What Teaching in Jail is Teaching Me

Four months ago, I began teaching inmates in two of Ontario’s maximum security jails. The experience has taught me a lot in a very short amount of time. I’m learning about an alternative universe that exists in parallel to mine. I’m accessing a dimension which is completely divergent from the one I was born into, and I’m still trying to digest it all.

I come from an upper-middle class, white family, and I grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb. It was the modern-day “leave it to beaver”. I started walking to school in grade three, and I wandered through life feeling safe and protected. I ventured into the downtown core once every six months to see the dentist, and that’s about as much of Toronto as I registered. To me, this city consisted of my tiny suburbia and the urban dentist chair.

Through periodic openings in conversation, I’m hearing about a place that is foreign, dark, and for a privileged white girl from Etobicoke, particularly jarring. I knew these stories existed, but I never realized their proximity to me. A lot of the inmates I work with are men between the ages of 20 and 30 and are either Black or Latino. We are within the same generation, living in the same country and city, and under the same governmental system, yet our worlds are polar opposite.

I’ve listened to stories about a family business in sex trafficking. I’ve even been asked, very seriously, if I thought “pimping” was wrong. I’ve been told that the choice to sell drugs or not doesn’t always feel like a choice when you’re 16, trying to support your family, and living in low-income housing. I’ve sat silently as one inmate explained that his reasoning for joining a gang came from feelings of worthlessness. His decision to become a gun-wheeling member of a violent group felt easy as it offered him acceptance within a city he found to be cold and unwelcoming for a 15 year old immigrant.

I listen to all this without judgement because I have no right. It’s impossible to judge a young person who tells you that they used to sell crack to their high school teachers or a 20 year old who has looked up to neighbourhood drug dealers his entire life. If anything, I’m taking a really good look at, not only myself, but also parents, teachers, policy-makers, the judicial system, and our government.

When I was a 16, I found my strength and encouragement in my home, at school, and within my community. I learned the value of a strong work ethic, the concepts of honesty and integrity, and the benefits of positive action. I, personally, was never touched by racism or prejudice, and I always felt like I had people on my side, constantly cheering me on. If this hadn’t been my world, I really don’t know who I would be today or what decisions I would have made.

I know now that it’s easy to overlook others and to ignore a lot of what is right in front of you. I realize that I have been incredibly sheltered and naive. The lens that I’m currently looking through has trivialized my negative life experiences. Now that this other dimension has been opened up to me, I have begun to feel like my world was really made up of rainbows, kittens, and down-filled pillows.

Young people are vulnerable and require guidance. They need love, support, reassurance, and education. Yet, these are all the things that my students did not receive while they were growing up. Because they respond so enthusiastically to positive encouragement, it tells me that they are looking for someone to stand in their corner and support their strengths and ambitions. They need someone to talk to, and at the same time, they need to feel heard. It’s important that these individuals find their worth within the same areas that I found mine, so it’s time that we stop ignoring them, arresting them, and shutting them out of our world.

The Literal Change Project is dedicated to teaching the incarcerated population the skills and strategies that will help these individuals reach literacy proficiency. Nearly two-thirds of the incarcerated population in Canada are not at the level of literacy to function in modern society. If you’re interested in learning more about the Literal Change initiative or want to check out some amazing artwork and writing from talented members of the incarcerated community, click on the link below.