The Decline of Vocational Programs in the Virginia Prison System

By Uhuru B. Rowe
April 6, 2017

According to the Virginia Dept. of Corrections’ Operating Procedure (OP) 606.6 which governs Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs for incarperated people, “It is the policy of the Division of Education to provide offenders committed to the Department of Corrections (VADOC) with the opportunity to participate in career and technical education or apprenticeship training programs that increase the opportunity for students to secure and maintain gainful employment in a chosen career field upon release.”

Further, according to OP 606.6, “CTE programs are integrated with academic programs and are relevant to and consistent with the vocational needs of offenders and to employment opportunities in the community.”

A CTE program is defined as “A program of study that trains [incarcerated] individuals for entry-level job skills in a chosen career field.” In other words, a CTE program is just a sophisticated way of describing vocational trades. But for those who are unfamiliar with the Virginia prison system, there is nothing sophisticated about its CTE programs, mainly because their current state and availability totally contradicts its embellished descriptions outlined in the above O.P.

Three months after I was transferred from the Southampton Reception and Classification Center to Brunswick Correctional Center in early 1997, I was able to enroll in a Adult Basic Education class and an Auto Body Repair vocational trade program. By year’s end, I had earned my General Equivalency Diploma (G.E.D.), vocational trade certificates in Automobile Detailer, Automobile Painter’s Helper, and Automobile Glass Installer, and a certificate of completion for the Breaking Barriers treatment program. I was able to enroll in and complete these programs at a time when the primary focus of the VADOC was the rehabilitation and treatment of incarcerated people. Unbeknownst to me and practically every other person confined here, the tide was beginning to shift away from rehabilitation and treatment towards mainly the incapacitation (i.e.warehousing) of incarcerated people. This, of course, is the period of budget issues for the VADOC as a result of the abolition of parole in 1995. With so many people coming to prison, and too few people going home, the prison population swelled, and with it, the VDOC annual operating budget. The VDOC had to find ways to save money. As we know from history, when Government wants to save money, as is the case in larger society, one of the first items on the chopping block is education. This was true of the educational programs in the VADOC.

After 1997, I was not accepted for enrollment in another CTE program until 2004 when I was housed at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrat, VA. That following year in May, I graduated with yet another vocational trade certificate in Cabinetry. Little did I know this would be the last vocational trade I would be allowed to enroll in.

I was on the waiting list for the Heating, Ventilation, and Air-conditioning (HVAC) vocational trade program the entire time I was confined at the Buckingham Correctional Center from 2008-2016. When I inquired about the lengthy waiting period, I was advised by my Counselor that O.P. 606.6 had been amended to included the following:

“It is the policy of the Division of Education to provide as many offenders as possible with a viable educational background that can be used as a resource for competition in the public job market upon release from the correctional system. To achieve that result within the the budget resources provided by the General Assembly requires that the DOC restrict a student from completing more than one career and technical program in total while confined to the DOC….” O.P. 606.6(IV)(C)(14).

This policy change slammed the door shut on any person whose goal is to achieve the maximum benefit from their incarceration by continuously and consistently educating and rehabilitating themselves throughout the duration of their incarceration. This goal was further hampered by the adoption of the following policy change:

“Offenders shall be enrolled [in a CTE program] based on the Good Time/Mandatory Release Date and not the date they sign up for the program, with offenders having shorter sentences having priority….” O.P. 606.6(IV)(C)(9)

So, how do these two policy changes manifest themselves inside VA prisons. Most people sentenced to 40, 50, or even 100 years, because of his/her lengthy sentence, will be virtually excluded from all CTE (vocational) programs because there will always be a person with a “shorter sentence” moved ahead of him/her on the waiting list. Some people, myself included, were on waiting lists for as long as eight to ten years prior to the implementation of O.P. 606.6(IV)(C)(14)! If, by some miracle, a lifer is enrolled in a CTE program, once completed, they will never again see the inside of another CTE program classroom for the duration of his/her incarceration.

On any given weekday here at Sussex II State Prison, when the announcement is made for those participating in CTE programs to exit the dorm to report to class, a maximum of only two to three people, out of a 88-person dorm, will exit. This is the common theme throughout the VA prison system. The vast majority of lifers and people with lengthy sentences are forced to sit around in idleness, with little to know educational/vocational program participation, or any other positive and constructive activities, in an environment where the criminal mentality, antisocial personalities, mental illnesses, and drug addition are left to fester.

This atmosphere runs counter to the Virginia Adult Re-entry Initiative (VARI) put forward by the Secretary of Public Safety whose mission “is to promote public safety and reduce crime by preparing offenders for success through a continuum of services and supervision… from the time of offender’s entry into prison through his or her transition and reintegration in the community.” One of the eight values and principals that VARI is founded upon is that “Re-entry begins when an offender is sentenced to a VADOC facility and continues through release from community supervision.”

However, the VADOC had adopted a different approach: Rather than providing a “continuing of services,” the VDOC has opted to provide little to no educational, vocational, and treatment programming for incarcerated people during the greater portion of his or her sentence, and then attempt to cram reentry, pre-release, and rehabilitation programs down their throats when they get within eighteen months of release from prison. Predictably, by then, it is too late. The parasitic prison culture has already taken root.

Nearly all of the young brothers I have spoken to expressed disgust at the reentry programs they are forced to participate in when they get within eighteen months of release. Their opinions are that these programs do not work and are a waste of time. Many are ready to quit these reentry programs even when this means loss of Good Time and an extended stay in prison.

“Man, I can’t wait ’till I go home so I can get me a package and a pistol.” “I am not going to slave on no job for minimum wage. I have six children to take care. So I have to sell drugs.” These are the sentiments of those whose antisocial criminal mentality–after years of being left to sit around, idle, internalizing this sick, predatory prison culture for years with little to no positive and constructive programs to participate in–increases and becomes deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of these young brothers (and sisters) on the verge of being released back to their respective communities.

One of the things I have learned is that VADOC officials hate public exposure. They certainly hate bad publicity, especially the kind which publicly exposes them for their intentionally adopting a system which is designed to set newly released people–especially Black youth–up for failure.

The VADOC is no more concerned with reducing recidivism than a dogcatcher is concerned with reducing the scourge of stray dogs roaming the streets. The number of stray dogs running loose in society is directly related to the dogcatchers ability to maintain his/her job, earn a paycheck, and take care of his/her family. Therefore, the dogcatcher cannot (and will not) take serious the task of dramatically reducing the number of stray dogs because to do so would be acting against its own best interests.

Prisons operate on the same model. The existence of prisons provide thousands of recession-proof jobs for those in both urban and rural areas of the state where quality paying jobs would normally be inaccessible. These prisons also make millions of dollars a year through its various prison-based Virginia Correctional Enterprise (VCE) sweatshops where incarcerated people work (i.e. slave) in deplorable and unsafe conditions for as little as .55 cents/hour, manufacturing products which are then sold to private entities, colleges, and state agencies.

Virginia’s prison system is also (approx.) 60 percent Black, even though Black people account for only 19 percent of the statewide population. So these prisons, along with judicial racism and the heavy policing and criminalization of low-income Black communities, also operate as a racist tool to imprison and socially control that portion of the population deemed disposables and undesirables.

Within this context, it must be understood that the prison industrial complex has a social, political and economic incentive to perpetuate (if not encourage) high rates of recidivism and maintain a consistent stream of bodies, especially Black bodies, flowing into its prisons.

Nothing has changed since the height of chattel slavery in 1850. Whether it is referred to as mass incarceration or the prison industrial complex, slavery by any other name is still slavery. And in order to remedy this crisis, it is going to take a new generation of abolitionists fighting to tear down the walls of these neo-slave prison plantations.


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