YANKTON, S.D. - It's a "one-room schoolhouse" in a prison that used to be a college. And the grounds, called "South Dakota's most scenic campus" back in its Yankton College heyday, never looked better.
The green grass, artful landscaping and plentiful planting across the 33 acres of land at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp are in large part a tribute to the prison's groundbreaking Horticulture program and the 40 inmates, educated horticulture experts all, who work the grounds for fulltime staffer Joe Hoffman.
The prison camp's educational services department is located on the second floor of the old Forbes Hall of Science building, said Maureen Steffen, superintendent of educational services, who joined the staff as a teacher when the minimum-security federal prison camp opened in July 1988, just four years after Yankton College closed its doors because of financial difficulties, leaving the stately brick and stone buildings empty.
"Back in the days when I started, it was just an eighth grade literacy requirement," Steffen said of her prison school. Since then, the Bureau of Prisons has upped the requirement to a high school diploma through a strong GED (General Education Development) program. College classes are also offered at the prison by staffers from Mount Marty College.
"When they come in, if they do not have a high school diploma, we give them a test in the basics," she said. "And we're like a one-room schoolhouse. We have guys that quit in March of their senior year, where they basically just need a little brush-up and they can take the test in a month and be on their way. Or we've got guys that basically we teach them to read and write and they have first-grade levels."
The students, who freely stroll the campus in their khaki uniforms, are tested and placed in pods, depending on their skills. And the one teacher on staff moves from pod to pod. A second teacher will join the staff this month, replacing one who retired in January.
A number of inmate tutors also assist the fulltime staffers. As with every federal prison, everyone must have a job.
"We have about 45 guys who work in education. Either they're librarians or orderlies or tutors," she said.
"We basically oversee 880 inmates, said Jeanne Morck, the prison's public information officer, a Yankton College grad in criminal justice who was thrilled when the closed college re-opened as a prison. "Every inmate here is expected to work a seven-and-a-half-hour work day." She earned her second degree at Mount Marty.
A certified apprenticeship program offers on-the-job training through the Department of Labor, hooking cons up with carpentry, plumbing, electrical, food services, farming and other prison department services on the grounds. It's a benefit when they seek employment after their release.
The greenhouse work available through the horticulture program is particularly effective, Steffen said. "This is one area guys can leave and get pretty good jobs, working in greenhouses, maintaining golf courses, any kind of horticulture-related deal," she said.
If not for the khaki uniforms, the students would seem like those on any other college campus.
'You know, a lot of people that drive by can't tell the difference really," Steffen said, "because it doesn't look like a prison. We don't have the razor wire and things like that."
The decorative fence around the grounds looks positively collegiate. Only the posted Yankton prison signs let the world know it really is a prison.
Steffen is kind of like the principal at any other school.
"We don't have a lot of discipline problems," she said. "But if a guy doesn't show up for class, we have to account for him. We have to cal the unit and find out where they were. if they have any particular kind of scuffle of anything, we have to contact Correctional Services lieutenants or custody to come take care of it."
The second-floor schoolhouse comes complete with an oft-used regular library and a law library. Books from the library can be found next to most inmate's beds, often located in the dormitories used by Yankton College students.
The large horticulture classroom seems alive with floor-to-ceiling plant life. Separate rooms are available for the braille unit where inmates translate the written word into braille, a books-on-tape audio recording unit and a keyboarding class that among other things helps inmates prepare their resumes for the outside world.
The college courses have three major emphases. "Either they can work towards an associate in business or accounting or horticulture," Steffen said, noting that Mount Marty provides instructors in the first two majors while Hoffman oversees the horticulture program.
"It's not your traditional 18-year-olds," Steffen said of the prison's college students who range in age from 18 to 50s.
Some students came to Yankton without even high school degrees, but they earned their GEDs and a desire for more education. Some guys may have had a year of college before getting in trouble. Others were in one field but opted for another because they felt the need for life change now.
"Programming is a management tool for us," she said. "We want to keep them busy productively while they're here because if they're not in class, what are they doing? We just don't have enough work for that many inmates. And everybody here is leaving. So they're going to be your next-door neighbors. And we feel like if we can educate them while they're here, they can't keep coming back."
In all her years at the prison, Steffen said she has never been afraid. While it can be a little intimidating at first, she found most of the guys were very respectful because of the disciplinary process in place.
"So they know they can't cut up and be difficult in class because there are going to be ramifications," she said. "And some of these guys are just vey eager to learn. They struggled in school the first time around for a reason. Either they had some substance abuse problem or their home life was a mess or whatever. So they feel like they kind of got left out the first time around. But they're really interested in taking it up."
Some cons have personal reasons for getting that GED, maybe to prove to their kids that they can do it so their kids won't drop out of school, too. "They want to break that cycle," she said.
Enrollment at the prison school is just over 80 students, a number that will briefly drop by 16 after this month's graduation ceremonies. Graduates from the school's English as a Second Language program are also honored at the June ceremonies.
After 22 years there, it would be easy for Steffen to forget she's in a prison. But having to lock her office door every time she leaves because it is policy with any prison room containing a computer or making sure the students are back in their rooms by 4 p.m. each day for the national head count by the Bureau of Prisons serve as healthy reminders.
And few inmates ever leave the grounds.
"It's a minimum-security prison," Morck stressed. "The inmates are closely screened to determine the appropriateness of them being in a facility without a fence in the community. We have a decorative fence that goes around the institution to define the boundaries of the prison, to keep the inmates in and to keep the community out. We have signs posted. So it comes down to defining our boundaries and classifying inmates."
Steffen always looks forward to the graduation ceremonies. It's one time when the inmates kind of let down their guard.
"Some of them want to be macho about it and don't want to show their emotion in front of you," she said, "And then they walk out the door and you hear the howling. They're just so excited. 'Now I'm graduating!' Some of them took like 30 years before they got that diploma."