Prison Education: Class Update (6-13-2011)

Much can be said regarding what exactly to call what I do. Some call it prison education. Others call it correctional education, yet others refer to it as inmate education. Some even call it adult continuing education or adult basic education. Though, if you want to get technical, it's really prisoners teaching prisoners since I am a prisoner myself. Which begs the question of: What am I? Am I a teacher, instructor, professor, prisoner-teacher, prison educator, or adult educator? How about educational consultant? I like that last one. It makes me seem special somehow, as if my counsel is worthy of acclaim. But the truth of the matter is that I am federal prisoner number #22132-058. I came before 22133 and after 22128. The 058 part is the North Carolina designation. The difference though is that I know 22128, and while a nice guy, he's not an instructor of sorts as I am. Most aren't.

Regardless of what I am to be called or what term is coined to refer to that which I do, it is a very peculiar thing. Those of you who follow this Prison Education Blog know that I teach a class. I teach a class at FCI-Petersburg, a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. My class is titled Writing and Publishing and meets every Monday night from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. That's right. I teach a room full of prisoners, people which society and the courts have deemed need to be locked away. Prisoners are the kind of people that other people need to be protected from. Dangerous gig, right?

For me, nights like Monday night put a lot into perspective. I, a 25-year-old, young white guy, stood in front of my new class. It was Week One, the first week of my new group of students. Standing in front of the class, I found myself feeling the opposite of the way I usually felt around FCI-Petersburg. On the compound, as the internal part of the prison is called, any number of vulgar and idiotic conversations and actions can be seen. It really is enough to anger even a passive guy like me. But inside my class, it was as if we were in the twilight zone, not quite free, but not quite caged, either.

I say this because of what happened. A group of 16 grown men, all older than me (26+) and some better educated (some with graduate degrees), sat still. They raised their hands to ask questions, and not one illegal or vulgar action came about during the entire class. They asked questions like, "When writing, should I be using a pen or a pencil?" Or, "Where is there an appropriate use for profanity in the written word?" Or better yet, "When formatting a screen play should I double-space or single space the text?" Now, I ask you, do these sound like hardened criminals? I think not.

The reason I bring this up is because so much attention is given to the prison experience. We have television programs like OZ, movies like The Longest Yard, and even books which portray the violent and often comical events of the prison life. But all of these cater to preconceived ideas of prison. For those outside of prison, the urge to see the criminal punished and the entertainment in the novelty of another, darker world pervades their imaginations. All of these focus on the extreme, not the truth of the matter. This is what I hope this blog can do: Act as a catalyst to truth and success. The truth of the plight of all involved in prison education and the successes it fosters. Hence, the need for more and better quality educational opportunities behind bars.

The truth is that, yes, there is violence in prison. Yes, life is rough in here and depending on where you are it can be a living hell. I've been through that. And yes, some prisoners are scum. But this is not categorically or universally correct. There are others who come to prison for making an error in judgment, learn their lesson, better themselves, and get out, never to return again. These are the people that I see taking my class. Or at least this is what I hope, what I have faith in.

I also have hope in the idiots, those who have come back, the recidivists. I hold on to hope because maybe, just maybe my class, Writing and Publishing, will give them the incentive and the option, the seed and the water, to enter another existence, an existence outside the criminal justice system. Just maybe one of the idiots will find their way into my classroom and just maybe a new world will be opened to them – the world of the law abiding professional writer, a person who enjoys life and is at peace with themselves and their surroundings.

As you read through these blogs I hope that you open your mind. I implore you to not view the persons depicted in this Prison Education Blog as prisoners, but prisoner-students. People, like me, who yearn to make amends and yearn for something better, something more informed. For as in the outside world, there are high school drop outs and there are college graduates. Both can obey the law, but both are very different. So also in prison, there are those who continue to victimize or abuse those around them, like my cell mate who's verbal brazenness is a testament to his 26-year prison sentence on the installment plan, and there are people like me, people who have realized the error of their ways and are doing what they can do to make amends for their youthful indiscretions.

As I look back upon yesterday's class I yet again see hope. I see people who are tired of being sick and tired. Me included. I see people who want to do better, and who are willing to put in the hard work and dedication to do so. I see hope, the hope of a brighter tomorrow. And I for one can't wait to see them again for Week Two of Writing and Publishing.