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Jim Kenyon: Lebanon High Alumnus Teaches Vermont Inmates

  • An inmate crumples up a paragraph he was writing about his anger after becoming frustrated with Correctional Educator Cory Valentine's suggestions to improve his punctuation and grammar during a class on family and interpersonal relationships at the Northern State Correctional Facility (NSCF) in Newport, Vt., Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. Valentine is a 2010 graduate of Lebanon High School who now teaches for the Community High School of Vermont at NCSF, which provides high school level education and works to reduce recidivism. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valentine un-crumpled and smoothed out a paragraph written by an inmate about how he dealt with an instance of anger and encouraged him to continue the exercise. at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The inmate started over on a clean sheet of paper. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cory Valentine works through an exercise with inmates to help them form strategies to deal with anger during a class on family and interpersonal relationships at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. In addition to the academic requirements of the school, the Community High School of Vermont incorporates 16 prescribed Habits of Mind with the goal of improving students' cognitive skills and critical thinking. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cory Valentine makes a phone call in his office at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. He said he is often at work before 5 a.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Correctional educators Cory Valentine, left, and Jerry Fortin, right, laugh with an inmate while discussing the math of running a maple syrup operation during a statistics class in the Community High School of Vermont at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cory Valentine walks between buildings at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., where he teaches math to inmates working toward high school diplomas and competency in career fields Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The facility houses about 400 inmates and all of those under age 23 who do not have a diploma are required to take classes. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, February 03, 2018

Newport, Vt. — In the world that Cory Valentine is coming to know, labels matter. The men in his classroom are not inmates, offenders or prisoners. They are his students.

They don’t live in cells. They have rooms. There are no cellmates, only roommates.

Valentine and the half dozen or so other teachers at the Northern State Correctional Facility try to bring a sense of normalcy for a few hours a day to the men incarcerated 10 miles from the Canadian border in Vermont’s largest prison.

“As I drive home each day from work, I remind myself that most of these guys are good people,” Valentine said. “For many of them, it was one or a few bad choices that landed them here. The job of judgment is not mine.”

Valentine, a 2010 Lebanon High School graduate, is in his second year of teaching at the 433-bed prison.

His newest student is an 18-year-old awaiting trial on a charge of attempted murder. Stabbed a woman, authorities allege.

A state police detective wrote in his affidavit that he suspected the teen likely was suffering from mental illness or under the influence of drugs at the time of his arrest, according to news reports. After pleading not guilty and undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, the teen was shipped to the prison in Newport for lack of $300,000 bail. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life behind bars.

I learned all this through Google.

Valentine doesn’t ask his students what they’re in for. In this instance, he only sees a kid who came into his classroom two weeks ago so scared, so confused that he hardly sleeps at night. A tall skinny kid battling a cold who brings a roll of toilet paper and a paperback copy of The Red Badge of Courage to class.

Valentine’s oldest student is 75 years old — another detainee awaiting trial. The elderly man carries a briefcase to class that he fashioned out of cardboard, including the handle.

“They’re just people,” Valentine told me. “I can’t imagine how de-humanized they must feel here.”

When I first met Valentine, who turned 26 last week, he was a teen working the cash register at Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich.

Like most people, I had no idea of his ongoing health struggles. In elementary school, Valentine was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an often painful, chronic bowel disease.

“In high school, very few people knew,” he said. “In college, nobody knew.”

For 10 years, Valentine managed the disease with medications and infusion treatments. But when he was a freshman at Keene State College in 2011, he experienced the “worst flare up I had ever encountered.”

He underwent a 10-hour surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to remove his large colon and have a colostomy bag attached. It took two more surgeries over the next year to reconstruct his digestive tract, so the bag could be removed.

By the end of this “medical journey,” as Valentine puts it, his “self-esteem was almost nonexistent.”

Severe depression set in. “I physically couldn’t get myself out of bed some days,” he said.

To relieve his depression, Valentine binged on unhealthy foods. At one point, he was ordering from Domino’s three times a day. His weight ballooned to 245 pounds.

Mental health counseling helped relieve his depression, but it wasn’t until last year — five years into his battle — that doctors figured out that he also suffered from sleep apnea. Swollen tonsils were blocking his airway while he tried to sleep.

Last September, Valentine had his tonsils removed, and his depression disappeared overnight. He’s also lost 50 pounds.

After he began teaching at the prison, Valentine decided to share his story with students in a class called “Sane New World.” Many were “going through experiences similar to mine,” he said, “but they are in an environment that is not always conducive to positive mental health.”

According to a federal Department of Justice report, people who are incarcerated are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than the general population.

At least 25 percent of inmates in the U.S., which has a total prison population of 2.2 million, suffer from serious mental illness, the Huffington Post reported last year.

“It really has shaped how I interact with students,” Valentine told me. “I try to incorporate it into my teaching.”

The major difference between teaching in a public school and a prison?

“I don’t have to deal with parents,” he joked.

Although he’d known since junior high that he wanted to teach, Valentine never pictured himself living in a place as rural as the Northeast Kingdom, a hardscrabble corner of the state where winters are long and decent-paying jobs are scarce.

A few years ago while I was working on a story about Newport’s economic woes, a longtime resident told me that two types of people live in the Kingdom: Those who love it, and those who can’t afford to leave.

After college, Valentine’s best offer was to teach math to middle-schoolers in Coventry, Vt., a community of roughly 1,000 residents next door to Newport.

After a couple of years at the pre-K-8 Coventry Village School, Valentine was ready for a change, although he wanted to stay in the Kingdom. Occasional hikes up Jay Peak, long walks with his dog and ice skating had grown on him.

“I love the quiet,” he said.

At a school basketball game, Valentine happened to sit next to Barbara DeVost, who had two granddaughters in his class. She’s also the business manager at the Newport prison.

Hearing Valentine was in the job market (word really does travel faster in small towns), DeVost mentioned that the prison had a teaching opening.

She warned that he might want to think twice before applying.

“It takes a special kind of person to work with inmates,” she told him.

Valentine was unfazed. His parents, on the other hand, were wondering what he was getting himself into, after he beat out two other finalists for the job.

“As a mother, I was petrified,” said Pam Valentine. “But Cory wasn’t afraid at all. I think it was because of what he went through growing up. The kid was a trooper.”

Community High School of Vermont has branches in the state’s six prisons and nine communities, including Hartford and Springfield, where it works with recently released offenders.

The state requires all inmates under age 23 to enroll in CHSV if they don’t have a high school degree. Nationally, 75 percent of state prison inmates have not finished high school, according to U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“These are folks who haven’t succeeded in the regular educational environment,” said Josh Rutherford, who was named superintendent of the Newport prison last year. “They dropped out, or failed out. For a variety of reasons, they struggled in the public school system.”

The opportunity to earn a high school diploma can be the difference between an offender making it in the outside world and returning to prison.

I once heard an inmate say that graduating from CHSV meant that he could now “check the box.” In other words, he could write that he was a high school graduate when filling out job applications.

Along with taking traditional reading, writing and math classes to beef up their basic skills, inmates who already have finished high school can earn a degree in workforce readiness. Classes such as construction math can help them land jobs in the trades.

CHSV costs Vermont taxpayers roughly $3 million a year — accounting for less than 2 percent of the state’s overall corrections budget.

Meanwhile, the state spends about $60,000 a year to keep an offender behind bars. But over the years, not all governors and legislators have looked at CHSV as a good investment that is key in helping offenders secure jobs that pay a livable wage. In recent years, state budget cuts have reduced CHSV’s staff from 51 to 37 employees.

“It’s been on the chopping block for years,” Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a former state senator, told me last March. “It’s very shortsighted. Most people who are locked up, eventually get out. Why not give them the tools they need to lead productive lives?”

Some mornings, Valentine arrives at the prison as early as 4:30 to prepare for classes, which start at 8.

A tall double metal fence topped with shiny razor wire encircles the complex, which sits above Lake Memphremagog, a few miles outside downtown Newport.

Like his teaching colleagues, Valentine carries his laptop, papers and pencils in a clear plastic tote bag, a security precaution, prison officials say.

His prison photo ID hangs around his neck. His first name is misspelled, but he’s never brought it up to the prison’s powers that be.

“I pick my battles,” he said.

Inside the front entrance, he passes through a metal detector before stopping at a series of three heavy steel doors for a correctional officer to unlock electronically from inside a guard station.

Still another door leads outdoors. In the predawn, Valentine makes the short walk down the hill to the concrete building where his office is on the second floor. The inmates housed in the first-floor unit, as living quarters are called, are only beginning to stir.

Shortly before 8, with his class preparation completed, Valentine heads across the quad to the education building.

On a Monday morning in late January, snow flurries are floating to the ground. Inside, Valentine unlocks the door to his classroom. A dozen desktop computers line the back wall.

Jerry Amsden is the first student to arrive. Amsden, 45, was up early, cleaning bathrooms in his unit for $2 a day. He’s wearing new work boots that he bought with his earnings.

“I’ve been in almost five years,” he told me.

Amsden, who is from southern Vermont, has been in and out of prison since he was 19. When out, he’s spent a fair amount of time in the Upper Valley, where he worked as a handyman.

In the 1990s, he was assistant manager at Aubuchon’s in downtown White River Junction.

He earned his high school diploma long ago, but continues to take classes in everything from math to chess.

He recently was the top finisher among inmates in a facility-wide chess tournament.

“If classes were like this years ago, I don’t think I would have re-offended,” Amsden said. “The teachers treat us with dignity and respect. They make me feel like I’m an actual citizen.”

He’s taken several of Valentine’s classes — enough to feel comfortable calling his teacher by his first name.

“Cory has so much patience,” Amsden said. “We’re not the easiest students to work with. A lot of guys come in here, and they hardly have a third-grade education.”

Amsden will complete his current bid — prison slang for sentence — for domestic assault this summer. “I don’t think of myself as a violent person, but I have a bad temper,” he said.

Which has led him to sign up for Valentine’s 8 a.m. class in “Family and Interpersonal Relationships.” The morning’s discussion, he tells students, will focus on “how you deal with anger when you’re in the facility, and when you leave.”

Nationally, nine out of 10 offenders eventually are released.

Valentine gets the class discussion rolling. “How do you express your anger?” he asks.

“Yelling and slamming doors,” Amsden replies. “It’s a generational curse. My father did it, my grandfather did it. My mother did it. Someone gets angry, they slam doors.”

On the back of his prison ID, unbeknownst to Valentine, Amsden has taped a quote attributed to author and longtime magazine editor Walter Anderson that Valentine shared in an earlier class: “Bad things do happen; it’s how I respond to them that defines my character and the quality of my life.”

Valentine keeps the discussion moving. “How do you express your anger in a proper way?” he asks.

He urges students to write down their ideas. For the next 15 minutes, he circles the room, stopping to look at what each student has come up with.

“What have you got, Robert?” he asks.

Robert Scales, 34, dropped out of high school in 10th grade. Putting his thoughts to paper is a challenge. He shows his frustration by crumpling up his paper and tossing it away.

Valentine understands where Scales is coming from. He prods Scales to keep at it. Scales is close to earning his diploma, and showing a proficiency in writing is a last obstacle to graduation.

“He’s working hard,” Valentine tells me later. “He’ll get there.”

Valentine reminds his students that when they get angry — which everyone does from time to time — it’s important not to escalate a bad situation. Take a deep breath. Stop and think.

But it’s not always easy, particularly when dealing with prison guards, a student responds. The student has razor cuts up and down both arms.

He cuts himself, he tells me, to prove to guards, or cops, in prison parlance, that “I’m my own person. I can do what I want.”

I ask where he gets razor blades. Inmates are allowed to use them to shave, he answered. “But I don’t get a razor no more,” he said.

At 9:30, Valentine moves across the hallway for a math class in probability and statistics that he co-teaches with Jerry Fortin, who specializes in vocational education.

Fortin’s class in maple sugaring is among the prison’s most popular offerings. Fortin, who has a sizable sugaring operation of his own, explains how students who hail from rural parts of Vermont can get started if their families own even a small parcel with maples. But it will require some math skills, he tells them.

In their class this Monday morning, Valentine and Fortin run through a series of calculations. It takes 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year, Fortin made 4,000 gallons of syrup. How much sap did that require? How many trees will he need to tap?

For a student in the back row, finding the answer is child’s play. Then again, Allan Bullis is not a typical inmate.

Bullis, 52, is an electrical engineer who graduated from the University of New Hampshire, according to his LinkedIn page.

Bullis is doing a one-year bid for violating conditions of his probation, following a conviction on a simple assault charge. He’s due out in October.

Along with the math class, he’s signed up for chess. He just finished Grapes of Wrath.

“I’m here, and trying to make the best of it,” he said.

Based on the figures that Valentine gives them, the class starts making calculations on how to best expand Fortin’s sugaring operation. Should he concentrate on selling online where he can charge the most? Or should he focus on bulk sales, even though they fetch a lower price?

“If we’re going to do your math for you, we’re going to want compensation,” Scales joked.

The frustrations that dogged Scales during the writing portion of his earlier class with Valentine have evaporated. “Cory cares about us as people,” Scales told me. “He put a fire in me to take school seriously.”

Scales was arrested a year ago during a traffic stop in Vergennes. He’s now serving up to five years for heroin and cocaine offenses.

“I’m trying to better my life so I don’t go back to what I was doing,” he said.

After class, Valentine heads back up the outdoor steps to the prison’s main building. An inmate, who is on a work break, gives him a wave from across the way.

“Hi, Cory,” he shouts. “I’m back baking in the kitchen.”

“Congratulations,” Valentine responds. “Will I see you in class at 1 today?”

“You sure will.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.