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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    Jennifer Burzycki talks with Dwayne Hawkins during a class at the state prison in Concord Tuesday, April 10, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    The state prison, Concord
Sunday, April 15, 2012

Job at NH state prison is ‘a teacher’s dream’

Jennifer Burzycki walks through six secure doors, up a clanging set of metal stairs and down a long, white corridor to reach her classroom at Granite State High School in Concord.

On the wall are science equations and a poster with the periodic table of elements. A red-and-blue model of DNA sits in the corner.

Her students enter in identical green jumpsuits, each clutching a purple high school textbook.

The nine adult men in Burzycki’s physical science class are convicted felons. They won’t go home when the bell rings. They will walk back through those heavy doors and into their cells at the New Hampshire State Prison.

The education program is recognized and accredited by the Department of Education as its own district, known as Granite State High School. A group of 21 certified teachers split time in Concord and Goffstown, teaching imprisoned men and women the basics of a high school education.

The environment is intimidating, but Burzycki and her colleagues said small class sizes, few distractions and a population of students who are eager about learning makes it an ideal teaching job.

“It’s really a teacher’s dream,” Burzycki said from inside the prison Tuesday. “They all choose to come for an education. You actually have more dedicated students.”

Burzycki, 32, has taught science for three years at the state prison. She started as a chemist in the U.S. Army but later got her master’s degree in education from Rivier College. She spent time as a paraprofessional at Nashua High School North and South and then as a science teacher at Central High School in Manchester.

Teaching at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections is different, she said, but not necessarily in a bad way.

“I get ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ on a regular basis here,” she said. “You’re dealing with more mature students in general. They’re coming to me at a much older age, after they’ve gone out and experienced something. They have realized education is needed, and they’re coming back.”

Mike Higgins, a veteran teacher of 10 years at the prison, said there are other benefits, too.

In prison, there are no parent-teacher conferences, no open-house nights, no calls home. Teachers don’t have any connection to parents at all.

“That’s a great thing,” Higgins said, laughing. “You don’t have lunch duty. You don’t have to chaperone the prom. The majority of students really want to be here and learn. They seize the opportunity to better their life.”

Higgins, 63, teaches economics, history and American government at the prison. He previously taught at Londonderry High School and Trinity High School in Manchester, but left for the prison after a friend recommended the job.

“I’ve loved every minute,” Higgins said. “I see the impact I make regularly.”

Classes run in 11-week quarters, year-round. Teachers have four classes every day, Monday through Friday, and courses vary, from culinary arts and science to business skills and a class on introduction to the workforce.

A recent prison survey showed that 25 percent of inmates have a high school diploma or higher, said guidance supervisor Pam Markowski.

About 34 percent have their GED, but the largest group – 41 percent of inmates – have neither a GED nor high school diploma.

The ages of students taking classes range from 18 to 75 years old. However, priority is given to inmates younger than 21 who do not have a high school diploma.

Once they’ve earned enough credits, inmates receive their high school diploma or GED at the annual commencement ceremony in the prison chapel in the fall. Family members visit, and the inmates wear robes and caps.

“It’s really a nice ceremony,” Higgins said. “It means a lot to everybody.”

Each class has about 10-12 students, and misbehavior is limited – theft and violence are rare. Higgins said he’s witnessed one fight in his 10 years, and the two wrestling inmates were separated quickly.

“Education is really seen as a benefit they are somewhat invested in taking care of,” said Jay Nagy, career-tech director in the education department.

Internet access is prohibited, which makes some assignments difficult. There is access to the prison library, with about 16,000 books, but scheduling is tough. Some inmates can’t mingle with one another, and only so many can use the facility at a time.

“It’s almost impossible to assign a research paper,” Higgins said.

But teachers can make several projects work using some creativity.

For his economics class, Higgins gives inmates a stock portfolio with $100,000 in pretend money. Each class begins with a half-hour of CNBC, checking stocks, and Higgins prints off lists from his own Scottrade account to help them buy and sell with the market.

“It’s kind of old-school here, but it’s still effective,” he said. “People have no idea we’re here. They don’t realize the good things we’re doing.”

Despite the perks of the job, it’s not always easy for teachers to walk in and out of those heavy metal doors every day.

“There’s always the sense of uneasiness when you walk through that last door onto the education floor,” said Education Director Daniel Tanguay, who used to work as a math teacher at Nashua High School South. “It can be nerve-wracking at times, but after a while it goes away.”

Teachers go through basic police training in self-defense tactics, and each takes certain precautions. Burzycki said she scans the room, stands near the door, keeps her hands above the waist, always aware. Higgins said he pays close attention to body language.

“There are more checks here to make you feel safe,” Burzycki said. “That said, it’s not like I’m going to fall asleep in class.”

There’s no hazard pay for working in the prison, either. The teachers’ salaries are modest, ranging from about $44,000 to $69,000 based on their experience level and education, which is on par with a medium-sized school district in the state, Tanguay said.

The teachers also have to perform a rotation over at the maximum security unit – offering classes three days a week for an 11-week period to inmates who either can’t behave themselves or are there by the nature of their crime. Steven Spader and Christopher Gribble are there, for example, for the brutal murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon.

“That’s a little uncomfortable, because there’s some really bad people over there,” Higgins said.

But the crime does not determine whether an inmate can take classes in the general population; it’s their custody level assigned by their behavior in prison. Violent criminals can take classes on the education floor if their behavior is good enough for a sustained period of time.

“They’ve already been adjudicated by the courts and convicted; our job is to rehabilitate,” said Jeff Lyons, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.

For the most part, that’s why inmates sign up for classes. They want to learn, they want to gain skills, they want rehabilitation, Tanguay said.

“Now that they’ve made a mistake, they’ve realized that education is a lot more important,” he said. “They wish they’d taken it more seriously when they were on the outside.”

And much like any high school in New Hampshire, students pass and fail. They drop out of classes. They gnaw their pencils. Some even have excuses for missed homework assignments.

“I had to paint my room for inspection this weekend,” one inmate told Burzycki on Tuesday.

She collected his three blank worksheets and marked a “0” in her grade book.

“We don’t have detention, although sometimes I threaten it,” Burzycki said, with a wry smile.

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Kittle on Twitter (@Telegraph_CamK).