VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: BOP Offers Higher ‘Degrees’

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By Randall Morris 

FCI Seagoville is a low security federal facility located fifteen miles Southeast of downtown Dallas, Texas, with an inmate population of circa 1,800. I arrived here on 3/2/2023 to serve a 19.5 year sentence, five of which have already been served in county jail awaiting my sentence and transfer to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The 2020 outbreak of Covid-19 in the U.S. and the subsequent closures of the courts and prisons in response to the pandemic were the reasons for my unusual and extreme duration in the county jail.

After serving those five years of what many, to include judges, consider to be county jail “hard time,” I had looked forward to finally transferring to the BOP where the living conditions and educational opportunities are rumored to be vastly better than most state prisons and exponentially better than the extremely uncomfortable county jails that do not offer education programs.

The expectation that one can further one’s education in the BOP was further propagated through the wording of the 2018 First Step Act and the 2021 availability of the Pell Grant to inmates which had been unavailable to the incarcerated since the 1990s.

Simply put, after wasting away for five years in a county jail which had me locked in a small cell for 23 hours per day every day—and with no access to reading materials, I was more than ready to transfer to the BOP and to begin furthering my education through college courses from schools that have partnered with the BOP. I had imagined filling my days and evenings with study in order to better myself for my eventual release back into society and to use my advanced education to help overcome my felony record when seeking employment.

It should not be difficult then to imagine the disappointment in discovering that FCI Seagoville does not offer college courses despite its large population, despite the First Step Act and Pell Grant for inmates and despite the formidable size of the so called FCI Seagoville “Education Center” building with its numerous empty first and second floor classrooms that depressingly echo the building’s original architectural intent and wasted potential when you enter and call out, “Hello, is anybody here?” (cue the tumbleweed and crickets).

For inmates that independently seek them out, there are some alternatives through distance learning correspondence courses from colleges like Adams State University, University of Idaho, Upper Iowa University and California Coast University to name just a few of many. However, costs per credit hour range from $160 to $500 making them unaffordable for most inmates considering that the typical federal inmate prison job pays only $20 to $60 per month and that is before federal taxes are deducted. Worse yet, the majority of federal inmates remain unemployed because there are not enough prison jobs.

The 2018 First Step Act’s stated goal is to reduce the number of federal inmates and to reduce recidivism through programs and education provided by the BOP. Currently, the only “education” offered at FCI Seagoville are GED and sporadic non-accredited self betterment classes that do not require textbooks or controlled testing and that are taught by other inmates. These courses have no tangible market or transfer value. Worse yet, the capacity of these classes is only twenty-five inmates and as there are so few of them sporadically scheduled, they fill up as soon as they are announced causing weeks and sometimes months of waiting to participate in these token classes.

Why so few classes and where are the community colleges and universities? One might point out that fewer inmates will eventually result in smaller. BOP budgets and staff reductions which will mean BOP suicide if the provisions or mandates of the First Step Act are fully and robustly implemented at each federal prison. If the wardens control this implementation it would appear to be a direct conflict of interest.

So, what about the new Pell Grant for Inmates? Can’t it be used to fill the BOP education void and allow inmates to select qualified college correspondence courses which could meet the programming aspect of the First Step Act?

In response to this question, a number of the colleges offering these correspondence courses responded that the new Pell Grant for inmates can only be applied to qualified courses that are physically taught by a college at the prison facility. However, two other responded that the federal rules governing the application of the Pell Grant for inmates are still unclear. And when FCI Seagoville staff were asked, they did not know and were unable to help. The collective end result is that the Pell Grant for inmates is currently useless to the 1,800 inmates at FCI Seagoville if not most or even all of the inmates in the BOP.

Having said all of this, I must now confess that it is not entirely true that FCI Seagoville does not offer an intensive degree program of sorts. It is true that, in fact, I was exposed to higher degrees upon my arrival when I was assigned housing in a barrack of 180 men with no air conditioning and only five functioning showers. Google search “Texas Summer Temperatures” to confirm just how intense this degree program is (cue the search engine pop up air conditioning ads).

With another summer just weeks away many inmates are apocalyptic in describing their experiences with the brutality of the heat and humidity of past Texas summers in these barracks and liken it to a perpetual involuntary Swedish Sauna stoked to maximum. But to be fair, FCI Seagoville is somewhat merciful in that they do issue small cheap plastic fans but only to those inmates that can afford them at $30 each. No money? No relief for you! Next!

On 4/6/23, the Dallas Morning News (Vol. 174, No. 188) headlined an article by Lauren McGaughy titled “Danger By Degrees.”  That article could have also been titled, “Torture, Death and Murder By Degrees” as it reported that “Seven in Ten [Texas] state-run lockups lack universal air conditioning” & that “The lack of climate control contributed to the deaths of at least twenty-three inmates between 1998 and 2012.”  Even though Texas is one of thirteen states that does not require air conditioning inside state jails and prisons, Texas has been repeatedly sued over living conditions and is currently fighting twenty lawsuits related to extreme heat in its prisons. The article further reported that “in 2017, the state was ordered by a state judge to install air conditioning in the Wallace Pack Unit where elderly and sick inmates are housed. Installing it cost $4 million. Fighting the lawsuit cost $7 million.”  The article concluded with the prospect of several bills that are currently before the Texas House that would require temperature control in all state-run jails and prisons if passed.

As this Dallas Morning News article did not mention the lack of air conditioning in the federal prisons within Texas, I felt compelled to write about it. Now that it is done, I am sending it to the Dallas Morning News, Prison Legal News and others in the hope that there will be more attention and reporting on these living conditions, lack of education and the impotence of the federal Pell Grants for inmates.

As a disabled veteran it is sad for me to admit that sometimes when I watch the large U.S. flag wave in the Texas wind outside my barrack window within this punitive federal prison, I often find myself thinking about and envious of Sweden with its highly successful rehabilitative and redemptive prison system, its emphasis on inmate education, its campus-like prison living conditions and its merciful automatic expungement of felony records after seven years of prison release with no recidivism.

Sweden is also infamous for its saunas. The difference there is that Sweden does not warehouse its citizens in them.

Randall Morris is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, TX.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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