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Prison’s education program helps inmates


Students attend classes four-five hours a day five days a week, studying reading, math, history, science, language arts and other subjects, and can even take college-level courses. They use pencils and paper, textbooks, computers and tablets.

The setting could be any high school in Las Cruces. It’s actually Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (SNMCF), located about 13 miles west of Las Cruces.

The prison houses more than 600 adult male inmates, and 80-90 are enrolled in its high school equivalency (HSE) classes, taught by four instructors in morning, afternoon and night classes. Inmates have a wide range of educational backgrounds: some have completed a few years of elementary school, some are high school graduates, others have some college credits.

“We meet them where they are,” said Alex Hallwyler, SNMCF program manager and supervisor of education, who became a teacher at the facility four years ago.

In class, inmates might learn basic computer skills, work on fractions or improve their reading skills. They could also do beginning algebra or complex geometry. Most speak English, but some are learning it as a second language.

One of the instructors, K.C. Cunningham, also teaches a Freedom Writers course to help inmates improve their writing skills.

“Our educational system is the key to success when (inmates) leave the facility,” said Cunningham, who has been teaching at SNMCF for about a year and a half. She has a bachelors degree in secondary education with a minor in history and a masters degree in curriculum development.

“With the right tools, they can do it,” she said. “We teach everything.”

Sometimes, Cunningham said, “You can see the lightbulb go on” and know the student is progressing, doing math problems he never thought he could do or thinking about going to college for the first time in his life.

“They talk about what they want to do,” Cunningham said. “They talk about the future. That’s a huge, huge motivator.”

“Inmates are coming to us at the lowest point in their lives,” Hallwyler said. Taking classes, they see themselves making progress and it snowballs, he said, as they think, “’Maybe it can happen. Maybe I can do this.’”

“I love seeing that happen,” Cunningham said. “Our job is to find that and run with it.”

It’s especially heartwarming, she said, when an inmate tells her about a conversation he has had with his wife, girlfriend or mother about the progress he is making in class.

“Education really does have the power to change lives,” Cunningham said.

The prison offers a wraparound program, Hallwyler said, so students can not only take classes to prepare for the HSE exam, they also can enroll in beginning college-level classes like welding and auto mechanics.

Since July 2022, SNMCF has also offered a heavy equipment operator certification program. Through a partnership with the New Mexico Workforce Connections Department and an outside vocational training provider, “eight inmates completed rigorous instruction, utilizing online curriculum, video lectures and practice on an official CAT heavy equipment simulator,” the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) said. “The training culminated in hands-on assessments with an instructor on site, for both construction site and tool safety, and 40-hour training on an actual bulldozer that had been transported onto prison grounds.”

“The program was a huge success and planning has begun for another cohort to begin in July 2023,” NMCD said.

SNMCF also offers two post-secondary programs, including Ashland University, which allows incarcerated students to receive Pell Grant funding to complete four-year degrees, NMCDC said. “Instruction takes place on specialized tablets utilizing a secure cellular network,” the department said. “The program is rigorous and students are held to the same academic standards as on-campus students at the university,” NMCD said.

They can also continue their educations in person or remotely at New Mexico State University or Doña Ana Community College, and SNMCF even helps with admission forms and applying for financial aid.

“I love the classes,” said SNMCF Warden Ronald Martinez. “They have a chance to get out and make it again,” he said. “We are here to rehabilitate the inmates, to make every inmate a productive citizen when they leave.”

Because of its education program, “morale is so much better” at the prison, the warden said. “They have hope. We want to give them a second chance and make them well-rounded citizens.”

Cunningham said she feels a real connection with her students.

“They have helped me see the positive side,” she said. “I enjoy being there with them.”

“I’ve got a great staff here,” Martinez said. “They care about what they do.”

SNMCF also has two full libraries on site that provide assistance to inmates with resources and materials needed for their own legal research, the department said.

SNMCF “is contributing to the statewide goal of 165 HSE completions by the end of FY23 (June 30),” NMCD said.

SNMCF has 12 successful completions this school year, with additional groups of students starting the testing process every week. In just one week in April, seven students completed all testing and were waiting for scores.

“Our completion number is up from seven high school graduates in FY21 and eight graduates in FY22,” the department said.

“We offer cognitive and family reunification programs, helping participants learn from their own life stories and prepare to be more positive influences in their communities and families,” said NMCD Public Relations Manager Carmelina Hart. “Our department also offers comprehensive reentry services, including requesting replacement of vital documents (Social Security cards and birth certificates), resume writing and job searching, and general pre-release planning and preparation.

Visit www.cd.nm.gov/divisions/adult-prison/nmcd-prison-facilities/southern-new-mexico-correctional-facility/.