Teaching in Prison: A Mission of Forgiveness, Hope and, Yes, Risk

It was 1995.

In my hand, I held a paper about six inches tall and four inches wide containing the words: “I don’t want to waste my tax dollars on these criminals”; “those people deserve to be locked away where the sun don’t shine”; and– the greatest indignity of all–the words, “flared nostril at me.” This paper was a formal critique of my final speech in speech class at a Christian university– a speech for which I had amply prepared– and I was being personally attacked for what was, at the time, a very unpopular strategy: work release for incarcerated felons.

Ironically, these words were written by an 18 year old student, who had never even filed taxes and who had probably never even come in contact with a prisoner. Ditto for everyone else in that sheltered class, including me. In many ways, we were in prison, too: a prison of our own preconceived notions.

At the time, work release was a little-known concept. During my research, I was only able to find one brief article on the subject tucked away in a distant corner of the New York Times. My speech attempted to convince the members of the class, all but the professor in their late teens, that work release was something worth considering in order to rehabilitate prisoners and return them to the outside world as productive citizens. Even with my little knowledge, I believed that the idea of prisoners belonging behind bars for the rest of their lives was false. In this, I found, I was quite different from the norm. Here’s why.

I was seventeen myself. I had been sheltered by parents who believed rigidly in the infallibility of the Independent Baptist church. I’d never known a juvenile delinquent, and I’d never stepped foot in a prison cell. I’d never even visited a police station for administrative purposes. There was only one thing I knew about prison, and that was Tony Alisangco. Tony worked with me at Jack’s Hamburgers. He was there almost every day, did his job faithfully, and had this smile that, though toothless, was infectious. I suppose Tony was in prison for drugs, maybe marijuana. I never asked. And frankly, I didn’t care. The thing was, there was no one I trusted more in that building than Tony Alisangco. When one of my male bosses tried to sexually harass and/or assault me in the bathroom while I was cleaning it at the end of my shift, his attempts were thwarted by Tony, who, feeling that I was unsafe, appeared suddenly in the small hallway where my manager had cut off my escape. Tony was a big man, obese, but tall and intimidating. Whatever my manager was planning stopped right there and never crossed his mind again. Women, you know how those alarm bells go off in your head when something is wrong? That night, those bells were jangling. By the time I realized I was in danger, though, any escape was improbable. I know in my heart that if Tony hadn’t been there clearing the path for me, I would have been assaulted.

If, I reasoned, prisoners were so bad, why was Tony protecting me? Why did I trust him so completely? And if my experience with Tony and his work-release program was successful, why wouldn’t other people’s experiences with it be successful, too? For that reason, I couldn’t have expected the animosity I faced from a crowd of Christians whose hatred for the incarcerated, even at such a young age, was so profound as to warrant personal attacks on the appearance of my nose. 

I have received one letter (in the late 90s) from Tony since those years we worked together when I was sixteen. I’m pretty sure he’s no longer living. Still, the memory of this man’s kindness still reaches me in my gut, even though I’m closer to forty now.

Today, though, I find myself thinking of Tony because I spent the morning in a prison, Columbia Correctional Institution, with incarcerated men who are about to get a second chance at returning to their communities “better” and more educated men. Late last year, I interviewed for and won an adjunct position at Florida Gateway College to teach inmates at Columbia Correctional for the federal government’s 2nd Chance Pell Program. Watching the inmates today– going over their lists of books, touching and counting each of the items, signing the forms that officially made them college students– I knew that I was right where I needed to be: at the end of a path I began walking at Jack’s Hamburgers when I was sixteen: a path Tony Alisangco unwittingly put me on.

I’m not a bleeding heart. I know there are bad men. I know that most incarcerated felons are not innocent. But that does not mean they are useless drains on society forever. Millions of people are imprisoned in the United States, and many things make it tough for a convicted felon to recover. Tougher laws, even for minor infractions, zero tolerance, three strikes, decimated communities, missing fathers (and mothers), poverty, lack of access to education, and low self-esteem are problems we can no longer ignore. I know that there are many people who think prisoners don’t deserve an education. I understand their point. As an adjunct for the Year Up program at FSCJ, I teach students who will come out of the program making more money than I make to teach them and without the burden of nearly a hundred grand in college debt. Sometimes, I’m tempted to feel bitter. Our society doesn’t do a good job of making sure our educators receive a decent wage for the immense tasks put upon them. (Is it a surprise that there’s a risk that when a car lot pays a security guard minimum wage to protect his expensive inventory, that guard might choose to help one of his buddies steal the merchandise for a more lucrative payday instead?) So, I get it that law-abiding citizens should wonder why people like me want to give things to convicted felons that they themselves aren’t getting. After all, they didn’t commit crimes. They were willing to operate within the rules. Unfortunately, operating by our unfair rules doesn’t produce a fair result. That’s something we need to change. What about rewards for good behavior for law-abiding citizens instead of only punishment for bad behavior? Still, we educators can’t let our bitterness distract us from our mission. What we do is a labor of love, of faith, of forgiveness, and, yes, of risk.

As a teacher in a correctional institution, I go in with the knowledge that I am taking a risk. I don’t feel that that risk is to my personal safety, although that may exist. The students chosen for this program are among the best the penal system has to offer. They’ve been vetted, researched, interviewed, and their behavior tested and studied. The risk I am taking is mental and emotional. What if I trust these men– build rapport with these felons— and all they care about is using me to advance their position in the prison’s micro-economy? What if their goal is not to learn, but to entrap? What if they think of me, not as a teacher, but as a tool, a means to an end– an end which may not be their education and their betterment? What if I am not respected so much as used? What if I get hurt in the process? I get it. It’s a risk. But. I am– and have always been– willing to take such risks.

To be honest, as a teacher, I get used all the time. I allow it to happen to some degree in order to achieve my mission. Sometimes, you have to. Students sometimes manipulate me to get what they want. (I call it “advocating on your own behalf.”) And you know what? I teach them how to do it. Instead of fearing student manipulations, I encourage them to be better at these manipulations than me. Manipulation has a negative connotation, but the concept isn’t all negative. Parents manipulate their children all the time. Teachers manipulate their students. Then, we teachers ask students to manipulate us. In English studies, we call that “persuasion,” and we dub mastering it a valuable skill.

I understand there’s a thin line with manipulations in prison. Confining manipulation to persuasive ideas in essays is different than being manipulated to do something against the correctional institution rules such as becoming a “mule” or engaging in forbidden personal relationships. Personal integrity should prevent these egregious infractions– for both inmates and teachers. Still, sending prisoners back into the world while preventing recidivism means that we have to prepare these felons to make their own choices, which means allowing them a certain amount of freedom in the classroom. I call this agency. As a teacher, it is my job to give these men, as much as possible, a sense of agency for their own learning, for their own decisions, and thus, a sense of responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. In this way, I hope to transform some of these incarcerated men into productive individuals who can return to their communities and begin rebuilding them, from the ground up. These men alone can fix their communities. It is the teacher’s job to empower them to do so– to prevent their children from following their footsteps into the prison-industrial complex.

So yes, I am going to teach incarcerated felons. Yes, there is risk. I don’t know what my incarcerated students have done. I do not want to know. As far as I am concerned, they can leave what they have done in the past behind them. That’s where the past belongs for all of us: in the past. This has to happen if our students, incarcerated or not, want any type of future.  The standards of good behavior, effective communication, mutual respect, and fair treatment is my strategy for dealing with potential risks. My strategy might not always succeed. (There’s always a chance that that a felon on work release might choose to use the leniency granted him to escape. Likewise, a student may fail to learn and may make bad choices.) It’s not as much our job as educators to prevent bad behavior as it is to issue consequences for that bad behavior when it occurs. Sometimes that means a student won’t complete his or her program. Sometimes, an “F” is given, which may even leave permanent scars. Sometimes, bad behavior may entail just a warning. Some students, once released, may return to prison. Occasional failures are unavoidable. This does not mean that the whole program is a failure.

We cannot guard ourselves constantly from the risk that people will let us down, even when we give them everything we can to encourage their success. At no time is this more true than now, when young people face fewer pathways to productive lives, when decimated families mean more communities with gang problems, and when unavoidable poverty leads to theft and crime. The point is, as a society, we can no longer close our eyes to the consequences our own bad choices have caused. Time and time again, we have put personal and corporate gain above large swathes of an impoverished community. We have locked our felons away in facilities on the outskirts of our communities so we don’t have to think about them. We have ignored the negative impact our current system of education has perpetuated. The time to make changes is now. The time to provide access to pathways out of poverty is now. The time to reduce prison populations–both those already incarcerated and those on the path to incarceration– is now. We don’t have the luxury of locking our problems and their consequences away. We are out of time.

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~ by ImaginaryCanary on January 21, 2017.

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