Pencils, Papers, and Prison Bars after Overcoming Her Initial Intimidation, a Prison Professor Fosters Laughter and Lively Discussion in Her Unique Classroom

Article excerpt

THE heavy steel door, electronically opened just seconds before, clanged noisily shut behind me. I stared down a massive hallway with huge barred windows, populated by men in denim. I was being initiated into my new role as a college teacher within the walls of a huge, maximum-security prison, and as part of my orientation I was being brought into the general prison population. My guide, the educational coordinator for the prison, told me later that I had good initial "prison instincts," which he defined as eyes straight ahead, no evident emotion, and not visibly flinching at the big heavy door sealing me in moments before. I was embarrassed to tell him that all I was really thinking about was the possibility of my slip showing.

A month earlier, I had been called by a colleague at a local community college, offering me the opportunity to teach a sociology class to inmates at this all-male, maximum security correctional facility. This facility housed some of the worst offenders in the prison system - even some rather infamous names cropped up occasionally. The orientation I was required to undergo showed me firsthand the total institutional nature of a prison.

This particular facility not only met all the basic needs of its large and diverse population, but it also provided an incredible array of wage-earning jobs, ample prison volunteer opportunities, a fully accredited hospital, and a mental health facility. There were literacy classes, high-school diploma equivalency programs, and a community college that had been running for over 20 years. At the same time, every minute of an inmate's day was clocked and controlled by the prison. Whether an inmate was on the exercise yard, in the prison law-library, shooting a game of pool, or eating a meal, his whereabouts were charted and documented. The entire population was counted five times a day, and all activity in it freezes in place if the count does not tally. The impersonal nature of such a system was inevitable - indeed, when asked to identify themselves to me initially, my prisoners gave me only their prison identification numbers.

The college and prison were pressuring me to accept the job, and I had two opposing points of view. My first reaction, as a sociologist, was "Great! A good opportunity for some participant observation of a unique subculture in an isolated and controlled environment." My other reaction was a knee-jerk one: "Good grief! Teach crooks? Am I nuts?" My first instinct won out, and I signed on for the term. It was a decision I have not regretted, although during certain low moments I questioned my ability to manage such a challenging and unnerving task.

My class was at night, and I was limited by policy to 40 students. The prison administrators warned me that I might have as few as six or eight students by the end of the semester, due to a high dropout rate in the courses. Monday night classes are always particularly vulnerable in the fall semester: Football on television wins out every time.

Nothing could have truly prepared me for the first evening of class. Entering the classroom, I was immediately struck by the ethnic diversity of the group. And I was struck by their overall youth: This facility took inmates as young as 18. The classroom was large, windowless, and with a front and back door, both made of glass for easy observation by my somewhat paternal guard. In that this was the educational wing, every effort had been made to make this environment seem academically correct. There were blackboards, desks, a podium, and bookshelves with reference materials. Closer inspection also revealed an extensive prison alarm system, strict behavior rules posted in prominent locations, and a plain, sobering warning sign that simply said, "Watch your back."

Probably the most dismaying piece of information I was told right before I began my first lecture was that these men were not "good behavior" inmates as I had assumed. …