ROSLINDALE >> Hoping to fill their sails with knowledge before returning them to freedom, the Massachusetts prison system has begun a relatively intensive educational program in Roslindale, which played host to Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday.
"This is a school," declared Secretary of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett inside the minimum security prison located next to Forest Hills Cemetery. Bennett credited the Baker administration for "a lot of vision to let us do this."
The governor sought to buck up inmates' confidence and was saddened to hear a Brockton father, in prison on what he said was a first offense, express hope that the program would let him give something to his children even though he is a "failure in life."
"This notion that somehow you have to pass the first time every time is insane. And all of us, all of us, all of us, screwed something up at some point many times along the way. It just happens, and it makes me sad to hear you say that word that way. And I hope you realize that life is a movie, not a photo, and those frames are ultimately up to you," Baker said.
The program is open to certain minimum security inmates scheduled for release or parole within a year to 18 months, according to Ben Thompson, the assistant undersecretary for re-entry who championed the program.
Thompson, who spent a career in re-entry and corrections before being brought out of semi-retirement to join the Baker administration, said unlike educational programs in other state prisons, the Roslindale model gives inmates at least four hours of instruction every weekday and homework.
Elsewhere in the prison system a high-school equivalency program might offer two hours per week and an inmate in the program could be transferred, Thompson told the News Service. He said 150 inmates applied for the program, which he hopes to expand, and 25 were ultimately accepted.
The School of Reentry opened on March 28, aimed at preparing students to take a high school equivalency test and refresh the educations of those who already achieved a diploma, according to a spokesman, who said days are filled with 4 to 6 hours of class plus evening study.
Thompson said most inmates enter prison with a third-grade math level and a sixth-grade reading level and said the program was "not easy."
All the inmates know "how to surf the internet," but almost none knew the slideshow presentation computer program PowerPoint or the spreadsheet program Excel, said Alan Spencer, director of workforce development in the office of public safety.
Baker quizzed the students on their backgrounds, why they applied for the program and what they gained from it.
An inmate from Roslindale said he hoped to receive a contractor's license, and a man from Lynn said he was "tired of living the same life," saying the education offered him "a second chance to regain what I lost, which is my family."
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins asked the racially diverse group of inmate-students how things were "working" given the racial segregation that takes place in other correctional settings.
"Everybody gets along," responded an inmate from Worcester.
Tompkins told the News Service that there is racial segregation in the Suffolk County House of Correction, though that is lessened when people are in the same program.
"Generally whites will be with whites; blacks will be with blacks; Latinos will be with Latinos. But it's these types of re-entry programs and education programs we find they come together," Tompkins told the News Service.
Asked if he hoped to expand the program Baker said he is a "big believer in replicating what works," and he is "extremely hopeful" the school program will demonstrate success. Baker said more vocational components could be added, offering additional skills, and Bennett said industry would be a partner.
"The idea behind it is it is going to be a public-private partnership, so that the funds are going to come from outside the government," said Bennett, who said companies contributing would "get good employees" out of it.
Bennett said Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ron Walker secured the assistance of Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College.
Jubilee Christian Church has made a contribution to the program and Matthew Thompson, a senior pastor at the church, addressed the students, suggesting they come to services once they are released.
"Hopefully I'll be seeing you guys some Sundays," said Thompson. He said, "You take this opportunity and turn it into another opportunity. So I just want to encourage you. You're on the right track."
The facility appears to have less rigid controls on access than more secure prisons in the state and parts of it had the look and feel of a school.
Wearing a tie depicting a stack of books and standing in a classroom with a whiteboard, a projector and desks, Ed McAdams, the headmaster, told the governor the school aimed to "mimic an academic environment" and spend time "rebuilding academic ego."