Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NOT THE GULAG, BUT I TAUGHT IN A PRISON CLASSROOM



     Because I taught college courses at a male medium security prison facility for almost 20 years, I could usually figure out my students. There were those who were fat, tall, skinny, short, black, brown, white, young adults, middle-aged and old men. The latter were fewer. There were Mexican Mafia, pedophiles, ex-cops, preppy kids, ex-body guards, a Texas secessionist who tried to persist in a real cowboy and Indian shoot out, a classical pianist, one banker, city gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, transvestites, tatoo artists covered with their art, preachers and a Morman polygamist; I thought I saw it all. My job was to teach, not judge. Usually I knew the first day of class which offenders would be the best students. But,  that was not always the case.
     It was no Gulag, for sure. The offenders were not restricted in their movements and privileges, as those in heavy security facilities, scattered around the state. I taught college credit classes to students who had to qualify with tests or credentials and good behavior.  In general, the students who arrived in my class already had accumulated several college credits. Those who were in a college class for the first time, had a desire to learn and had acquired some skills in their GED classes or already had a high school diploma. The guys were normally very cooperative in class and they were there to learn. They were polite and treated me with respect. They were unlike those in the prison's general population. And that is why they were accepted for the community college work. And that is why I enjoyed teaching them.  
     The most popular course I taught was "Marriage and Family". It is funny the reaction I got from friends whom I told that to, especially men. Several told me that they would think marriage and family wouldn't be important to prisoners. Quite the contrary, I told my friends, I found that if the students hadn't been married they at least had some exposure to family along the way. Numerous students wanted to know what the course could teach them in a future marriage. And those who had been married either wanted to know what went wrong in their failure at marriage or how they could be better husbands in their present marriages or cohabited arrangements. 
     One student argued positively for the case of polygamy and when we discussed this marital custom we looked at studies that used sociological and anthropological tools. These studies show that when we look at societies through time and space, the popularity of polygamy is strong. The offender told us he knew educated and professional women who believed in their polygamous arrangements, as he noticed my concerned look. It wasn't long before we knew he had experienced this type of marital arrangement before he was arrested and convicted of the crime. He was a very gentle and sensitive man who loved to write poetry about his experiences in violent settings of other prisons.
     Students fondly discussed their families and family customs, and listened intently on subjects of domestic violence.  They loved their mothers. One confessed he shot and killed his stepfather, who physically abused his mother. Another confessed he shot and killed his daughter's rapist. This won applause from the others in the class.  One young preppy looking white guy told me he had a difficult time talking about family because his mother enrolled him in a private school when he was 12 years old. She left him at the front door and never returned for him. One black guy kept us laughing with his comical stories from his family. He said he thought he had it all figured out when he was first married. When his wife first talked back to him, he hauled off and slapped her across the face, like he saw his uncle do to his wife many times. But he said it didn't work with his wife who made a fist and hit him back so hard he went spinning across the floor. He never did that again, he said.
      I never questioned the students on details and didn't want to abuse their boundaries, but because the subjects in the class were sensitive to them they either blurted out their experiences during discussions or they wrote about them in their weekly reflections that I assigned for each chapter reading.  
     My teaching methods were those I took from my college sociology classes. My favorite university professor, Joe Feagin assigned weekly written reflections or essays that we related to our readings and lectures. Our job was to compare, and contrast, theories, and ideas to those in the text or to other sources we had read. He told us to dig deep in our papers and write in an academic manner and to reflect upon what we learned.  We discussed what we wrote in class. It was a high level assignment in which we learned to write better papers and to explore our readings in depth. I used this method in the college classes I taught.  I supplemented the readings with other sources, usually other sociological studies.
     The last two semesters I taught at the prison I had a student who took me by surprise. The first day of class he walked in with the other students, but he looked older. Later he said he was 60 years old. His appearance was sloppier than the norm. His white cotton pull -over shirt and baggy white draw- string pants were very soiled. His hair was uncombed, greasy looking and fell in his eyes.  His shoes scuffed and worn, his hands were soiled and his eyes were blood shot and seemed to roll around in their sockets, uncontrollably. He appeared to be a white Anglo and I didn't know what he was doing in my class. 
     When introduction time came, Mr. Brown said he didn't know what he was doing in the class. Some cellmates told him he should take a class and this was a good one. He said, "I haven't been in a school for a long time and this is my first college class, but I read about five novels a week."
      Oh great, I thought,  he might have a mental problem. I also thought he was there to get out of the heat and "kill" time in an air conditioned class room away from the hot cells. We discussed the syllabus and talked about the definitions of family. I told them this textbook was interesting because it didn't focus on dysfunctional marriages and families, but focused more on healthy family arrangements and the healthy socialization of children. I gave the reading and written reflection assignments, told them of the weekly quizzes and three major semester exams. I explained this was a class that they should take seriously. I had three hours to spend with these guys, once a week, and I intended to keep them busy the whole time.
      The next week at our second class, the offender students arrived with their written assignments in hand. They told me what they wrote and handed in the assignments. Mr. Brown said he didn't think he did it right. When he gave me his paper, all I saw were a few fragments of sentences that didn't connect in logic and thought and were not punctuated. I thought to myself, this is not going to work out because I didn't believe he was college material. I told him what he should have done and it was not an acceptable college paper.
     He said, "Oh, okay. Can I do it again? I've got to get me some glasses this week. I lost mine."
     I said, "Sure, but you'll also have the assignment due next week." He said he thought he could handle both and he would at least try.
      The next week, his written assignments were done right. In fact they were so good as the weeks went by that we all were surprised by his academic achievement. His appearance began to change as he cut his hair and shaved. His clothes looked cleaner and his overall appearance fit the norm, if not higher. And he wore new reading glasses. Every week his quiz scores were 100 per cent. And his major exams had the highest scores in the class. They were all A pluses.  
     As weeks went by, Mr. Brown told us that his father abused him and taught him to use drugs with him. Later when a teenager, he was adopted by  foster parents. They worked him as a farm hand and he had to do a lot of  drudgery kind of work. He later ran off and enlisted in the army.
     Over the weeks and months, Mr. Brown told us of failed marriages and grown children who wouldn't have anything to do with him. He said he wished he had known earlier what he learned from the studies in our class. He added that he had uncontrollable addictions to heavy drugs. He said he didn't know what he could do with the college classes he was taking. 
      The second semester Mr. Brown took  Social Problems from me, as well as a psychology class, and an art history class.  I confess. I encouraged him along the way, telling him that anyone with his ability to do so well in college the first year, could surely use the same ability to train his mind to look past the need for heavy drugs and misfortunes. He seemed to be interested in my praise for his stories. I encouraged him and the other students, as well, to write their memoirs. I told them how to brainstorm for different events in their lives and to take notes when remembering certain things that may have been turning points in their lives and to reflect on them and to write as often as they could.       I said to them, "It is therapeutic. It's a good way to pass your time and to escape the conditions you live under.  Your children might appreciate it someday. And who knows, a publisher may be interested, as well."
     As mentioned earlier, the prison where I taught was securely guarded and I usually felt safe. I gained respect and appreciation from the students and officers. It was not a Gulag type of prison and I learned a lot from the men with whom I shared a classroom for almost twenty years.  

1 comment:

  1. Janine, this is a most inspiring article. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I plan to share this slighted edited quote so as to encourage others to write too. :)

    " I encouraged students...to write their memoirs. I told them how to brainstorm for different events in their lives and to take notes when remembering certain things that may have been turning points in their lives and to reflect on them and to write as often as they could. I said to them, 'It is therapeutic. It's a good way to pass your time and to escape the conditions you live under. Your children might appreciate it someday. And who knows, a publisher may be interested, as well.'"

    Janine Stubb
    janine-stubbs.blogspot.com

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