Pencils, Papers, and Prison Bars
After overcoming her initial intimidation, a prison professor fosters laughter and lively discussion in her unique classroom
THE heavy steel door, electronically opened just seconds before, clanged noisily shut behind me. I stared down a massive hallway with huge barred windows, populated by men in denim. I was being initiated into my new role as a college teacher within the walls of a huge, maximum-security prison, and as part of my orientation I was being brought into the general prison population. My guide, the educational coordinator for the prison, told me later that I had good initial "prison instincts," which he defined
as eyes straight ahead, no evident emotion, and not visibly flinching at the big heavy door sealing me in moments before. I was embarrassed to tell him that all I was really thinking about was the possibility of my slip showing.
A month earlier, I had been called by a colleague at a local community college, offering me the opportunity to teach a sociology class to inmates at this all-male, maximum security correctional facility. This facility housed some of the worst offenders in the prison system - even some rather infamous names cropped up occasionally. The orientation I was required to undergo showed me firsthand the total institutional nature of a prison.
This particular facility not only met all the basic needs of its large and diverse population, but it also provided an incredible array of wage-earning jobs, ample prison volunteer opportunities, a fully accredited hospital, and a mental health facility. There were literacy classes, high-school diploma equivalency programs, and a community college that had been running for over 20 years. At the same time, every minute of an inmate's day was clocked and controlled by the prison. Whether an inmate was on t he exercise yard, in the prison law-library, shooting a game of pool, or eating a meal, his whereabouts were charted and documented. The entire population was counted five times a day, and all activity in it freezes in place if the count does not tally. The impersonal nature of such a system was inevitable - indeed, when asked to identify themselves to me initially, my prisoners gave me only their prison identification numbers.
The college and prison were pressuring me to accept the job, and I had two opposing points of view. My first reaction, as a sociologist, was "Great! A good opportunity for some participant observation of a unique subculture in an isolated and controlled environment." My other reaction was a knee-jerk one: "Good grief! Teach crooks? Am I nuts?" My first instinct won out, and I signed on for the term. It was a decision I have not regretted, although during certain low moments I questioned my ability to man age such a challenging and unnerving task.
My class was at night, and I was limited by policy to 40 students. The prison administrators warned me that I might have as few as six or eight students by the end of the semester, due to a high dropout rate in the courses. Monday night classes are always particularly vulnerable in the fall semester: Football on television wins out every time.
Nothing could have truly prepared me for the first evening of class. Entering the classroom, I was immediately struck by the ethnic diversity of the group. And I was struck by their overall youth: This facility took inmates as young as 18. The classroom was large, windowless, and with a front and back door, both made of glass for easy observation by my somewhat paternal guard. In that this was the educational wing, every effort had been made to make this environment seem academically correct. There were blackboards, desks, a podium, and bookshelves with reference materials. Closer inspection also revealed an extensive prison alarm system, strict behavior rules posted in prominent locations, and a plain, sobering warning sign that simply said, "Watch your back."
Probably the most dismaying piece of information I was told right before I began my first lecture was that these men were not "good behavior" inmates as I had assumed. These students were from the general prison population who had signed up, first-come-first-served, provided that they had a GED or high-school diploma. I was told, off the record, of the unofficial statistics of my class: some were labeled "medicated psychotics," some were gang members, one was a "trustee" (and often a target of violence),
and some were probably there more to harass than learn. My heart sank, and I seriously, silently questioned my ability to achieve any kind of academic success in such a setting. I simply did not know if I could effectively teach these men, and that doubt nibbled away at my self-confidence.
As I started my standard, introductory lecture, I was horrified to find my voice shaking and cracking. The prisoners were restless and inattentive - I was not sure if I was boring them already, or if the classroom experience was new to them and maybe they were nervous also. Later in the semester, we discussed the first night with mutual laughter. They admitted to me that they simply could not figure me out. They saw me, they said, as an uppity, white female, totally lacking in warmth or humor, and they q uestioned my ability to teach them anything. Meanwhile, I was having equally disturbing doubts about this class of very large, strong-looking, identically dressed men. We were assessing each other that first night: watching, waiting, judging, formulating theories about each others' motives. We were to find out it was not the only similarity we shared.
MY personal safety was obviously paramount to the prison administration. I had my own guard, I was required to carry a police whistle around my neck at all times, and each night as I entered, I was issued a "panic button" for setting off the prison alarms in case of trouble.
I eventually felt, however, that my best protection was the inmates themselves. This was confirmed early in the semester when, while walking down the long primary corridor full of inmates, one of my students fell into step for a few moments, telling me in a low confidential voice, "Word is out on you. Never worry. You are safe. Everyone knows." He smiled at me and walked away. I felt oddly honored.
The first week or two of class was a constant challenge. Many students questioned the validity of every theory I taught. I often felt bogged down, but tried to always respond patiently, knowing that this was a first-time experience for most of these men. At the same time, I knew we were progressing at a snail's pace, yet I did not want to unnecessarily rush things, particularly when the tendency to drop out is so high. The better-educated students complained about the trivial nature of the questions bein g asked and sometimes provoked nasty verbal exchanges with fellow students. I felt caught in the middle of a game whose rules I did not know - and I fought constantly for control of this unique classroom.
The racial tension in any prison is overwhelming, and my classroom within that arena was no exception. I made some basic ground rules with my students: Keep all racial and ethnic problems outside of the classroom. I warned these men that if my class were not treated as neutral turf, they could get out now. While differences unavoidably arose, and occasional shouting matches broke out, it was not all that different from my traditional classroom experiences: Students disagreed, students listened, students settled down, students learned.
The semester was a slow and painstaking metamorphosis - together we learned about each other, shared confidences, and changed each other. As we progressed week to week, the inmates soaked up the ideas and concepts of sociology like sponges. I was delighted to see that these students, unlike many traditional students, were not afraid to question, debate, and discuss. Sometimes the air was exciting and magical, and I could step back and let them flow with the excitement of their new-found knowledge, as the y challenged each other, made connections, and delighted in the process.
One night, as they were slowly, reluctantly returning to the cells, one student said, "Mrs. B, for three hours a week, it's like we're not in prison. It's like we're real people, in college, just learning." The comment cut through my heart; I rushed to the dark prison parking lot and cried in my car for 15 minutes before departing for home.
What my students lacked in writing skills - by far their biggest academic weakness - they compensated for in the articulate nature of their oral discussions. They also became my teachers, delighting in being able to inform me of something I had not known - especially if they could shock me a little, or make me recoil in disgust. While it took a solid month to see them laugh as a class, they were uniform in their quest to teach the teacher about the oddities and terrors of daily prison life.
Each inmate had a fascinating history: Each story was an unwritten book, a story of a tormented life, a spirit broken early and brutally - a horror so unique that I was never bored when reading their assigned papers. I did not tell them that many of the papers, so descriptive in their heartbreaking detail, haunted me and left me with a heavy despair.
The last day of class began with a final exam, and ended with a surprise. I brought in batches of homemade fudge and Christmas cookies, and after the exam, I set out a little buffet with festive Christmas paper plates and napkins. We sat and chatted for an hour, knowing we'd never see each other again. Many of the men sadly spoke of missing their families acutely over the holidays. We even managed to laugh a little.
At one point, they did a group cheer for me, thanking me for "everything." I told them I could not thank them enough for what they had done for me. I thanked them for breaking down my stereotypes (yes, sociologists have them too) of prisoners, for trusting me with confidential stories, and for trying their hardest to learn under extremely difficult conditions.
As I looked at these men for the last time, I knew that they were neither saints nor savages. They were human beings who had made wrong - often very wrong - choices, sometimes again and again. But they learned, as did I. And here we sat, the 22 inmates who had stuck out the semester, and I, their prison professor, and it was time to go.
Finally, as a last act, they proudly presented me with a piece of remarkable contraband. One prisoner had painted an air-brushed picture and fashioned it into a large, makeshift greeting card. Another prisoner penned an original poem in calligraphy on the inside. Then another, somewhat brave student took on the forbidden chore over the next week of secretly circulating this card to all the other students - on the exercise yard, through the dormitories, in the cafeteria. All written communication in the p rison is administratively censored for security purposes - but the students did not want the message read by anyone but me.
So a conspiracy that transcended race, age, crime, or academic ability took place. And I was proudly presented with the finished product. Each prisoner had signed his own personal message; the main calligraphy greeting read:
Mrs. B is the name of a beautiful lady
A star that brought light into our dark
Rarely have we seen such a beautiful
Brought on to us through you in sheer
A time has come for truth to unfold
You are the spirit of our souls
A Merry Christmas to you is a joy to
Merry Christmas, Mrs. B, from
All of Us.
I shall cherish it always.