On a recent gloomy, windy morning, 10 inmates gathered in a windowless, cinder-block basement room in the Cook County Jail.
As the teacher demonstrated how to solve algebraic equations involving multiple steps, inmates in tan jumpsuits sat quietly and attentively, speaking up only to offer answers.
“A negative times a negative is always?” the teacher asks. “A positive,” comes the group response.
The inmates were participating in the Safer Foundation’s PACE Institute, a program offered at the jail that provides a high school degree. Students typically start by developing reading and writing skills, while also studying math, science, history and social studies.
Their ultimate goals are to get out of jail, get a job, and in some cases support their families, said Durant Freeman, director of the program. Many just want to function in the world and have the things “average” people have, he said.
When some come in angry, often because they don’t have the money to post bond, teachers try to emphasize this is a way to make use of their time.
The PACE Institute receives financial support from Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation fund. There is a waiting list to enter.
For inmate Akeem Alexander, 29, of Chicago, the classes make up for opportunities lost when he dropped out of Lincoln Park High School. He hopes to eventually go to college and get a real estate license.
“I think it’s a great program,” he said. “I like that the teachers are patient. It’s complicated, but she’s hands on, teaching us to take our time, showing us different ways, different angles.”
Alexander, who was held on no bond for domestic battery last year, has been taking classes since June. He said he did well on preparatory placement tests, with plans to take the high school equivalency exam in a month.
The Safer Foundation, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit providers of services for people with criminal records, also runs two residential centers in Chicago. It focuses on jobs as the best way to help clients start over and lead productive lives. The percentage of repeat offenders in Safer Foundation programs is about half the statewide average. Only 17 percent of those who find employment return to prison, according to a study by Loyola University Chicago.
The Safer Foundation teaches not only book skills, but life skills like conflict resolution and managing personal finances. Freeman started as a teacher and prided himself on raising each student’s aptitude more than two grade levels, and getting them to pass the high school exam.
A former correctional officer, he joined the program after seeing people in his neighborhood coming through the jail.
Beyond traditional school lessons, part of the challenge is teaching computer literacy to adults who might never have used computers or seen a drop-down menu. With only about 25 laptops for some 250 inmates in the program, some use paper demonstration sheets to learn keyboarding techniques.
Ebony Mason is one of 10 teachers in the program. She has a master’s degree in education and started teaching at the jail this fall after teaching third grade at Chicago Public Schools.
The inmates are more eager to learn than the kids were, which keeps the classroom calm, Mason said. “The guys here, they really, really want it,” she said.
When inmates question the relevance of abstract inventions like negative numbers, she tells them they may encounter such concepts in the real world, for example, when they balance a bank account.
One of the most rewarding parts of teaching the inmates is when they recognize how much they’ve grown, Mason said. Some come in unable to fill out a simple application but leave knowing how to apply for a job or for college. Others learn how to read their own court documents.
“When students recognize their growth, that’s a big accomplishment,” she said. “They feel empowered.”