From the Pulpit to the Prison – Part II

29 09 2010

(“Life lessons learned from the inside” – continued from Part 1)

7. Never (never, ever) run inside a prison. When a Corrections Officer sees anyone running, they are trained to think, “Why are they running?” and to think the worst. Unless there is a good reason (and there aren’t many), I’ve learned to slow my cadence down considerably. Moving slow is a good thing.

8. One of the only ways inmates can exercise power to the Corrections Officers is to travel really slow in times of transitions. I’m learning that prisons aren’t necessarily designed to be business models of efficiency and for good reason. Since security is of paramount importance, the speed of operations is sacrificed (the pace of movement is quite different from that of an Elementary school!). Inmates can exercise some of their own control by intentionally walking slow from point A to Point B. What can take 3 or 4 minutes in a regular school setting may in fact take much longer because everything moves slowly.

9. Teachers are not the inmate’s enemy. The best thing about being a teacher is that we’re not seen as Corrections Officers. Teachers are there to help, to educate, and to reform. CO’s have more of a punitive role (in the minds of the incarcerated) and are thus hated by many inmates.

10.  Students first, Inmates second. All inmates in a Maximum Security Institution are there for a reason. One of the big questions I was faced with early on was, “How much should I know about an inmates’ background?”. In asking several teachers, a common theme emerged. Once you know the crime and the related atrocities, it’s hard to not make rash judgements about them as a person and your ability to see them as students will be hampered. In discovering this information, it’s a lot like trying to “unring” a bell – once it’s out there, you can’t bring it back. I’ve made it a practice to refer to my class as “students”, not “cons” or “criminals” and to use their first names whenever I can. There are very few places on the inside where an inmate is referred to by their first name. I’m making it my practice to have my classroom be one of them.

11.  Teaching students in a Federal Maximum Institution can be strangely rewarding. One of my first assignments was to make “home visits” to those in Segregation – Protective Custody. These guys are in their 8 x 12 cells for 23 hours a day and to “teach” them involves calling them to their cell door, talking through a small glass window and sliding correspondence work under the steel door. One student in his mid-thirties was struggling with his math course. I spent about 40 minutes with him, writing on a clipboard, holding it up to his window and explaining concepts as best I could. At the end of my “appointment”, he had a solid grasp of long division. As teachers, when you see the light bulb go on, it is extremely affirming, and the feelings we get in those moments make the tasks worthwhile. When you get to play a part in someone else’s learning (even if they are incarcerated adults) it can be a rewarding and very satisfying way to spend your day.

12. All people – even those who are incarcerated for unthinkable crimes – deserve to be treated in a fair and unbiased manner. As teachers, we get to see learning progress all of the time. There are lots of learning disabilities around us, but ultimately, we’re asked to try to meet students where they are at in their education path and to lead students further down toward their learning goals. I can say with all honesty that if a student is motivated to learn, I am willing to teach. That’s a pretty incredible privilege when you think about it.


From the Pulpit to the Prison – Part I

29 09 2010

From the Pulpit to the Prison – Part I

Since the middle of July, 2010, I’ve taken on a role quite different from the one I’ve been used to. My Teacher Education Program year prepared me for classrooms of up to 30 kids from Elementary to Secondary settings. I wasn’t thinking I’d be teaching adults – especially ones who have been incarcerated. I now have a class of twenty students, aged 21 to 38, and am an Adult Basic Education teacher to those behind bars.

There are nine Federal Prisons in British Columbia and since the early summer, I’ve been driving to work at the only Maximum Security Institution in the province. The best way to describe being inside is like you’ve just touched down in a different country – a country with a different culture, a different language, a very different police force and customs that are . . . well, interesting to say the least. I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned about prison life in my short stint in the Big House and decided to compile my thoughts into 12 key points. Here are the first six:

1. Security and safety is paramount. From my car, I have to pass through a double barrier of chain-link fences with razor wire on top of them, 3 walk-through metal detectors and 17 sliding steel gates or locked doors in order to get to the school. On my way there, I sometimes pass by a dozen plus Correctional Officers, all equipped with pepper spray and radios. In addition, my bag goes through an x-ray machine, (like the one you find at airports) and under no circumstances am I able to bring in a laptop, cell phone, USB drive or an ipod. In addition, all teachers wear a Personal Portable Alarm on their belt with a big red button that would immediately mobilize a serious army to the school if it was pushed..

2. I work in one of the only schools where you will not find a pair of scissors. Recently I brought in one of those Crystal Light Lemonade packages. It’s a small tube of drink crystals that can conveniently be poured into a water bottle and shaken up into a delightful beverage on a hot day. The manufacturer made these “user friendly” in that they provide a little slit that you can use to rip off the top. The problem with the packages we bought is that the slits were put in the wrong place (a defect in the manufacturing process). In other words, by ripping the top where the slit is, the package remained sealed. This was a problem to a thirsty teacher..

I rifled through the drawers of my desk in the teacher’s offices and couldn’t find a pair of scissors to complete my task. When I asked where some were, my question was met with smiles and laughter. One of the other teachers recommended using the hole punch. Scissors are seen as potential weapons and will never be allowed to pass through the gates.

3. From my experiences as a pastor, I learned that trust and respect are earned through building relationships. Not so on the inside.  Among inmates, there is a definite “con culture” and a pecking order of respect that seems to have everything to do with the crime you’ve committed. As a teacher in a prison, your role is not necessarily one where you want to be sharing personal information to build relationships with your students. This can be quite dangerous, actually. Friendliness is important and developing a rapport with students can be beneficial, but getting to know these students by sharing personal information is never a recommended practice for teachers.

4. Information is like a currency in the prison culture. “Hey new teacher – are you gonna be here tomorrow?”. My reply gave the student new information to add to the mental list he already developed. “No,” I said “I’m on my orientation right now and I’ll be at another institution tomorrow.” He now knew:

    1. that I was married (my ring gave that away)
    2. I wasn’t coming back the next day
    3. I was going to another prison
    4. I am on an orientation (ie. I’m a newbie that doesn’t yet know all of the rules)

I was taken aside by one of the teachers at the end of the day and told that this information (albeit “useless” information in my mind) could be used by the inmate to circulate amongst his unit and a “profile” about the new teacher would begin to be formed. Any personal information can be a dangerous thing to disclose to an inmate student since it can quite possibly be used against you at a later date.

5. Inmates know all of the rules inside and out. Questions of clarification that are directed to the new teacher are designed to test him to see if he knows the rules. And if he doesn’t, boundaries can and most definitely will be exploited.

6.Prisons can be very “language rich” environments and you will never see as much ink on bodies in all of your life. Enough said.

(to be continued in Part II)