My life as a prison teacher

It was exhausting, but such programs helped make the streets safer - and now they're being dismantled

In the spring of 1997, I taught my last creative writing class in the Washington State prisons. This particular class lasted for three weeks, and ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. It took place at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, about a two-hour drive from my home in Seattle. Rather than make the long daily commute, I spent the weeks at the Shelton Super 8, and drove home for the weekends.

WCC Shelton is a medium-security facility, and is reputed to be one of the "softer" joints in the system.

Still, WCC Shelton is a prison. And after spending eight years driving around the state and teaching classes at prison after prison, I had come to view prisons - whether "soft" or "hard" - as spiritual emergency wards; as repositories of society's poorest, most vilified outcasts; as repositories for men and women who live in settings that are notable for their exceptionally high levels of psychic pain, self-loathing, pent-up frustration, hate, gore, fear of rape, desire to rape, proximity to evil, proximity to grace, the ever-present threat of sudden violence, and - above all - despair.

Making streets safer

As you might expect, teaching in such settings exacted a high emotional toll on me. Nevertheless, no job I've held before or since has made me feel more useful. I felt that through the act of teaching in prisons, I was contributing to crime prevention. I felt this intuitively when I was alone with my students, and I felt it intellectually based on studies I'd read.

One study in particular comes to mind. It was conducted by the National Institute of Justice - the research arm of the federal Justice Department - during the mid-to-late 1980s. The study followed 105,000 state prisoners during the first few years after their release. Among its major findings were these:

* Sixty-six percent of the entire group were rearrested for a felony or a serious misdemeanor within three years of their release.

* Of those who volunteered to get a high school diploma while in prison, that number dropped to 45 percent.

* Those who received a two-year college degree while in prison were rearrested at a rate of 27.5 percent.

* Those who received a four-year college degree while in prison were rearrested at a rate of 12.5 percent.

This is a dramatic set of statistics, and one that ought to be as meaningful to governors, state legislators, law-enforcement officials, and other policymakers as it is to educators and social workers. These numbers should carry a great deal of weight for anyone who professes a belief in crime prevention.

Education programs decimated

Unfortunately, this is not, apparently, the case. For there has been no clamor for more and better educational programming. On the contrary, the pendulum has swung the other way. In my home state of Washington, for example, as part of a new "no frills" approach to incarceration, the community-college system within our prisons - once a model for the nation - has, by legislative fiat, been dismantled. Even high school degrees are no longer offered to those convicts who want them.

Sadly, Washington State is not alone. Education programs have been or are being eliminated in state after state.

According to a study out of the University of Louisville, nine states have dropped their education programs entirely since 1994, and 70 percent of the remaining states have suffered draconian cutbacks in education.

There are two primary reasons for this trend. The first is the elimination of Pell Grants - federal scholarships - for state and federal prisoners. These grants were formerly used to pay for books, teachers, and educational facilities. The Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 put an end to this funding.

The second reason for the decimation of education programs is a new "lock 'em up and throw away the key" sentiment that has swept across the land. Of course, in most cases the key is not really thrown away. Sooner or later most prisoners are released. Indeed, approximately half a million prisoners are released every year.

Lacking education, which is to say marketable skills, confidence, and an expanded sense of possibilities, it is inevitable that many of these released prisoners - including the ones who would've acquired an education if it had been offered - will return to what they know best: the life of crime. Thus, the polity's desire for vengeance is being fulfilled at the price of public safety.

Did the Holocaust really happen?

As noted, my residency at WCC Shelton lasted for three weeks. The Friday of the second week was a pleasant, cloudless, balmy day in April.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, I was ambling - briefcase packed with student stories in hand - from the Education Building toward Main Control.

I'd checked out of the Super 8 that morning. So today, I wouldn't be returning to a motel. Instead, once I reached Main Control and exchanged my staff badge for my car keys, I'd get on I-5 and drive two hours north to my home in Seattle for the weekend.

Although I was fiercely devoted to my students, and planned to spend the weekend reading their stories, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I was looking forward to two days away from the "spiritual emergency ward."

WCC Shelton is spread out like a ranch, and in good weather it's a pleasant walk to the front gate. I could smell the evergreen trees that grew thickly on the hillside just west of the prison. I could discern a slight sea tang from the nearby Hood Canal.

I turned left at the infirmary, and slowed down to admire the garden by which it was bordered. While I was appreciating the flowers, I noticed two young convicts digging a ditch about 20 yards away. Both were young and white.

They were probably getting paid about 15 cents an hour, and they were giving the state its money's worth. One of them would dig a shovelful of dirt now and then, but mostly they were standing around shooting the breeze, shirtless in the sun, and soaking up the rays.

I could hear snatches of their conversation, and soon became aware that the topic of discussion was me. "No, I know him," one guy was saying to the other. "I had him at Greenhill. Dude's OK."

Greenhill is the state's maximum security prison for older juvenile offenders. Evidently, my defender had "graduated" (as does 80 to 90 percent of Greenhill's population) to adult prison.

"Hey teacher!" he yelled. "How ya' doin'?"

"Fine," I said. "Just fine."

"Going home?" my former student asked.

"Just for the weekend. I'll be back."

I started to walk again.

"Hey teacher!" my former student yelled, this time with a hint of urgency in his voice.

I stopped walking and put my heavy briefcase down on the sidewalk. I turned to face the young man.

"Did the Holocaust really happen?"

Odious lies will flourish

My lighthearted mood vanished instantly. I knew what this question meant. It meant that these two young and quite possibly gullible men were being recruited by members of some white supremacist gang.

And now, thanks to the state legislature's elimination of education programs, the white supremacist recruiters stood an excellent chance of success.

Just a few years before, 40 percent of WCC Shelton's inmates were enrolled as full-time students. And just a few years before, I would've used my authority to enroll these two kids in school. There, they would've been disabused of their wacky and dangerous "revisionist" theories.

But the school had been dismantled. And in the absence of education, ignorance could and would run rampant throughout the institution, unchecked by any pocket of resistance. Hatred, based on odious lies, would flourish.

Worse yet, this scene - this birth of two new neo-Nazis - wasn't taking place only at Shelton. As a result of sharp reductions in funding for prison education throughout the US, this scene was being replicated in prison after prison, state after state.

I took a good look at these two friendly and still malleable kids, who didn't have a clue that I was Jewish. They were probably on their way to becoming eager, head-shaven, indoctrinated, hate-spewing, no-longer-malleable fanatics.

They seemed well on their way, in fact. Barring some reversal that I could certainly not foresee, their political religion would quickly and insidiously invade every facet of their lives.

And there is nothing quite as dangerous as a generation of fanatics, or as wrong-headed as the prison policies that create them.

Maybe he's lying

"So did it happen or not?" asked my former student.

"Yes," I said. "It happened."

"I heard that it didn't," he said.

"Trust me. It happened," I said.

"Six million Jews?"

"Plus Gypsies," I said. "Six million plus Gypsies and homosexuals."

"See?" said my former student as he turned to his friend.

"Maybe he's lying," said the friend.

My former student looked over at me. "No [expletive]?" he said.

"No [expletive]."

"Well, I heard it never happened," he said again.

I shrugged, picked up my briefcase, and made a beeline for Main Control.

Robert Ellis Gordon taught story writing in the Washington State prisons from 1989 to 1997. Portions of this article originally appeared in Mr. Gordon's book, 'The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison' (Washington State University Press 2000).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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