By Charles David Henry
There’s a lot going on in the desert, and it’s not a mirage, reported Scott Budnick of his May visit to Ironwood State Prison. In The Huffington Post he described the low, flat concrete buildings with tall steel fences and razor-sharp barbed wire rising out of the blazing-hot landscape.
Ironwood State Prison is a maximum-security facility located in the desert, not far from the border between California and Arizona.
Upon entering the gates of the prison, Budnick immediately noticed that the facility, only designed to house 2,200 inmates, quietly functions with 2,938 inmates.
“But inside these concrete buildings, something extraordinary is happening,” Budnick wrote. Ironwood State Prison has the largest prison education program in California where an astonishing 1,200 plus students have earned college degrees. Some men learn to transcribe college texts into Braille, while others are trained in additional valuable trade skills.
The administration, staff and inmate population have created a new culture, Budnick reported, centered on education. Young inmates avoid the typical drugs, violence and negativity associated with prison life. The environment at this facility has transformed lives and developed responsible character among the ranks, according to Budnick.
“This culture change has manifested itself in a new sense of pride by both students and staff,” wrote Budnick.
Most men are doing hard time, Budnick reported, but not necessarily for hard crime.
“Many are affected by California’s three strikes law under which even low-level felonies, such as writing a bad check, can garner a strike on the way to serving 25-to-life sentences. Men, even young men, rattled off how long they had been in: 19 years, 25 years, 33 years. And they weren’t even close to getting out,” he said.
Budnick saw hope and compassion emerging as men gained a deeper understanding of themselves and their crimes. “In some cases, they are coming to terms with the fact that their actions mean they may never step outside these walls again. They may die at Ironwood. And yet they are finding ways to be productive,” he adds.
The prison has become a haven of hope for 18 year old sentenced to adult prison for the first time. “Here they become students and enter the college program mentored by the lifers, who have learned their lessons the hard way and don’t want this next generation to follow in their footsteps,” Budnick said.
Because the facility has elevated the importance of correctional education, a representative of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), an entity that presents informational talks by the best and brightest from various fields to wide audiences, “believes this was an idea worth spreading.”
In May, Ironwood State Prison hosted the first TEDx talk inside the walls of a California prison. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and a contingency of special guests transformed the prison gym into a sound stage with lights, cameras and microphones.
More than 300 people including prisoners, visitors and staff were there, reported Budnick, entertained by inmates, who coordinated, hosted and spoke on the theme of “Infinite Possibilities.”
“The event highlighted the fact that correctional education programs have been shown to save dollars and greatly decrease recidivism rates, which means they increase public safety,” according to Budnick.
In California, while 95 percent of those sent to prison are released, two-thirds end up incarcerated again, reported Budnick.
Inmates at Ironwood advocated that education gives those who are released the best possible shot at a second chance. Budnick reported that he has seen this in his work with the InsideOUT Writers program, through which incarcerated young people learn to use creative writing as a catalyst for personal transformation.
This event gave men a sense of self and purpose, according to Budnick.
“They showed that change is possible. Some had made reckless mistakes and others had made horrific choices that landed them at Ironwood. But they are showing the power of the human spirit while serving their time and working toward redemption. At TEDx, they shared their personal journeys and their faith in the future,” Budnick said.