Teaching in the Inmate Scholars Program
As an English professor who works in the prisons, I am constantly asked: what is my why? My answer right now is more questions: what on earth are we going to do with the formerly incarcerated after they get out? How do we make sure they stay out? Education is the key to these problems and after reading Incarceration Nation and talking with people who have worked inside for years, I want to help. Kirk James, Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work at NYU McSilver School of Social Work, was a presenter at the Basecamp Prison Education Retreat a few months ago, and he asked us “to imagine being defined by the worst thing you have done in your life and have that be the only thing that matters to anyone or that anyone really knows about you.” This population really needs us if only to give them some other definition of themselves.
Day One: Well, I did it. I set off the alarm. The one thing I was afraid of, and I did it. Not a big deal. They said it would not be, and it wasn’t. I have been working as an English professor in the prison system for a few months now. In some of the prisons I work in, you receive a personal alarm that you put on an alarm pouch on a belt. If you feel like you are in danger or threatened, you can push on it, and the Correctional Officers (COs) will rescue you. I set it off. I did not feel threatened. I was putting the alarm in the pouch. It was the first day, and I had just been handed the biggest key I had ever seen and an alarm. They told me to never set down the keys. What was I supposed to do with them? I was a bit nervous, and I was trying to juggle everything while setting up my classroom.
Other than that, the first day went well. The students were motivated to learn and were very respectful. The fears that I had about student behavior or danger were not actual problems. Before I applied for this job, I asked a few of my colleagues about working inside, and they all said that they had never felt in danger. Most of the people I spoke with were men, so I was a bit skeptical, but that has been true for me as well. After class, many of my students approached me to thank me for coming to teach them. I had never been thanked for just being there before. I have been thanked for taking extra time with a student or for providing feedback or for doing something, but they are happy that I am here at all. What should I say back? I almost said thank you for being here. Weird. I will have to come up with a better response.