On the surface, Kevin Heinze’s physical education class appears to be no different than any other in the school district.
Except that it takes place in a men’s prison in Maple Ridge.
His students, 18 and older, learn how physical activity is an important part of their overall health and well-being.
However, the first assignment for his class raises eyebrows.
The assignment is called “Where Am I Now” and is an introduction to the class in which Heinz asks his students questions about their individual well-being.
From one of the questions about eating habits, he learns that many of his students eat a lot of junk food.
Some eat meth.
Another question asks about sleeping habits, where he learns about how some of his students stay awake for up to 10 days straight on meth or simply wander the streets due to homelessness.
But now that they have some stability, they are getting five to six hours of sleep a night.
Others, still, are planning to sleep more, maybe 10 to 14 hours a night, just to forget where they are.
But it’s Heinz’s job to remind them of the health implications of sleeping too much.
Heinze, who has a masters degree in education and technology from Simon Fraser University, teaches physical education, as well as English 12, work experience, child development, and career and life education to inmates at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, on 256th Street.
Arlene Dodding started the program in 2003 when principal of continuing education for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, to give everyone access to programs to try to make the region a better place to live.
Heinze has been part of the program since its inception, with Peter Beddle, who teaches law and math to inmates, joining him in 2006.
Inmates have to apply to the program.
Heinze teaches Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and has around 50 students. He works part days on Monday and Wednesday to pick up assignments and answer any questions.
Inmates are brought to the classroom one living unit at a time. Classes range in size from one to seven students.
The program offers everything inmates need to get a diploma.
“Our classroom is an oasis of hope in an otherwise not-so-happy environment,” said Heinze, whose wife is a prison psychologist in the federal system.
Heinze originally taught high school in Calgary. He joined the local school district when his wife transferred to B.C.
What makes the prison program successful, he said, is that inmates want to learn.
While those in provincial custody must apply to take educational programs, federal inmates are mandated to take them.
“That makes a big, big difference. I don’t have to sell them on anything. They want to be there,” said Heinze.
“They’ve hit rock bottom and they want to improve their lives, they realize that one of the ways to do that is through education.”
He added that, for the most part, his students are well-behaved and motivated.
Classes are tailored to them to provide an education based on real life.
“This is appealing to the whole learner. It’s the brain, it’s the soul. We are trying to connect with that,” said Heinze.
For example, in English 12, one assignment is about essays and asks if they are relevant today and if the students have ever written one.
They are given a choice: write a final essay for the course; negotiate with Heinze about another writing project to accomplish the same goal; or do nothing and accept a 10-per-cent loss on their final mark.
All 16 students who have taken the course so far have written the essay.
“Even if they do a crappy job, the way I’ve got the whole essay part of the course marked, it’s totally processed-based,” said Heinze, who dislikes final exams.
“Especially with fragile people. You know you can have brilliant people who do amazing things, but when it comes to final exams and job interviews they just crumble,” he said.
“As long as you do a reasonably good job of preparation, brainstorming, editing, you are going to pass it,” he said of the final essay.
The child development course, introduced into the curriculum in September, has 12 inmates signed up for it. It is an introduction into child psychology and a pretty tough course, said Heinze. It is the only course in which a textbook is necessary.
For the other courses, Heinze passes out readings from textbooks instead, since textbooks go missing, and are expensive.
“They want to become good fathers when they are released,” said Heinze.
However, Heinze added, there are many challenges teaching inmates in the prison system, such as addiction issues, or facility transfers. Sometimes the prison is locked down, disrupting classes.
Some inmates are only at FRCC for 10 weeks. But they need to pass five courses to graduate and that can take up to 18 months.
Students can get course credits for outside work already completed, as long as it can be verified. There are course credit options, such as shop work, as well, reducing the requirements for program graduation to three courses.
That can still take four months, though.
“Our graduation rates are not very high, but our course completion rates are very high,” said Heinze.
The prison has no internet connect, just a modest library.
But it’s enough to help make a difference in an inmate’s life.
Last year, Heinze handed a diploma to an inmate in segregation.
“One of my missions is to let them know that education is not all about essay writing and Shakespeare and getting things right. It’s about trying things, experiencing things, expanding your mind, learning some skills and then transmitting those values,” he said.
Heinze hopes that the inmates who take part in the program take with them a positive view of education once they are released from prison.
“A parent goes back into the community and raises his kids who are positive about education. That’s a huge success and who knows what kind of money that can save taxpayers down the road.”