reads: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”