Doreen Matteson often gets goosebumps.
The teacher works deep inside the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution helping inmates learn what they need to know to get their high school diplomas. Her students are convicted criminals who often have spent more time on the streets than in the classroom.
She regularly marvels at the transformation she observes in inmates working to earn their General Education Diplomas (GEDs). Away from drugs and alcohol, the men start to see school through a different lens.
“A lot of these guys had drug and alcohol issues in high school,” Matteson said. “In here, their heads clear out. They may be fearful they will fail again at first, then it starts clicking and it’s ‘Oh, my gosh — I can do this.’ They catch the vision that they can succeed at this. It is attainable.”
That’s when the goosebumps come.
Matteson had never stepped foot inside a prison before taking the job teaching English as a second language here. She and the other eight teachers inside EOCI actually work for Blue Mountain Community College, which contracts with the prison to provide education services. The program consistently awards more GEDs than any other prison education program in the state. The state of Oregon ranks in the top five nationally in corrections education.
On Thursday morning, one of Matteson’s colleagues, math instructor Jason Villers, taught nine inmates. Villers showed them how to calculate the circumference and area of a circle, projecting the calculations up on a screen at the front of the classroom. Then he worked backwards to figure out the diameter and radius. To an observer who squinted just a bit, it could appear as any other high school class, except all the pupils wore navy-blue shirts with Department of Corrections emblazoned on them in eye-popping orange. Villers turned the men loose with calculators, pencils and paper to work a similar problem. Two inmate tutors roamed the room to answer questions.
“How many radii are in one diameter?” tutor Eric Burnham asked two students who sat together at a round table.
“Two,” they said, in unison.
Burnham pressed them further, asking how many radii in a circle. They hesitated, then Burnham informed them “there are infinite radii in a circle.”
Convicted of murder at age 21, Burnham became attracted to education in prison. After earning his GED in 2002, he continued on, earning associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is now working on his Ph.D. in counseling through Liberty University.
While GED classes are free to inmates, inmates must pay for college classes themselves. Burnham said his mother, using a settlement she received after a car accident, pays his tuition.
Now 40, he credits the GED program for showing him another path.
“I was a young kid without a lot of life experience,” he said. “The teachers here are incredible. It was an opportunity to function in an environment that expects professionalism, which sharpens us and prepares us for life on the outside.”
Research suggests Burnham’s chances of staying out of prison after his 2026 release are good, said Matteson.
“The numbers are out there,” she said. “The more education an incarcerated person receives, the less chance of recidivism.”
John Thomas, BMCC’s associated vice president of corrections education, smiles at the college’s success in consistently graduating more GED students than any other corrections program in the state, though he insists, “It’s not a competition.”
“The marquee of this program is direct instruction,” he said. “The teacher stands in front of the students. The students ask questions. Most of the other programs are computerized.”
The test isn’t easy, Thomas said, especially since changes in 2014.
“The rigor of the GED is tremendous, compared with the old program,” he said. “The rigor is great enough that if you score out at a certain level, you can get college credit.”
Since BMCC got the contract in 1985, 5,904 inmates earned GEDs in the three prisons the college services. Almost 500 prisoners participate in the program annually at EOCI, along with 300 at Two Rivers and about 120 at Powder River.
The road to a GED isn’t a cookie-cutter process. There are three levels leading to the diploma: Adult Basic Education, Pre-GED and GED. Some students don’t speak much English. Matteson opened a cabinet and revealed dozens of dictionaries from Spanish to Chinese, Russian to Hmong that instructors have used to facilitate communication.
Tutors such as Burnham and Ryan Huebner say the positive experience with education has given them hope to resurrect themselves after messing up their lives and the lives of others.
“It weighs on me that I was a drain on the community,” said Burnham, who hopes to use his counseling education when he gets out help others avoid his mistakes. “The last third of my life, I’ll have an opportunity to contribute something positive to society.”
Both tutors said their love of education and their newfound work ethic became apparent to other inmates. Out in the yard, other inmates often ask questions about education.
“They look at us a role models but not authority figures,” said Huebner, of Hermiston. “The tutors wear blue just like them.”
The length of time needed to earn a GED varies.
“There are guys who come in and do it in a month,” said Villers, the math teacher. “Some come in illiterate and take five years. It takes a while to go from 0 to 60.”
At the most recent graduation in December, Matteson got goosebumps again as 25 EOCI inmates accepted diplomas in a ceremony witnessed by their families.
“It’s so emotional to achieve this goal and do something parents and wives and children are proud of,” she said. “That’s what rehabilitation is all about — to have a chance at a new life and a new way of thinking.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.