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This is a lightly edited version of an essay that was first published in Humans of San Quentin.

Each year, as a prisoner in California’s state prison system, I must attend an annual classification committee hearing with administrative staff. All prisoners, without exception, have to be reviewed. The purpose of the hearing is to assess a prisoner’s progress, or lack of. The latter never applies to me. 

 During pre-classification meetings with my correctional counselor, I verify that records are up to date in terse conversation because it has become so routine over the decades. I request to sign a document to indicate my attendance at the hearing will be in absentia. My counselors, past and present, usually allow me to “attend” in this manner because I’m not a management problem on their caseload, plus it’s efficient for them and speeds up the mundane process.

 On most occasions, counselors have ended our meetings by saying, “CPP.” That means continue present program. For me, it’s an implicit expression telling me to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is to stay out of trouble, report to my work or education assignment and participate in positive activities — essentially, do what the state expects of its prisoners pursuant to the California Code of Regulations, Title 15. Not a problem.

 Several years ago, I attended one of those meetings with a counselor, and as I was preparing to leave she scrolled through my central file (C-file) in the California department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) computer program, SOMS (Strategic Offender Management System).

 She then said, “It shows that you have a TABE score of zero.” 

 TABE is an acronym for Test of Adult Basic Education. All prisoners who enter the CDCR are required to take the test to assess their level of education. It does not matter if a prisoner has a PhD in English from Harvard; he or she will still have to take the test. It’s mandated by some law, rule or regulation. 

 “Yeah, I know,” I responded. “That information’s wrong. I already took the test.”

 “But it doesn’t show that here in SOMS,” she said.

 “That’s because the CDCR hasn’t updated its records,” I said. “I took the test in August 1999 at New Folsom (California State Prison Sacramento) and received the highest possible score which is a 12.9.”

 My score suggested I was educated beyond the twelfth grade. That should have been the end of it. According to Title 15, “If the inmate’s TABE score is 4.0 or lower, employees are required to query the inmate to determine whether or not assistance is needed to achieve effective communication.

 Up to that point in my prison tenure, I’d been fortunate to have more than a few capable counselors. This counselor was one of them. In fact, she would usually contact me early for classification business. She was efficient, and I liked that about her. She was also professional and friendly which were some of her other qualities.

 At this particular meeting, however, she continued to discuss my zero TABE score and said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t show that you’ve taken the test here in the computer.”

 “Well,” I said, “it’s documented in my C-file in all the old paper records.” 

 Before the CDCR decided it would be practical to use part of its multi-billion dollar annual budget to bring its information technology systems close to twenty-first century standards, all prisoners’ C-files were paper records that followed us from prison to prison. 

 “We can’t use those records anymore,” she said.

 I thought about how nice it would be if the CDCR was that adamant about not using the records it received from the court authorizing my incarceration after I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Those records, I knew, would remain in vogue.

 My counselor asked me if I would like to take the TABE a second time.

 “Why would I do that?” I responded.

 “To update the record,” she said.

 “You have the record in my C-file,” I said. “It’s there, and it’s a 12.9.”

 My counselor smiled and then asked me, “Why don’t you want to take the test again? Do you think you won’t score a 12.9 again?”

 “I know I’d score a 12.9” I said. “That’s not the point. I’ve already done what’s required of me. The system just needs to update its records to reflect my score.”

 “Do you have a GED?” she asked.

 The short answer to that question is no and for good reason. I graduated from high school on time with my class in 1981. I wore a cap with a tassel and the traditional black gown. My family attended the ceremony and we took pictures afterward. I was a normal kid. I played on my school’s football team and competed on the track and field team. I also went to dances and attended my prom. For some reason, many corrections officials find that hard to believe of most prisoners, especially when we’re Black.

 While serving my sentence at California State Prison Solano, from 2000 to 2009, its education department also tried to convince me to retake the TABE because they didn’t have a record of it. Naturally, I had refused. 

 An instructor who worked in education at Solano had asked me if I had a high school diploma. I told her yes, and she suggested that he sign a release form, so they could get a copy of the high school transcript, which would eliminate the need to take the TABE. 

 I didn’t see why I had to sign a release, but long story short, I signed the paperwork and the state prison system obtained my high school transcripts. At the time, I thought that would be the end of it.

 But some years later, while still at Solano, I was threatened with a Rules Violation Report (a write up) for refusing to take the TABE as part of a class assignment in my electrical class. Fortunately, another instructor who worked in the prison’s education department interceded and retrieved the paper record of my TABE score and high school transcripts from my C-file. He also gave me copies for my records.

 Despite that, more than two decades after I took the TABE, some SOMS entries still reflect a score of zero. The CDCR seems incapable of updating its records, so its solution to fix what it has paid someone else to do is to have me take the TABE again, which I stubbornly refuse to do.

 The test only takes about a half hour,” my counselor at San Quentin State Prison said. “What’s the big deal?”

 “I’m reading nine books right now,” I said. “If I have an extra 30 minutes of time, I’m going to use it to do what I want to do because I’ve been given a death-by-prison sentence due to its length. And that’s fine, but it’s still my time, and I’m not taking that test again.”

 “But don’t you care that people will think you’ve scored a zero?” my counselor asked.

 “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” I said. “I know what I’ve accomplished, and I didn’t do it out of concern for what people may think of me. And I don’t need the state’s affirmation of my education. Beside that, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree.”

 My counselor flashed a friendly smile at me during our back-and-forth banter and said, “Oh, so you’re a genius.”

I smiled back and said, “No, I’m not a genius. I’m just not going to take the TABE test again.”

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing writer and the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is an African American native of San Francisco and has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to incarceration, Kevin worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.