Crime and Punishment?

The prison library at the Tombs, New York City, established by Miss Linda Gilbert. (1874) - Source: NYPL Collection

My classroom looks like any other on a college campus. Green grass and minimal landscaping on the outside, big windows to let in light, and bookshelves full of old books. Plenty of computers to go around, though no internet access is allowed. I work individually with students to help them pass a series of five tests, after which they will be awarded a General Education Diploma, or GED. I move from writing to reading, math, science and geography. Sometimes I teach using my limited Spanish skills, since I’m also an ESL teacher. I teach one session from 12:30 until 3:30 and a second one from 5:30 until 8 p.m. Most of my students work during the day, beginning at 4:30 in the morning, so they often bring coffee with them to make it through the evening.

The obvious difference lies in where my students come from and where they go when they are done with my class. They are all dressed alike and the work they do is prison work release. It’s 2008, and I teach in a minimum custody male correctional facility in Washington state. These men have two things in common; first that they have less than four years left on their debt to society, and second that they have worked their way through good behavior to minimum custody. Of the designations, minimum custody means that they have a key to their house (cell) that they share with 2-3 other men. The house is not referred to as “home”, since home isn’t in the prison. The house is temporary digs, until they can get back to real life. And that’s the preoccupying thought for most of my students: Home. Life. Family. Friends. Driving. Beer. Pot. Freedom. Home. I wonder what they think about at night, lying on a bunk in some institution, with no permanence and no control over their own fate. As an employee, all I have to do is make an allegation and their time is extended. My word is accepted over theirs. It’s a power I do not want. It’s a power others take advantage of.

The facility where I teach has 600 inmates. They get supervised work release to earn money for their families, up to a couple of dollars an hour. It does not mean that they have never been violent or a threat to society or women. I always keep that in mind. My teaching assistant is in for murder, but I’m reasonably certain he would never be violent to me. Reasonably certain is the best I can do in a place where I always keep my back to a wall. About half of the inmates-who the state refers to as “offenders”- are in a drug and alcohol counseling program designed to shave even more time off of their sentences. I call them inmates since they prefer it. Offender sounds too much like a chimo. Chimo is prison slang for child molester. They do not fare well and I stay out of it.

I teach GED and ESL and Adult Basic Education. I have about 19 characters at any given time. They range in age from just babies the ages of my nephews to one of my favorite people, Taylor, who at age 57 found himself locked up for eight years. Taylor caused me the most grief, once starting a fight between two guys because I moved him (unwittingly) from his seat and he did not like it. He also taught me the most, even if he never made it through algebra. I do alright with the cons because I see them and treat them like people, but I don’t let them run all over me.

My afternoon class is a different animal from my evening class. The afternoon guys seem to want to be there. The night shift is tired and wants to go to bed. Education is mandatory if one does not have at least a GED. We work a lot on the board. We read out loud and write. Sometimes, I help someone practice cursive writing in secret, copying charts and putting them in the pages of magazines so they can fool their classmates. I get along with both Nortenos and Surenos, the predominant gangs in our facility. They didn’t get along with each other and I soon learned who would and could work with each other. More common was racial violence- I lost two students from different classes as they beat the hell out of each other at chow one night. They next day they had both been treated and shipped to separate facilities. I looked up the photographs on the local area network. The huge Mexican guy, a real teddy bear who discovered a knack for solving quadratic equations, obviously was the winner against the thin White kid who didn’t like to read but was trying anyway. I guess the White kid started it. Blood, torn clothes and blank expressions make them look nothing like they do when I see them. When I see them in person, I see hope and possibility and a lot of smiling. It’s hard to reconcile. I guess that is my problem. I see humans incarcerated for their crimes where others might see criminals.

My first day on the job, I ask them what they want to know about my teaching history. They want to know how prison teaching is different than college teaching. I have to think about that. College students can suffer the same consequences as drug dealers and thieves. Any education with a teacher who cares can make a student’s life better. Not much difference, I tell them. I know some stuff you might want to know and it can help you a lot if you bother to find out. Works the same everywhere, regardless of the level of freedom.

My students are smart. Most are impetuous, which is a main reason they got caught doing whatever they did. A lot of them don’t read well or have learning disabilities. I cannot formally diagnose ADD, dyslexia or auditory processing disorders. I can, however, treat them in an educational setting if I suspect this to be the case. I bring yellow and red film to help students read words on a page. I ask a 6’7” angry man to take a break from writing and pace the hall every ten minutes, even though it’s not technically allowed.

It’s not as though there is a security camera, an officer or even a phone or panic button available. I have no weapons, save my words, and have to go through a locked door to call for help. I have to do this once, unlocking my office, entering, closing the door and dialing the phone. I have practiced the scenario every day for safety. One cannot be too safe or paranoid in prison. It takes two minutes for officers to respond. I know because I time it. Two minutes of a rapist banging on my door. I used to teach martial arts and have been trained as a correctional officer too. I put the space between us because I didn’t want to beat the ever-loving shit out of him, not because I am afraid of bodily harm. That part does not occur to me until much later. It’s a lot more paperwork if I let him try to strike me. He gets time added to his sentence and a ticket back to maximum security. Nobody refuses to do their work in my class anymore. I get a rep of my own. I’m not certain if that’s good or bad.

During the day there are many administrators around. In the evening, it’s me, two other teachers and a correctional officer who comes around once every hour. Three days a week it’s my favorite officer and he cruises by more often because he was all the way across campus when I called. He does not say it, but he has my back. The students/inmates respect him and do not call him “La Plaque” when he stops by. La Plaque refers to the name plate worn by correctional officers (guards if you want to be insulting). When said quietly, it warns others to stop whatever they are doing, even though most of the time they are doing everything right.

One can get into trouble here, just for doing the right thing. It’s how I always get into trouble, anyway. The right thing is often at odds with prison rules. I do not care; I err on the side of human compassion. I don’t rat out my TA when he gets a huge dragon tattoo on his arm. I know he will get caught eventually, and I am right. I don’t say much when I can tell someone has been smoking, even though it gives me an asthma attack. I explain the problem (smoking is illegal in prison) and ask them not to do it before class. I take issue with the big things- like not doing one’s work in class or fulfilling their own word. I flummox them and won’t give up even when they do. I hold their feet to the fire and celebrate when they make gains. I make mistakes. They make mistakes. I see violence and tragedy. I treat one little scrawny kid like my son and use flashcards to teach him his times tables. He looks like a baby and his housemate protects him like a dad would. He speaks English but prefers Spanish and always yells “Professora! Mira-me! Mira-me!” when he wants attention. Another student grumbles incessantly when our classroom is overloaded with 24 students and its standing room only. He yells at me for not teaching him fractions because I was busy with others too. I ask for patience and don’t write him up for cussing me out. The next class period and the next we concentrate on fractions and I keep my word. The night after that he doesn’t show up and I find out that someone has beat him so badly that his occipital bone is cracked. He claims he fell out of his bunk and as usual, nobody saw a thing. Prisons have their own set of rules. On our annual GED Graduation Day, they line up wearing robes and hats. I meet their families and everyone gets cake. Someone’s mom hugs me and tells me that two years ago, her son was on crack and she cannot believe he graduated from high school at age 42. He does not look 42. He looks sixty. I go home and cry. And cry and cry.

I start drinking because there is a major disconnect between the stated philosophy of prison and the actual experience of teaching in one. I was hired to help rehabilitate people, to ease their transition from prison back to regular life. Almost all people who go to prison get out and go back into the world. A certain of those re-offend and go back to square one. If done properly, education can ameliorate that problem. Yet, when I did the things my administration said I should do- treat people like people, teach them to read in an authentic way, start a writing club- I was always breaking a rule and getting students in trouble. *I* was never in real trouble. I just had the ideas. It was my students who would get into trouble for following my ideas. I would offer that the reason prison education doesn’t work is because educators are not allowed to do what they need to in order to make real difference. I found myself at odds with an administration that took a personal interest in punishing and squashing the human spirit. My bosses began to dislike me. I’m not entirely certain why, but I could not be controlled and I would not be cowed nor change my philosophy to pretend to fit the punitive world view.

I touched an inmate once. I shook his hand when he left my class for the last time. I taught him to write in cursive and to speak to people politely in a coffee shop. He never got his GED. He taught me about gangs and prison language while other inmates protested that I didn’t need to know such information.

I took this job primarily because I wanted to live close to my aging grandparents. It paid alright and wasn’t too difficult except for the “I’m a single woman teaching in a prison” factor. Truly, the mechanics of the job, given special considerations, are not that difficult. The second reason I took this job is because I believe with my whole heart that everyone deserves a good education. People are people and in the prison system, minorities are grossly overrepresented. I have taught in universities with rich White kids. They are usually nice and learn something, as do I, but just about anyone with an advanced degree can teach them. My degree, my philosophy and my calling is for the tougher cases and I find great personal satisfaction in teaching someone who really needs it rather than someone already advantaged and honing their skills to make the most money in a capitalistic world. Instead, I learn the components of pruno (prison alcohol) and how to make hair gel from a jolly rancher. I still feel afraid going to work every day and I trust no one, especially my co-workers. Everyone but the officer who checks on me several times a day. All people adapt to their environment and wisdom comes in many forms.

I’m glad I did what I did. It’s 2011 and my grandparents have both died. I spent some wonderful time with them. I will always have those memories and the contentment of giving a little back to two people who did so much for me. I quit the prison and return to graduate school for my doctor of philosophy in Education. It is that or a descent into alcoholism and bitterness. I identify the prison system as an institution of oppression and the inmates as oppressed, even though they landed themselves in this mess. I count exactly zero rich men in the prison, nor any middle class men.

It’s difficult to say goodbye to my classes, so I wait until the next-to-last day. Some wrote me letters, which I cherish. The janitor draws me a picture which I keep in a frame. My TA is a slight young man who has probably been sexually attacked during the course of my tenure and will not name names. He chooses to pretend it was a seizure that landed him in the hospital. I go along with the story. I’ve graduated a fair number of students. We still have so much to do. I write a poem for them and it gets published in a national, peer-reviewed journal. I ask them what they want my classes at the university to know. What they want people to know. What I should say when someone asks me what it was like to teach in a prison. I look at their faces, once a sea of dangerous men, now with names and knicknames and families and insecurities and deep prejudices and fears. I know they do not all like me, nor I them. That is the way of things. Their primary occupation when not working is to watch television, a necessary distraction to pass the time and avoid fights. “We are not animals.” “We are not dumb.” “Quit looking at us like we are in a zoo.” And Taylor, my prison mentor and favorite inmate simply says that karma will come back around.

Indeed it does.

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