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.




3 responses

3 10 2010
Chris Wejr

Wow, what a way to start your ‘formal’ teaching career, Brad! (I realize you have been a teacher throughout your life). Your last statement is so powerful – trying to separate the behaviours from the person is something we need to do in every aspect of teaching. Thank you for “letting me in” on the experiences you have had in this world of teaching. I truly commend you for taking on this challenge and demonstrating your learning through this. Well done and congrats on your new blog!

4 10 2010
Anna Lownie

You are an amazing person Brad!!! I think life’s greatest rewards is through unexpected detours and I am sure that this experience will be one of the more gratifying. You will have made such an impact with these men and it is exciting to think that through your efforts you are creating a different life for them. Aspects of our training certainly did not include your current job description, however if being a teacher means bringing a smile to someone, shifting misconceptions, changing world views, giving hope …then you will be one of the best.

4 10 2010

You are too kind Anna, thank you. One of your phrases, “shifting misconceptions” caught my eye. I like that. I think there certainly sterotypes out there with respect to those with a criminal background and for some of my students, they are absolutely correct. Since I started in late June, I’ve found that my own biases have changed toward this group and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You will agree that all students have value, (regardless of age or background) and as teachers, our role is to inspire learning. At the end of the day in this setting, that’s what I’d like to be measured by.

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