Every weekend, the institution where I teach holds a study hall in the activities building, where prisoners can gather to work on homework and receive assistance from fellow inmates or outside tutors. My introduction to volunteering in the prison came through attending study hall sessions, where I was able to put my rusty Spanish skills to work helping a man with homework from the introductory Spanish class taught by a fellow prisoner.
Now that I teach a class myself, the study hall period is a time for me to meet with my students and give them more individual support on assignments; this week, their first paper for the class is due, so I went in over the weekend to help those who were struggling with their essays.
The limitations of teaching in a prison environment mean that I cannot hold office hours as instructors at most universities do. Instead, I meet with my students in a large room full of tables, chairs, and other men studying all manner of topics – everything from oceanography to calculus to law to philosophy. It’s a bit chaotic, but the opportunity to discuss with a handful of students their thesis statements and the hypothetical ethical dilemma they had to come up with for their paper was valuable. Through individual feedback and group discussion, they were able to move toward stronger thesis statements, clearer understandings of the ethical frameworks I had asked them to learn, and a better grasp of how to apply, compare, and contrast those frameworks with their own ethical systems.
Another, unexpected, benefit of study hall was the chance to be a little less formal. Since my primary pedagogical training comes from working as a peer tutor in a writing center, I prefer for this sort of interaction to be comfortable, egalitarian, supportive, and informal. In addition to discussing the paper, we also talked about math, video games, music, and the process of personal growth. Though I try for our class meetings to have a balance between lecture and discussion, since I do spend a some of the class standing in front of the room and writing on a whiteboard, an uneven power dynamic builds – through the use of space, if nothing else. Of course, maintaining some degree of authority is necessary to keep a class moving forward, but I valued this opportunity to sit at a small table with some of my students and just talk.
One thing I have noticed in the nearly half a year that I’ve spent volunteering in the prison is how starved many of the men are for conversation. I’ve encountered many individuals who have fascinating stories and perspectives; unlike many conversations I have on the outside, the men inside bring an intensity and focus to even casual discussions that I have rarely seen. The opportunity to openly voice opinions and explore complex ideas seems to be a rare one in prison life, and for the most part, the men I have worked with value those chances that do come their way very highly. This was most apparent in the mixed-enrollment class I took in the spring; almost half of the students in that course came from the university where I study. All of the students from outside were female, though the instructor was male.
Every class period I would participate in and observe conversations between incarcerated men and free young women. The men were respectful, polite, and very interested. The sort of polite disinterest that so often permeates conversations between classmates elsewhere was almost nonexistent. When someone spoke, whether to a conversation partner, a small group, or in a full-class discussion, everyone else involved listened carefully and responded thoughtfully. It was refreshingly positive and affirming.
This description might sound idealist. I am very aware that not all conversations in prison proceed in this manner; having observed some interactions between prisoners and guards, or between prisoners and other prisoners, I can say that those conversations carry an entirely different tone and weight.
But honestly, I think that’s exactly the point. Most interactions within prison are fundamentally about power – who has it, who doesn’t, and how it can be manipulated from both sides of that divide. Prisoners tease each other, wheedle favors from guards and each other, and watch everyone, both prisoner and guard, with a wary eye. Even relatively positive prisoner/guard interactions carry that undertone of fundamental power disparity, and interactions between prisoners occur within an atmosphere of surveillance.
In a classroom, such concerns seem to be shifted to the back burner. The focus there is on taking advantage of the opportunity to learn, an opportunity these prisoners seem to value much more highly than their free counterparts in university systems around the country. Like the student who is the first in their family to attend college, these incarcerated students view their education as something precious. They carry a burden of desire and need that privileged college students simply don’t.
All of this has helped shift my own perspective on education. I have always felt that education was important and valuable, that it represented an opportunity for betterment and growth on intellectual, emotional, and economic levels. But because my parents told me from a young age that I would be going to college, it was also an opportunity that I have taken for granted. Returning to college after a hiatus spent struggling to learn how to cope with mental illness had changed my perspective; because I spent years convinced I would never be able to return, I was enthusiastic and eager when I did. I also treated it like something I could lose, because for me it was something I had lost. I don’t think most students, particularly ones who are white and middle- or upper-class, really grasp that. Like me, they take educational opportunities for granted.
Incarcerated students don’t. They understand that attending class is a privilege they can easily lose – through infractions, through transfers to other institutions, through scheduling conflicts or paperwork mixups…through many avenues of change inside the prison, both within and beyond their control. To them, education is something precious, not just because of its potential for change and self-improvement, but because of its fragility, and the tenacity with which they grip it while they have it is something I admire and will always remember.