Freedom Through Education

We strongly believe drugs have taken away freedom in our streets, jobs, numerous lives of people we love, and even our children. This has been a problem for entirely too long, and we are glad finally someone is determined to put an end to the drug menace in our country that seems impossible to eradicate in the perspective of men. We want to help overcome the drug problem through education because we believe that the drug epidemic is everyone’s responsibility since it is such a huge social issue that the government alone cannot solve. The Social Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Business Institute, Inc. (SETBI), by partnering with the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and with the University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP) has initiated a “College Education Behind Bars” project at the Ma-a City Jail, Davao City. This program aims to provide the inmates, both male and female, who are mostly drug offenders, the means to advance their education in prison. It is a higher education program whose mission is to assist incarcerated students in identifying and achieving their educational goals. By partnering with the university to engage faculty and students in the vital issue of the country’s burgeoning incarceration population, SETBI hopes to help inmate students build meaningful lives inside the jail and to reduce recidivism by offering them a recovery program with their college diplomas, so that when they are released, they are fully equipped to go back into society as a contributor to nation building and not remain a burden to their family and community. Through the College Education Behind Bars mentoring and recovery program, detainees enhance skills critical to completing a college degree and building trust in personal relationships. By equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed, we significantly increase their chances of succeeding when they return to the community as competent and productive citizens, workers, and leaders.

Because our mission is to help guide them spiritually, academically and physically and to prepare them for reentry, we refer to our students as students rather than calling them “inmates” or “prisoners.” Students must pass an entrance exam developed by the USEP to enter the program. Out of 300 hundred inmates assessed and interviewed, 70 individuals passed, 25 females and 45 males, allowing them to enroll in the program for the fall of 2017. Half of the inmate students are enrolled in Agribusiness and half in Information Technology. These students have not only tested into the program, but also behaved well, and their continuation in the program will depend on their maintaining good behavior. Failure to meet this requirement will result in their dismissal.

Inmate students will read the same university-assigned textbooks and complete the equivalent college level assignments as the “outside” college students, and when they graduate, they will receive a diploma from the USEP for having completed its college program. To honor the difficulty of college level study in the prison setting, USEP will grant our students their earned degree. The only differences is that USEP teachers will travel to the Ma-a Jail to teach courses there, instead of on the USEP campus. Before students enrolled in the program, the educational professionals assessed and screened detainees for basic literacy and readiness for college and documented their grade level, vocational assessment needs, length of sentence, and security clearance. The inmates signed an agreement to enroll in a course, and they know they will be monitored for being on their best behavior at all times.

To be prepared for additional college coursework, transitional employment and life demands for cognitive skills, detainees will be advised after completing their college courses and will be more thoroughly counseled before their release. Sooner or later, inmates will be out on the street again. Each of the inmates wants to leave the prison world never to return again. To do that, they need to succeed when they re-enter society. There is a huge challenge for the prisoners when the incarcerated get out because eventually most find themselves back in jail. There are many reasons for the high rate of recidivism, but studies show that the primary cause is unemployment. On the outside they need a job to be able to eat, to have a place to live, to support their family, to hold their heads high, and to know they can handle freedom. But jobs are hard to find when an individual is an ex-convict. With a college degree, good life skills, a core education, and solid vocational training of at least one year or more, released prisoners can overcome the prison stigma.

Dr. Aland Mizell conceived of and founded the first College Education Behind Bars project in the Philippines in 2016 with the backing of Attorney Susan Cariaga. The Social Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Business Institute (SETBI) funded this project by building and furnishing the classrooms inside the Ma-a Jail in Davao City. Designed for small classes taught face to face by part- and full-time professors, SEI’s College Education Behind Bars program is housed in a two-story modern building with five classrooms, two with individual laptops, one with audiovisual equipment, as well as an office, faculty lounge, and coffee shop. All educators working in the program are required to follow prison rules strictly, and both the BJMP conducted a thorough security briefing for faculty and staff.

This is the first pilot project in the Philippines, even in Asia, a model that SEI anticipates implementing across the Philippines. The original Memorandum of Agreement for this College Education Behind Bars project was signed by Dr. Aland Mizell, President of Social Entrepreneurship of Technology and Business Institute (SETBI), and Attorney Susan Cariaga, Vice-President of SETBI; the University of Southeastern Philippine’s President Dr. Lourdes General; and the Chief of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), J/Dir. Serafino Petronio Barretto, Jr., CESO IV, on September 28, 2016, at the House of Representatives, Batasan Road, Batasan Hills. Congresswoman Mylene Garcia- Albano of the Second District of Davao City, and Attorney Lily Freida M. Milla, CESO IV, Director III, International Affairs, Commission on Higher Education, and Davao City Jail Warden JSupt. Grace S. Taculin, and Assistant Warden JS Insp. Roberto C. Gotico witnessed the signing in Quezon City. Now, having completed the design and building of the educational classrooms and initiated the classes for the College Education Behind Bars program, the SETBI plans to dedicate the facility to signal this significant initiative for addressing our devastating drug problem, an initiative that should be noted nationwide as well as globally for its potential.

We believe education is freedom. Therefore, Education Behind Bars presents an opportunity for the detainees to have hope now and to prepare them for success upon release from jail. The Davao City Jail accounts for 3250 inmates, which is more prisoners than the official capacity they can accommodate. Living in cramped spaces is dangerous to health and human life. Those conditions breed diseases, which creates a system that adds punishment on another level. The Social Entrepreneurship Institute’s College Education Behind Bars gives an alternative education system -- a chance for rehabilitation and a meaningful life after imprisonment. Sometimes laws, rules, and regulations do not change people; only a change of the heart can break the chains of incarceration.

Prison is not the end of the line for many detainees; instead, it can be the beginning of a very special life for them with the right programs. They become aware that there is a very different life outside the jail than the one they knew when they came in. This initiative is about breaking down the barriers and letting the inmates know their life does not have to be like the one they first chose. We want them to come out changed because if they leave changed, they will not have the desire for their old lifestyle.

The right educational programs are crucial for several reasons. They help detainees with a successful reentry into society by giving them the education they need to make the right decisions in their lives. The right educational program also gives detainees the necessary interview and job skills to find a job when they get out of jail. Without a job they are much more likely to end up right back in jail. Some believe that the programs are too expensive to fund, but it could be more costly to keep them in jail without educational programs because those are more likely to commit more crimes and be incarcerated again. Education is the key to prevent the cycle of crime because it allows detainees to learn from their mistakes and have a better chance at a life without crime when they are released. Before this initiative, those who do not have at least a high school education or some type of college degree find it difficult to secure a job in today’s global economy.

Every one of us has a place in society. That part cannot be played by anybody else in the world. Being poor and underprivileged or having made wrong choices in life does not really matter. We have all made some bad choices in the past. Life is about choices we make. If we make good choices, generally they will lead to a good life, and if we make bad choices, those will lead to bad consequences with jails being a clear consequence of bad choices. What matters is that the inmates take advantage of the opportunity available to them to be motivated to obtain an education that will enable them to make the most of their individual gifts. Education can help students to become nurses, businessmen, bankers, politicians, or priests. Most things may be lost, but an education, once gained, may not be taken away. In addition, it is important to recognize the crucial role of education in contributing to building a culture of peace. A culture of peace and non-violence goes to the substance of fundamental human rights: social justice, democracy, literacy, respect and dignity for all. Education is a key tool in combating poverty and in promoting peace, social justice, human rights, democracy, cultural diversity, and environmental awareness.

Our life is just like a road full of detours, corners, crossroads, crooked or straight paths, and smooth or rocky ways; sometimes we do not know which road to choose or to take, and sometimes even we do not know where a road will lead us until we take it. That is one of the facts about our life. We have the choice between being a lost traveller or an accidental tourist in life or even a sojourner with purpose. Trusting someone completely does not always guarantee that the person will not betray you; loving someone with all your heart does not mean that person will love you in return. Sometimes we do not have power over the situation. The only things we have power over are the decisions we make and how we will react to difference situations. If we learn from our mistakes, they are no longer mistakes, but rather they become successes, because they help us not to make the same mistake again. When I saw those young detainees, the question I had was what options did their situation give them? What options does our situation give us? We are in part products of our environment. Whatever mistakes or wrong decisions we make, we should always learn from them and remember that we always have the chance to make better choices in the future because good choices usually lead to a good life.

Dr. Aland Mizell is President of the MCI and a regular contributor to Mindanao Times. You may email the author at: aland_mizell2 at hotmail.com.

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