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In Detroit, prison education includes lessons in finance, college credit

By Ben Tinker, CNN
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Charting your career
  • At Mound Correctional Facility, inmates can take classes to earn college credits
  • The school also brings in speakers to motivate, educate students
  • Prison brings in 20 teachers, full-time principal for school

Detroit, Michigan (CNN) -- Mound Correctional Facility sits atop a flat stretch of land about 15 minutes from downtown Detroit.

The prison is home to 1,050 men. While the average inmate is at the facility for only 15 months, it does have its share of "lifers."

The men incarcerated at Mound say they had no choice but to turn to gang life for money, goods and services they needed for themselves and their families.

If they weren't able to find a real job, they found a livelihood any way they could. So they ended up at Mound.

On this day the men are going to hear from Detroit native Ryan Mack and Andrew Morrison.

Mack and Morrison have little in common with their audience. They stayed out of trouble growing up, went to college and built successful financial businesses in New York.

Mack is the president of Optimum Capital Management (and a financial expert who appears frequently on CNN). Morrison is an author, small-business expert and an excellent public speaker.

Today, they will offer an economic solutions seminar to men who know only gaining wealth through criminal acts. They approached prison officials and offered to speak to the inmates as part of the Detroit National Teach-In week that Mack organized.

What sets Mound apart from other correctional facilities is its school-within-a-prison. The Prisoner Education Program offers inmates the opportunity to gain college credits. Upon their release, the ex-cons can transfer these credits to a community college and are on their way to receiving a college degree.

The students apply to the school and then choose classes, which cost $180 per college-level course.

Constance Banks, the school's principal, says that if receiving an education is what's going to set the inmates apart upon their release, the men are more than willing to pay for the classes. And they're not just interested in receiving their GED. They want to earn an actual degree.

"I'm not going to limit anything that will make a man whole or will stifle his progress," Banks says. That's why she's made it her prerogative to offer practical courses such as solar paneling and urban gardening. The inmates are given the opportunity to work toward a degree in fields such as custodial maintenance and computer refinishing.

"You just need to show them there are other ways to make money and provide for their families," Banks says.

People think that when you come to prison, you stop growing as a person. We're still people
--Aron Knall
  • Crime
  • Detroit
  • Education

Resume experience also is of the utmost importance, which is why the school helps students craft their sales pitch, says Kimberly Benjamin of Be Blessed Career Consulting, who works with the program as an entrepreneurship instructor .

"They may not be able to list lots of previous employers," she says, "but we're giving them skills they can use to their advantage."

This also requires a change in mindset.

"Sometimes they just don't recognize the skills they possess," says teacher Joy Rushing.

The inmates, everyone agrees, keep each other in check in order to ensure their school privileges aren't revoked.

"The only F-word you'll hear in this school is 'focus,' " says Banks.

About one-third of Mound residents are enrolled at the school. The staff consists of 20 teachers who lead one- to two-hour sessions of 15 to 20 students per block.

Making a change

"Wayne County Community College is the key to the next level," says inmate Todd Kelly. "Being in this situation, I'm looking to change my perception through education."

He's not ashamed to admit he arrived at Mound on a fourth-grade reading level. He now has nine college credits.

Rommell L. Sanders (aka Raheim Shabazz) is looking for ways to expand the little knowledge he has.

"There aren't many avenues, not many ways to improve our lives," he says. It's clear, as it is for the other men, that he's found solace in his schooling.

Paying for the courses can be a challenge. Inmates earn as little as 54 cents a day working within the prison in departments such as food services or the barber shop. The average is about $2 a day, with the highest-earning position as a clerk in the library ($3.34 a day). Inmates save their wages and family and friends also make contributions.

"It's a chance for me to enhance myself as an individual," says Aron Knall. "People think that when you come to prison, you stop growing as a person. We're still people."

Grabbing their attention

About one-quarter of the Mound population gathers in a gymnasium. Sitting on the bleachers are about 200 inmates, the vast majority of whom are black. There are a handful of white men, a few Hispanics and one Asian. All are dressed in blue jumpsuits with orange stripes on the shoulders. The room is quiet. Some of the men have brought a pen and paper to take notes.

Ryan Mack steps up to the lectern.

"There are three things, in addition to God, that you have in life," he says. "Your mind, your body and the earth beneath your feet. Everything else comes from that. The only difference between me and you? Our housing arrangement."

This comment is met with unanimous nods from the inmates.

"There are four steps I want you to take every three months," Mack tells them. "Start by finding your purpose."

He encourages the inmates to make a list of five skills they possess or hobbies they enjoy. "And someone else may see something in you that you don't even see yourself."

"Next, it's important to have a vision for yourself five, 10, 20 years from today. And be specific. 'I will be successful'? No. How about, 'I will own my own electrician company'? "

Then, says Mack, "Acquire two of the most valuable resources: people and knowledge. You're only one person away from achieving success."

Lastly, Mack encourages the men to draw up a five-step, tangible plan of action. What will it take for them to achieve their dreams? Part of the prep work in this area, he stresses, is reading. Any book will do, but books pertaining to an intended professional field are even better. He recommends one book a month for everyone, in addition to any required reading.

Mack also shares some pretty disparaging statistics. Money circulates in a white community about eight times before leaving the community. In an Asian community, nine times. In a black community, not even once. Part of the problem in the black community, then, is that there are no businesses to support. But the ones that are there, Mack suggests, aren't being properly supported.

"We need each other. Ninety percent of every dollar spent is spent on things we don't need to impress people we don't like with money we don't have," he says.

Mack concludes by assuring the men about the importance of both facts and the truth -- and the affinity of the people in the room.

"We need each other. None of us in this room is as smart or as powerful as all of us in this room," he tells them.

"That's right!" someone yells, and the room erupts into applause.

Andrew Morrison takes the stage and asks what the most powerful word in the United States Army is. A few hands go up. The men guess "soldier," "sir," "food" and "weapon." Finally, Morrison screams, "ATTENTION is the most powerful word. So listen up. Knowledge is about to be shared with you that'll transform your life.

"You need to recognize a gift and pay attention in order to receive your blessing," he says.

He emphasizes the power of focus, elongating the attention span, and improving one's listening skills. He asks the men to pull out what they believe were the most important messages in Mack's lesson. They conclude with faith, strength in community and getting out what you put in.

"Y'all have experienced tremendous pain," Morrison tells them. "So stop replaying that mental movie of your crime, your sentence, and let's move forward."

A vision of the future

The evening wraps up with Morrison asking everyone in the room to sit up straight, rest their hands in their laps and to close their eyes.

"Imagine in 10 years, you've become so successful that you're invited back to speak here. Now think about your ideal day. How did you get here?" A few giggles. "What did you start doing? Continue doing? Now think about three changes you made to make yourself more successful. Now, keeping your eyes closed, imagine yourself delivering a speech."

Inmates sit there, eyes closed, a few of their lips moving.

It may seem a bit odd that a prison is the institution in Detroit that's on the cutting edge of change. From behind these walls, the future seems a bit brighter than most folks on the outside may realize. As principal Banks says, "If I felt any better, I'd have to be two people."