Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
Correctional Education Association of New York
Crowne Plaza Hotel, Lake Placid
May 27, 2010

Everyone in this room should have the same goal: making a safer society by educating offenders in our care.

While I profess a great interest in education in the prison system, I must admit that I have only a basic understanding of what it takes to teach the offender. I am far more comfortable dealing with students in our college programs that those in our ABE (Adult Basic Education) and Pre-GED (General Educational Development – high school equivalency) classes. I think many of our executive team members share my limitations.

Because of this, we need to find a more effective way to work together and to better understand one another’s role, and to make changes that will enhance all our efforts to make society safer.

Recently I learned a lesson with respect to a program we call Digital Literacy. I bought into the concept because I believed in preparing offenders, prior to their release, on how to access and use the Internet. As the saying goes, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was sold on the concept that offenders in our re-entry units could learn to use the Internet in 60 to 90 days just prior to their release. I was convinced that the software program we purchased would allow offenders to walk through a series of computer-generated learning modules quickly and easily. It never occurred to me that most offenders - and as it turns out, most staff members - would have difficulty moving through the program. I never really considered factors like reading levels, the ability to learn without a human instructor, prior experience with keyboards and a host of other issues I simply missed.

I also suffered from an all too common problem – nobody wants to tell the boss he is wrong. It was not until I got out into the field and asked teachers how things were going that I began to get the truth. The program is not bad; it is just in the wrong place. The program needs to be part of the larger world of offender education. It needs to be integrated into the system at the right time, with teacher support and enough time for offenders to master the basics, and then some, before running to the Internet.

I relate all this because is leads me back to the issue of how can we - and by we I mean you and me and the system - work together better. I am well aware of issues such as staff shortages, inmate transfers and a general lack of funding. Those are the inhibitors to education. The enhancers are the personal effort teachers and vocational instructors and counselors and everyone else puts forth.

I used to be amazed by how quickly some offenders raised their reading levels. I was also amazed by how many offenders got their GED while in prison. So I asked students in several classrooms why they were doing so well. Their answer was unanimous: because the teachers cared. The same thing occurs in vocational shops, in ASAT (Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment) and ART (Aggression Replacement Training) groups and even in job sites like the laundry, mess hall and maintenance.

We often tell outsiders that we are in the people business. Most think we are talking about the offenders we care for. Their rehabilitation is important, but what we’re really talking about is us. We are the people. And it is the people-to-people business that makes our efforts work. I know because I get letters from offenders throughout the system and deal with many who are out of the system. The one positive theme that runs through their stories is how much they learned from us, and how one or two of us made a difference, got them to see things differently.

A lot of research is going on today to determine what programs work and don’t work, why some people learn faster than others do, and why do some offenders turn their lives around in prison. Everyone is looking for something they can point to; a program, a test, a certificate, you name it.

What researchers are missing, in my opinion, is that the greatest change comes from the interaction between the offender and the teacher, the offender and the instructor, the offender and the correctional employee. We do not get the credit we deserve. We are more than making our prisons safe and secure; we are changing offenders’ lives, and therefore making society safer.

What I would like to leave you with is a feeling that your efforts do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. You may not hear the praise you deserve, but the role you play is extremely important. I know that I speak for the people most appreciative - the offenders - when I say thank you for trying, thank you for caring.