Books behind bars provide a lifeline - Albuquerque Journal

Books behind bars provide a lifeline


Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Earning her high school equivalency certification gave Stephanie Stepp, 31, “a sense of accomplishment,” a feeling that had long eluded her.

“It was something I could be proud of because I’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of my life, wondering what if I would have just stayed in school, you know, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Here” is the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants – the state’s prison for women.

In February 2018, Stepp, one of four defendants, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, conspiracy and kidnapping in connection with the death of Tiffany Boyer, 29, who was beaten to death with a hammer in August 2015. Stepp was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Jennifer O’Brien, left, and Stephanie Stepp study in the computer lab at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in November. “Education has always been a priority for me,” says O’Brien. “If we stop learning, we die.” (Adria Malcolm/For the Albuquerque Journal)

“I came here from Sacramento, California, my freshman high school year and it was a big culture shock,” she said. “Albuquerque was so much different and the school was so much different. I didn’t know anybody and I think that trying to fit in with the culture here came first before my academics. I got bored and dropped out.”

By her early 20s, Stepp had fallen in with the “wrong people” and became addicted to methamphetamines.

“I was employed on and off, but my addiction had me in a pretty bad place right around the time when I caught my charges,” she said.

Accepting responsibility

On arriving in prison, Stepp said she signed up for the high school certification course and studied for three months before taking the exam. “After that, I wanted to stay in the education system, so I started doing different programs.”

Stepp said she accepts responsibility for her part in the violent crime that landed her in prison, and admits that earning time off her sentence for good behavior is an incentive. However, a bigger incentive, she said, is the opportunity to fill her hours doing something productive.

“Do you really want to spend your time in a prison facility, and not do anything with your life and not actually better yourself? This is supposed to be a correctional facility, and nobody’s gonna correct you here but yourself,” she said.

There is a strong correlation between low literacy and incarceration, and the stage gets set at a young age. According to the nonprofit literacy organization, Begin to Read, 85% of juveniles nationwide who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 75% of adults incarcerated in state facilities have low literacy and did not complete high school.

And the Coalition on Adult Basic Education bluntly states: “Without adult education, low-skilled adults are more than two times more likely to be unemployed; three times more likely to be in poverty; four times more likely to be in poor health; and eight times more likely to be incarcerated.”

Fighting recidivism

On a positive note, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a 43% reduction in recidivism rates among former inmates who used a prison library regularly and participated in prison education programs while incarcerated.

Darcy Smith, left, and teacher John Dias look on as Patricia Sipes assists another student with math equations in an Adult Basic Education class at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. (Adria Malcolm/For the Albuquerque Journal)

In New Mexico, getting prison inmates to enroll in educational programs isn’t just encouraged – it’s mandated – at least for some. Under state statute, New Mexico Corrections Department prisons must have an adult education component and, with some exceptions, people who enter state prisons without a high school diploma or a GED, and who have sentences of more than 18 months, but less than 10 years, are required to enroll in adult education classes.

Many of them can earn a GED (General Educational Development) certification, or a HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) certification.

Those mandated inmates who choose not to participate “shall not be eligible for monetary compensation for work performed or for meritorious deduction” (sentence reduction for good time), according to the statute.

The statute does not apply to metropolitan or county jails or detention facilities.

Immersed in education

After getting her high school certification, Stepp began taking courses designed by and under the auspices of New Mexico State University and Mesalands Community College. She immersed herself in classes on technology, including internet fundamentals and computer programming. She enrolled in a “success program” on recycling and going green, which raised awareness about “how you want to live when you leave this place,” she said. And there was a reentry class, which provides practical information about how inmates can transition back into society after they are released from prison.

Stepp said she was also looking forward to taking a philosophy class that will be offered in the future.

“My goal here is … to leave with a bachelor’s degree and, if I don’t leave with a bachelor’s degree, then I’m messing up, because I have enough time and I have the resources here to do it,” she said.

Based on her exposure to different educational areas, Stepp said she intends to remain focused on computer technology. “I think it’s a good baseline for anything in the future, because technology is never going away and will always progress. As long as we can keep up with that, it will be a good field for felons to go into.”

Sarah Johnson, an associate professor at NMSU Grants and the correctional education program facilitator, has great faith in the programs and in Stepp.

“If I had my own business, I’d be sitting outside waiting for her when she got out,” she said. “I would hire her in a heartbeat.”

NMSU investment

NMSU, Johnson said, has invested much time and effort into assuring “that we have the equipment and the communication with them, and the involvement of the instructors” so that the inmates enrolled get something more than a grade for performing assignments out of a textbook, and instead “really understand the technical stuff” and are “job ready” after they get their certificates.

The only problem with the prison courses, she said, is “we just don’t have enough of them.”

There are about 6,300 inmates serving time in New Mexico’s 10 adult prisons.

Stephanie Stepp stands for a portrait at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. Serving time for second-degree murder, Stepp currently is a 4.0 student who is a teaching assistant and a tutor in the prison.

Although the inmate population fluctuates, of about 320 women incarcerated at the prison in Grants, more than 70 are enrolled in adult education classes that can lead to getting a high school equivalency certification; about 30 are taking classes in cognitive behavioral therapy; another 30 are studying computer technology; and 50 are in elective or peer-led classes.

The educational component of the prison is extremely important, particularly because many women enter with “surprisingly low” literacy levels, Johnson said. “We have women coming into prison at the second- and third-grade level, and these are 25- and 30-year-old women.”

Intellectual, emotional elevation

The programs not only elevate inmates intellectually, but also emotionally, she said. “It affects their day-to-day lives because they’re in what I would consider to be an adult environment that they’re not in when they walk outside the door of this building.”

Many of the women in prison “don’t even understand the concept of what an education might provide,” Johnson said. “So, just showing them those things is going to lower recidivism because they had no clue they could do anything else than what they were doing.”

Stepp is anything but clueless. She keeps busy taking classes, visiting the well-appointed prison library and maintaining a job in the education building as an aide to class instructors. She loads computers supplied by NMSU with programs, helps keep track of student grades and assists students working toward their high school equivalency, or who are struggling in their college courses.

“I love it. It’s what keeps me out of trouble,” she said.

Still, Stepp has no delusions about life in prison and the toll her crime has had on the victim’s family and her own. Her parents have since moved to Florida, taking with them her teenage son. She said she has had no visitors and sees family members only on occasional video chats.

“It’s hard,” she said. “The education building and the education process is the only thing that keeps me sane here.”

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