Finding Meaning as an Inmate Instructor

By Andrew Chen

As an inmate tutor at a federal prison, I get one of three responses when I answer another inmate's inquiry as to where I work.  In order of increasing frequency these are: first, a shrug and a nod -- a somewhat reluctant acknowledgement that being a tutor is probably a commendable thing to be doing; second, a "Why would you want to do that?  I would not have the patience to attempt to teach a bunch of half-wits who don't want to learn anyway"; or, third, by far the most common response, "For real?  I really need some help with my math and essay writing." 

So why did I choose to become an inmate tutor, and was it a good decision?   The answer is one that requires some context.  It took me three years to move through the U.S. judicial system from arrest to arrival at my designated federal prison facility; three years of being confined to a succession of wholly indoor, steel and concrete cell blocks with perhaps a hundred other anxious federal inmates and a couple of televisions for company; three years during which there was no opportunity to do any meaningful work, or to participate in any educational or vocational courses.

It's fair to say that I'm not a typical inmate.  I'm a workaholic with two doctorate degrees, and an almost compulsive drive to always be doing something meaningful.  Watching TV and playing cards all day really didn't cut the mustard for me.  Thankfully, I was able to find enough suitable books through the prison book carts and from friends outside, to study literature and history, two subjects I had never really had the time for since leaving school.  Still, it felt like a rather self-absorbed pursuit, and I yearned to do something that would allow me to make more meaningful contributions to my newfound community, the federal prison community.

I had long decided that when I got to my designated federal prison I wanted to work either as a teacher or a librarian.  Both jobs, I was frequently told, were particularly hard to obtain, so I had steeled myself for many months of wiping tables in the dining room, or mopping floors in the housing unit, whilst waiting for a position to become available.  Once I arrived and asked around, that sentiment was pretty widely held.  People who appeared to know what they were talking about told me "The Education Department is useless; they're not interested in teaching.  You'll find it so frustrating.  Don't waste your time there."  "The teachers are stupid.  You've no chance of getting a job there as they'll see you as a threat.  They only hire dummies."  I was told, "Don't go over there yourself and ask about a job, it's all about who you know.  Let me speak to someone on your behalf."

Time ticked by, and the day was rapidly approaching when it appeared that I would be assigned to an orderly's role.  As luck would have it, one day in the dining room I got into a conversation with someone whose roommate was an inmate tutor, and who offered to introduce me to one of the staff teachers who he knew was looking for another inmate tutor.  Within the hour I was on a week's probation with an unusually passionate teacher who wouldn't hire an inmate tutor unless the students felt it was someone they could learn from.  Only later did I learn that they had run the last tutor from the school!

Two months have passed since that probationary week.  Did I make a good choice?  Yes.  Quite honestly, I cannot imagine anything that I could be doing in prison being more rewarding than this.  In fact, I'd go as far as saying that it is just as rewarding as most things I could be doing out there "on the street."  Of course, it's not financially rewarding; I made a little over ten dollars for my first month of teaching, but the early days of the students shouting across the classroom, the reading of magazines, and the sleeping under a coat has stopped.  Now the classroom is alternately abuzz with participation in class teaching, or quiet as the students work on problems; a quiet murmur as they consult and help each other.

Over these two months I have watched the men grow in confidence, and begin to believe something most have probably never dared to believe before:  that they can really pass the GED examinations.  You see it happen right in front of you; the furrowed brow of bafflement morphs into a look of surprised disbelief as they solve one problem after another with a clarity they have probably never had before, and then a grin of pride lights up the room.

What else could I be doing in here with such potential to change lives?

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Andrew Chen is an inmate instructor in a federal prison.  He teaches both GED and Adult Continuing Education courses.  A professional by trade, he now finds meaning helping his fellow incarcerated students grow to their full potential.  For him, prison education is now a way of life; a way to find meaning even in prison.