After sitting in the unoccupied waiting room of Mason Youth Institute for a few minutes, reading the flyers for clothing regulations and visitation rules, I’m met by President Tim Colley and director of academic programming Kim Holley. They are young and enthusiastic as we exchange greetings and head towards MYI’s juvenile education facility.
Tim, Kim and I approach the first set of doors that lead to a classroom. Inside is a technical education program: rows of computers are occupied by young men in tan uniforms, a professor stands next to a chalkboard with technical jargon unfamiliar to even me, a relative computer nerd.
Tim explains that this is not part of the high school program, but one of many vocational programs that are offered at MYI. The age range of MYI’s 300 or so inmates goes from fourteen to twenty one. Men who enter MYI with a high school diploma, GED, or earn their diplomas in the facility must enter vocational programs for the remainder of their sentences. The programs range from computer technology, culinary education, automotive education, and so on.
At the end of the hallway, we enter the automotive lab. The lab resembles a Midas more than a classroom. A large wooden table to the right of the entrance is filled with half-dissected alternators. A young man, no older than 20, is putting together a transmission by himself in the corner of the room. The rest of the class stands around a green Saab sedan. The Saab is lifted up about six feet or so, and the engine has been gutted out on nearby tables.
The class is no different than an automotive school. The students go through different skills of automotive mechanics and when they complete all the skills, they are given a certificate that can be used once they leave the facility.
“Even if all they learn is how to do an oil change and replace the brake fluids,” the automotive instructor tells me, “they’ll get a certificate so that when they leave here they can go out and find a job.”
Most of the funding for the vocational programs, as well as for the expansion of the school, has slowed down over the past few years. In a state that already spends over 600 million dollars on incarceration, it’s difficult for MYI to establish greater funding.
“We used to receive more money,” Tim says, “But over the past few years things have really slowed to a halt.”
All inmates at Manson are required to attend school. For those without high school diplomas or GED’s, high school education is mandatory. Each inmate is tested on his math and reading skills upon entry to MYI. They are then entered into class rooms based on their ability and prior education experience. Each day the men must attend eight hours of classes divided only by a lunch break.
Inside the first classroom on the first floor, young men sit at desks, books open, paying close attention to the teacher. The teacher, a casually dressed middle aged women, bounces around the chalkboard, pointing out things on the board and selecting raised hands. The civility is remarkable. There’s no backtalk, no passing of notes.
Each classroom on the first floor is quiet and controlled. There’s little security on the first floor too; a corrections officer passes by every so often.
The classrooms on the second floor are designated for special education classes. Tim explains how some of the men come into MYI with low aptitudes. These men work towards strengthening their basic educational skills.
The students give me apprehensive looks, but say nothing. I’m made fully aware that my presence is foreign and strange.
It’s sort of the mass causality nature…that calls us to action in a way that other things may not.