Reflections on the Inside
Candice M. Tucker
I enter via the prison visitor’s entrance to an area that looks similar to a doctor’s stark white waiting room, minus the tabloid magazines. After signing in on a nearby clipboard and handing my driver’s license to the guard, he hands me my volunteer identification badge and sends me to the “bubble.” The Bubble is the purgatory between the two worlds… the inside and the outside. My teaching bag is filled with pens, folders, needed papers, and my car key. Even a calculator is not allowed inside my bag, and the pens I carry have to be transparent so they cannot store illegal materials.
Once I enter the bubble, I walk through the metal detector and plop on a bench to take off my shoes and any hosiery and lift my feet for inspection. My clothes are scrutinized for appropriateness. No low cut shirts or tight fitting pants are allowed, and dresses should fall to my ankles. A female officer then subjects my 5’2” blond, blue-eyed, small frame to a meticulous pat down from head to toe, particularly the breast area since people often try to hide contraband in that region. I sign in on another clipboard in the bubble and turn in my car key in exchange for a personal protection device to wear on my hip. If there is an emergency, a siren sounds if the key is pulled from this device. Once during a class it accidentally caught on the back of my chair and pulled the key out. As the siren blared and I frantically tried to insert it again, my students just stared at me with their hands up, like they were being read their rights.
After being granted passage into the prison, the sliding door to the other side opens and the air is filled with the foul stench of body odor. This smell shocks my nostrils each and every time I arrive. I walk up to another window and verbally request an escort at an officer’s window for my journey to the prison school. As the correctional officer (CO) and I walk across the lengthy prison yard, I make sure to maintain an upright posture and to smile as much as I can while we make small talk. I am often impressed with the inmates’ manners in the yard. I have had more men excuse themselves when needing to pass my way or hold doors open for me in the prison than I have ever experienced on the outside. There have been a few under the breath exclamations as I walk by (“Damn!”), and a few will stare straight at me, unsmiling, in a way that makes me uncomfortable. As I pass inmates out in the yard, I will often smile and greet them. This seems to jolt them a little, and they will greet me politely in return. Usually from start to finish it takes me about thirty minutes to arrive at the school building after entering the prisoner’s entrance.
When I first told my husband I wanted to take this new college instructional role in the prison, his initial reaction was one of surprise and protectiveness. I had been married and teaching postsecondary communications and writing classes for just under 20 years, and I was starting to feel a bit stale. I wanted something new and different that would challenge me in ways my two current positions were lacking. I teach online full time for one institution and part time for a community college that partners to provide education in several of the prisons in the state of Michigan. Before the Pell Grant approval for inmates in 2016, I taught for a different grant program and for self-pay students who receive help from a sponsor or family member on the outside.
My husband didn’t try to dissuade me… he knows how stubborn I can be when I want something. I have to grudgingly admit that my initial reasons for wanting to teach were not about bettering society or helping men grow as individuals and students. They were to stave off my boredom and encourage me to feel excited about teaching again.
My boss escorted me on my first day teaching in the prison a few years ago. He asked if I was nervous. For some reason, I wasn’t anxious at all. My body language was relaxed and open. I felt such a sense of peace… like I was where I was meant to be. My students reacted positively to this sense of ease.
How does a teacher who daily logs in online and chats with students and embeds YouTube videos and other homemade videos into her class suddenly survive in a world without the Internet? I am taken back to a pre-Internet world where students can’t just search and click on their phones when they have a question. I suddenly realize how lazy I have become as an instructor. I incorporate all these fun videos to entertain my students in the online classroom, and I convince myself that being on pace with technology has made me a more effective, meaningful instructor. I reluctantly drag myself out of that mode of thinking and set out to embrace teaching with the vigor I had in the mid-90s when I first started and had to engage students in other ways than turning on a projector and entertaining them. I revert back to discussion groups and kinesthetic activities to stimulate ideas.
Each semester I closely interact with these students and have the kind of discussions in class most instructors only dream about. One student shared that he never understood what empathy was until he took my class, and now he can look back on the crime he committed with a new perspective. Students learn how to be assertive instead of aggressive or deferential as we practice real-life scenarios. Other times conversations have taken a horrific turn, such as when we were discussing relationship violence and students shared physical abuse situations they witnessed as children between their parents. One man as a child watched his aunt light herself on fire and burn to death after she realized her husband was cheating on her and using time with his nephew as an alibi.
My relationship with these men is one of unconditional love and positivity. One student writes on a class evaluation, “You have a perma-smile. You smile all the time. It is contagious. You are always positive and happy. You are a nice change of pace from the world we live in.” Every scenario has its dark side, however. I grow attached to students and suddenly they disappear from my class. One student who was always vibrant and friendly disappeared one day. The other students tell me he was dropped from the program and ridden out to an Upper Peninsula Michigan prison because he stole a pack of gum from an officer. Another student who I had a great rapport with failed a marijuana drug test and was also ridden out somewhere in the north, because apparently students that break rules are often forced to reside in the arctic cold northern Michigan prisons as punishment. This student wrote me a long letter that I found in his returned textbook, sent to me by another student at the next class period. It was dramatic and sweet. Another student was placed in solitary confinement and left my class three weeks before it ended because he feared for his life and asked to be placed under protection.
Even if students are not ridden out, I still may never see them again after the class ends, since further contact is prohibited by the Department of Corrections. I am not allowed to contact them via email or visit. My best hope is to be scheduled for a class again soon at that facility so I can see them at the school or walking around the prison yard. At one prison the parking lot borders on many of the men’s living areas, and often I will hear prior students shouting hello to me as I walk toward the building entrance. This behavior is strictly forbidden, but they do it anyway.
Some of my experiences leave me wondering what kind of impact I am really having, if any. It is so hard for some of these students to make lasting changes due to the prison environment. But many students do thrive, even under the worst of experiences. One of my best students has been in prison over 20 years for killing a man when he was 19. His case was high profile and made big news during the 90s. I never check out my students’ backgrounds before instructing a class. I fear it will cause some bias, so I usually never know why students ended up in prison unless they share it with me themselves, and most do not offer up this information. The only reason I discover this information is because another student shares it with me after class one evening toward the end of the semester. Many would only see him as a murderer. I see him as highly intelligent and open in sharing his earlier life experiences with others in the class (those not crime related). His writing is thoughtful and imaginative. We often would sit and chat before and after class about life. He feels that he is too old to really accomplish anything once he leaves prison since he is in his mid-40s. I remind him that many people find success at a later age. He has changed his life around and has so much more of his life to live.
In one of my technical writing classes, students have to complete a professional resume and cover letter and discuss their career plans for when they leave prison. I fear so much for these students, who were all accepted into this education program because they will soon be released (in the next few years). I worry about the people who will not give them a chance and who will turn their backs on them because of their records. There are so many professions that are out of reach for ex-convicts because of their backgrounds, even though many have 60 or more college credits and plan on completing college degrees on the outside. Sometimes released men are merely not ready for the working environment on the outside. One student who I taught at a regular campus after he was released from a thirteen year prison sentence earned an accounting degree, but is now a maintenance man for a local church in his area. It does not escape my notice that he is working a job where he is alone and not interacting with others.
I make myself available to all my students as a reference, and it pains me to say that not one has contacted me after release to use as a reference. What could this mean? Does it mean that they just want to forget their time on the inside, and I am a painful reminder of that? Does it mean that they just took a menial job and are settling for less than what they should? These types of questions keep me up at night.
So many concerns cause me restless sleep. During student presentations about their family communication one semester, one man shows a picture of his daughter on prom night standing next to his best friend, who flew in to act as her father because he himself could not be there. Some of my students have never even met some of their children or rarely see them. Tears seep from my eyes during these presentations. I can never imagine exactly what they experience, and just writing about it pains me. Some spouses have left them while in prison and are with someone else now. My students seem relatively forgiving of this, because they understand their lack of daily involvement in interpersonal relationships.
Some students write me letters that have pained me beyond my imagination. In one letter a student shared that he molested his daughter many years ago and has never seen her since and how much he regrets what he did. How do I respond to this type of letter? As a parent, it is so difficult to discover this kind of information about one of my students. I struggle all night after reading the letter and toss and turn in my bed. It is silly to think I can save the world, I think. Why am I there?
During my training it is strongly encouraged that I tell the students nothing about myself at all. It seems that I am expected to be a robot teaching an impersonal content area. Writing and communications content is anything but impersonal. One student writes on my evaluation, “Thank you for your openness and honesty. It helped us feel more comfortable about our lives and opening up.” To me, the teaching process does not work without this kind of relationship with the subject matter. How do we learn if we do not personalize? One younger man shares with me, “…because you were my teacher I tried to do well not only in school but in the prison yard as well.” What more could I ask of any student? It is every teacher’s goal for the students to apply what they learn in class to their daily lives. Students even share that our active listening exercises were helping them with their girlfriend’s and spouse’s prison visits and phone conversations when things become tense.
One of my favorite jobs is playing Santa Claus. I am only allowed to bring in school related supplies, and even those are somewhat limited, depending on the prison location (some are more flexible than others). I bring in sticky notes, cardstock, folders, and their personal favorite, clear barreled colored pens ranging from red to purple. They are so appreciative of these little things. It pleases me to make them feel special, but it also makes me sad that something so small brings them so much joy. I recently had a student nod his head vigorously and tell me, “This is the best pen I ever had… seriously!” One inmate, Greg, took me aside after class one day and whispers conspiratorially to me, “Can you get me more of those colored pens?”
Another time a student’s cell experienced a shake-down (search), and the first thing he said to me at his next class was that they took his colored pen away from him, even though it met the facility rules. The CO took the pen in order to show him who was in charge. I often feel caught in the middle between the correctional officers and the inmates. I have had officers charge into my classroom and start yelling at the students, and usually it involves some petty way they have not followed the rules in the school building. One came in and threatened the students because he saw someone try to leave the building during one of our breaks (depending on the facility, this is sometimes allowed). The students want me to be an ally, but I have no jurisdiction there. I am subject to searches, shake-downs, and suspicion, too. Most days I am pleasant and polite no matter how I am treated, making small talk with the COs. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with the strict regulations I lose my temper.
I have a written assignment in a communications class where the students pick one scene in a movie and analyze the nonverbal communication. It is always a favorite both inside and outside the prison classes. I was teaching in a particularly strict location, so I asked the students what their approved movie was for that week because the prison will allow them special movie nights where they will play a movie over and over again on one of the channels provided at the prison. Once they notified me, I made sure to have all the students all pick a scene from that movie for their paper. Because of their situation, I wanted them to be able to view their scenes a few times each before completing the paper since they do not have access to DVRs and other replay options.
I leave a copy of the movie at the Control Center a week before the class needs it so it can be approved. When I return the next week, it is still sitting there on the counter behind the officer. I find out that the person who views and approves materials has been on vacation the entire time. So, I try to take it into the Bubble. The CO tells me that it is not on the approved movie list. How can that be? The prison just showed the movie recently. I tried to explain this to the CO and she let me know under no circumstances could I bring in that movie for the students. My lips freeze in a tight line, and I explain once more that I purchased that movie because it was an accepted movie for the prison to show to the inmates.
I am sure it is obvious that I did not change their minds. I stormed to class and with tears in my eyes out of frustration, I explained to the students that the assignment was no longer possible. I had to do a complete assignment change right then and there. Flexibility is one of the most important parts of teaching in a prison. Things can change at a moment’s notice, especially if a lock-down occurs and I have to stay there while the prison allows no one in or out. This has only happened to me once, but it caused me to arrive home more than an hour late.
Even with all of these frustrations, there is so much value in classroom discussions where people have so much life experience to share. There have been so many times where the discussion takes an intense turn and I sit back and let it run its course, because we all learn in the process. Valuing them for their contributions is so much more important than focusing on their past. These men want a brighter future or they would not be spending time in my class each week. Their competitiveness is so surprising to me at first. But many of them live in the same units together, so they all share their scores on assignments and they expect nothing less than 100%. They fight with me for every point deducted on an assignment, sometimes winning this battle if they have made a valid assertion. It was not until I taught in the prison system that I saw a class of nearly all straight A grades one semester. These grades were earned, not given. I rarely see even a grade in the C range. This is much different than the regular campus classes I instruct, where grades range from A to F.
Most people argue that these good grades reflect that prisoners have too much time on their hands. My argument to those people is to first ask them if they have ever stayed in the hospital. Most people know that in the hospital someone is coming in to poke and prod you every few hours and to ask questions. After birthing my children, I never was able to sleep because of all the constant interruptions. This is the type of life inmates live every single day. There is never any privacy, so studying is much more of a challenge. Most of them work prison jobs where they are paid under a $1.00 a day. They use this to buy extras from the prison store, like ramen noodles. One man, Brent, told me that when he is released, he will never eat another ramen noodle again.
I love these men. Some are young enough to be my sons, but many are my age or older. Every ethnicity is represented. They don’t worry about my bias when it comes to what they look like. They initially worry about why I am there. Remember when I said that my original intentions were to have something new in my life because campus teaching as not fulfilling me as much anymore? Right at the beginning of this journey I discovered that this is not about me or what I want. This is about these men and being a part of their world for just a short series of moments in time. This is about learning who they are and what they can accomplish under such difficult circumstances. This is about hoping and praying for their release into a world where they can thrive with this new education, and knowing that they are so much more than ex-convicts. I pray they will continue to learn and love themselves when they reach the outside, no matter what adversity comes their way.