Prison inmates pay for their own life skills and social behavior classes

Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Facility in L.A. County, California, are getting an education while they serve their time. They're learning life skills and social behavior in classes that they pay for. Reporter Micah Ohlman has an inside look at this special program.

If you close your eyes and just listen at first, it sounds like an ordinary Sociology class at the local college, but when you open your eyes you see that the students surrounding you are inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. This particular class is made up of domestic violence convicts and is surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers - convicts like 42-year-old Luis Santiago.

"When I came down here, I came thinking differently," Santiago said. Selfish, he also said, thinking only about himself. Santiago's road to transformation has come from an unlikely place, a place you don't often find behind bars, a classroom.

"We look at it from a point where were not rehabilitating them. Many of these men don't know what a man is in the first place, so it's habilitation," instructor James Beard said. "We' re teaching them something that they didn't know. In this case how to treat women."

For seven hours a day, five days a week for 12 weeks inmates are taught life skills. The classes are voluntary and not what you'd expect after being sent away.

"I expected just like sitting, sitting in a cell not getting too much information, just going up through the system," said Kelley Evans, inmate and student. "But in this program they take a lot of time with you and it's really, really working out."

The Classes are part of what's called the merit program here at Pitchess Detention Center, an education that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. Instead it's paid for with the inmates' dimes and nickels and quarters, literally, a program funded with the change inmates use to make phone calls and buy soft drinks from vending machines.

"We've been given the opportunity to do is turn those lives around so that their time here isn't wasted," Sergent Michael Bailey said.

The effects of this program are found in the stories of those who've been released.

"One judge, one particular judge, one day called us and said you know what, what's going on over there? We said what do you mean, what's happening? She said well I have a man here that I'm trying to release who wants to come back to jail. He wanted to come back to finish the merit program," Beard said.

Remember Santiago? He's scheduled to be released in November 2007. He said the merit program has changed his life.

"Right now I can go back home thinking in another way - thinking about my family and my wife and how to be a better husband, a better dad and a better son," Santiago said.

Back in school there is a pop quiz as class continues with the hope that these inmates will remember today and tomorrow.


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