Anthony Covert made a bad decision. At just 18 years of age, he had a disagreement with a peer over a girl. The two decided to duke it out, but Covert upped the ante by bringing a stolen gun to the fight. Despite shooting his romantic rival several times, the victim survived. But now, instead of graduating from the culinary arts school he was attending, Covert is now doing 30 years for attempted murder and first and second-degree assault.
“The fight stemmed from … a disagreement that led to more than what was called for,” Covert admits.
Today, thanks to a joint partnership program between Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and Whitman College, Covert knows he could have solved the disagreement in a more positive way. In this program, Covert and other inmates learn how to apply logic and reasoning to solve arguments. The classes include non-incarcerated students from Whitman College that interact and “argue” with the inmates. Both sides learn to see opposing views for what they are – not as threats, just different ways of thinking.
It would be understandable to think students might be worried about interacting with inmates, but many of the inmates also had reservations about meeting the students. For the incarcerated, the bright-eyed students who were free to leave the facility after class represented a life the prisoners could have had, but lost due to a few bad decisions. However, the program has been a success for both groups. The students gain a clearer, less Hollywood-influenced version of real life inside an American petitionary and an understanding of how quickly a bad choice could put them on the other side of the bars. The inmates learn that being quick to anger is ineffective, and that negotiating, listening, and coming to logical conclusions during an argument works better.
The program progressed to involve other inmates. During the first semester, only inmates in minimum custody were cleared for the problem-solving course. For the second semester, those doing hard time and life sentences were allowed to partake. The thinking in the second semester was to see if “an old dog could learn new tricks” so to speak, and the answer was affirmative. Both prisoners who expected to be out of jail in the future and those serving extended and life sentences benefited significantly from the program. Realizing that they are smart and capable enough to reason through a problem has positively impacted many inmates in the program.
The problem-solving course has shown promise in other areas of the inmates’ lives, too. One man went from being reclusive and sullen to being an avid bookworm, socializing, holding down a job in prison, and planting flowers. The change has not only impacted him, but the inmates who interact with him.
Problem solving is a skill that not everyone is born with, and how it manifests can often be a product of environment. When a person is born or raised in disadvantaged circumstances, raised voices and violence — be they in the home and in the neighborhood — can be prime examples of how to get what one wants or needs. Learning how to positively problem solve, on the other hand, can reduce the chances of violence, and instill a sense of confidence and pride knowing that one can disagree without a situation coming to blows, and that they can actually walk away or back down without losing self-respect.
Programs such as the joint partnership program between Washington State Penitentiary and Whitman College that bring young students and prisoners together to interact and jointly learn how problem-solving, reasoning and logic can change their respective lives for the better delivery important lessons to the students, vital rehabilitative tools for the prisoners, and help foster a better understanding of those living in the prison system.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.