Learning From Prison

Regardless of one’s beliefs on what prisons are or should be, professors who desire to teach inside them need to know certain things, advises Damian Zurro.

January 31, 2018
 
 
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It is a sound I can still hear in my sleep: the doors of the sally port, the entryway into the prison, opening and closing. The distinctive clang of gears turning and barriers sliding is one that everyone inside this place knows. Once I was inside and the door lurched shut, an awareness would surge within me that I had entered a world where many of the normal rules and expectations of my daily life did not apply. I would then make my way to the school building and teach my class as normally as possible.

As more people have become aware of the United States’ ranking as the world’s leader in locking people up, many academics want to teach inside prisons. I taught a two-semester composition sequence for three years inside a medium-security men’s prison, where I learned several valuable lessons. Traveling to a prison every week, teaching classes, running a study hall and interacting with inmates and staff helped me realize that, regardless of one’s beliefs on what prisons are or should be, professors who desire to teach inside such places need to know certain things. Here are a few of them.

Prisons are places of routine disruption. Most professors I know expect a degree of organization. They assume, for the most part, that their students will show up on time to a designated room for class and that class will run normally with no interruption, ending at a certain time after which everyone goes on with their lives. They may have a chance to interact with students after the session and can always count on email or office hours to talk further with students about questions or concerns.

Prison teachers can count on almost none of these guarantees. You may never know until you arrive that a lockdown has occurred in the dorm just a short time before, canceling your class. Or chow lines may be delayed for unpredictable amounts of time, leaving you waiting for your students, only to have them never arrive.

Sometimes weather is the enemy; at my prison, dense fog could delay the start of classes because the inmates had to walk from their dorm to the school building, and if the fog prevented the guards in the towers from seeing them, classes were delayed or canceled until it lifted. It would usually burn off by the middle of the day, but that does not help if you have morning classes.

Given these many issues, I have advised everyone I know who spends a lot of time in prisons that they must cultivate two important qualities: flexibility and resilience. Flexibility comes in when you have spent all weekend planning a great activity only to learn your students will arrive late or not at all. You need to adapt quickly to the limited time you are given and find the essence of what you were trying to do so that a precious learning objective does not disappear. Resilience is key because such situations may happen frequently, building up a feeling of stress or despair.

You must learn how to forgive the circumstances and bounce back quickly so that you do not freeze up or fall apart right when your students require you the most. Outsiders who go into prisons and don’t adopt these strategies risk burning out. And one thing you can count on is that your students will be available at other times, as they are always kept in the same place. Thus, when a disruption occurs, you can always find a makeup time so that you do not shortchange these students’ education.

We should encourage liberal arts education for its own sake. We must look beyond vocational education, group therapy and the recidivism rates.

Many prisons offer vocational training, and recent studies have shown that prisoners want those forms of education. In addition, many facilities allow inmates to participate in what are sometimes called “therapeutic communities.” Often happening in a group setting, such programs give those who are incarcerated the opportunity to learn anger management, cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of self-control -- all with the aim of interior change and personal growth. Such programs have a place and should be part of a menu of options that reflect opportunities in the broader society.

Yet they also have drawbacks. Vocational training might train inmates for professions that are either outdated or for which there may be limited opportunities for employment upon release. Therapeutic communities are often court mandated, limiting the personal investment inmates have in the program. They can treat these programs as boxes to check to attain a reduction on their sentence rather than a genuine chance for personal transformation.

Many people would point to the fact that inmates who complete degrees show lower rates of recidivism than those who do not. This data is clearly a societal good, and those of us who support prison education can employ it to garner funding for programs that are sometimes politically unpopular. I support using this data to persuade people, especially when you present them with the status quo recidivism rates.

But it should not be the sole emphasis or even the main one for those who teach in prisons. I’ve found that inmates do not come to an educational program looking to lower their future recidivism. They come because they want to join an academic community and learn how to think critically, express themselves well and cultivate a lifelong love of learning -- all goals that one frequently hears about the value of liberal arts education. Every prison educator should resist letting the utilitarian calculus about prison education’s impact on the bottom line crowd out the important reasons to persuade inmates to pursue such learning.

Viewpoint diversity is often more possible in a prison classroom than in a college one. It has become evident that some college campuses confront an increasingly difficult challenge in remaining wide arenas for the most open exchange of ideas as possible. The past academic year saw many varied campuses erupt into protests that often sought to shout down speech deemed offensive or controversial.

Such disruptions over controversial ideas were never a problem in my prison classroom. Having taught composition, I often experimented with a wide variety of authors and viewpoints across many issues -- some perennial, some more timely. I had students who held white supremacist views and African-American converts to Islam going back and forth about everything from Judith Butler to the controversy over Syrian refugees in the United States. Discussions became heated, to be sure, but not once did a student seek to shut down the class, nor did a group of students ever try to interrupt my class or question my ability to teach.

In fact, one thing I noticed is that, far from wanting the conversation to end, the only real battle the students engaged in was who got to speak next. Ask any prison teacher who has conducted seminars, and they will doubtless tell you that they rarely ever have a lull in the discussion, as can happen in traditional undergraduate classrooms. I found that if I came in with a set of prepared questions, on many days we would rarely make it to the second question on the list before the conversation took on an unexpected life of its own -- enabling me to follow where it led and still come out the other side having accomplished the goals of that day. Therefore, fear not the controversial topic, because prison students will engage willingly, desiring to expand the conversation rather than shut it down.

In the end, an academic who decides to teach inside a prison must be willing to simultaneously remain conscious of the deep nexus of societal issues in a prison while also preventing that consciousness from overwhelming their ability to serve their students. It is possible to make one’s classroom the freest place inside the prison without making the reality of the students’ imprisonment a central focus. Most academics are aware of the problems of mass incarceration, but they will not do right by their students if they view themselves as advocates, spending time strategizing how to disrupt an apparently unjust system to liberate those in their classrooms. On the contrary, inmates want teachers to know them as complete human beings, held to the same standards as any other undergraduates, who can learn the skills to liberate themselves.

Bio

Damian Zurro is a visiting assistant teaching professor in the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @DamianZurro. The views expressed in this essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westville Educational Initiative, the Bard Prison Initiative or the Indiana Department of Corrections.

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