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inc.arcerated Part II: A few thoughts after a month of teaching inmates in jail

7 min read

I could write my statements here and back them up with facts, but I rather share my observations and state my own opinions. There are plenty of articles out in the world that, by nature of the type of article needing to be factual, it limited the author's ability to bring their emotion into it. In this series to follow "inc.arcerated" I'll walk the line between what I observe and what I think and feel. You'll have to take both; writing only from emotion is without value, but writing solely on facts is an incomplete accounting.




It's been more than a month since I first stepped into the high-security jail. It prompted my first post and left me strangely optimistic. This last week I spent a full week there; long days at maximum security lockup, and short evenings at minimum security. The difference seemed very stark at first. I admit I had some apprehension about working with high-security inmates, as I wasn't sure how different I'd have to behave around them compared to the guys in minimum security. I'd already been getting into the flow of working with minimum security inmates who were given more freedom and were trusted a bit more. After all, they're trusted with welding tools in welding class, and gasoline, shovels, clippers, and other tools in landscaping.

In comparison, those in high security lock-up weren't allowed outside at all; they lived in sections of a concrete building, with the same walls and strong glass between them and others. They are segregated into different wings and only a few are allowed to help out with certain tasks (those called "trustees" who help get the classroom ready or clean up, for example). The floors were seperated by elevators that are controlled by operators, not buttons the passenger can push. Most of them have the same tired patience; they are waiting, knowing that time might be the only thing they have in abundance. Any chance to fill it with something, any chance to cut their time down by even a little, they will take. They might be there a very, very long time.

In high-security, my students wear orange. Many have several face tattoos; something I noted that many of the low-security inmates do not. I ask about them now and then; almost all of them say they got them when they were young (13, 14 years old) and liked the way they looked at the time. I see them as stories on their skin, but also wonder at how much this appearance has kept them from getting a "normal job" that would've at least given them the choice of different employment. How many have had their choices limited by the appearance they chose as a mere adolescent? Where was their parent or guardian who might have kept them from making those choices before they were an adult?

Some of them look just like any person you'd see walking the street; you wouldn't bat an eye or tense up in fear. They are investment brokers who are in jail for fraud. They are dumb kids who didn't want to pay taxes or parking tickets and had a warrant out for their arrest, got caught and paid their time in jail. They are addicts who are in jail for possession. They are risk-takers who led the police on high-speed chases.  

They are fathers, most of them. There are mothers, too, but I only work with the men's side at the moment. My students always ask if I'm a mother; they're always surprised when I say no. In return, I ask them who has children; it's almost always 80% of the room.  

All those fathers... away from their children. Or should I say, all those children growing up without fathers. I couldn't tell you if the kid is better off; that depends on the father. Everyone in jail has something to work on. It might be something as simple as learning how to not get caught doing illegal things (i.e.: how to choose income-making jobs that don't land you in jail). Yet, just like most of humanity, it probably has something to do with the choices that led them to be addicts, risk-takers, drug-dealers, sex-offenders, violent gang members, fraudulent bank investors, or just dumb kids looking for money who hold up liquor-stores.  

I can't take a side on the issue. Yes, reader, I know it would be easier if I told you how to feel and what to think. I know that we're culturally trained to think the people in jail deserve to be there, and -depending on what you've heard- you'll either believe that jail helps "reform" them, or that the classes and programs are a "waste of tax payer money".  

Let me ask you this; if you had no money, no education, and no support from family growing up telling you to stay on the "straight and narrow" path and then supporting you to do so... what road would you take? I bet many of you would say you'd take the high road, nomatter what. Maybe your Jesus or Lord would guide you. Well, there's a lot of Jesus in jail, and even more in the 12-Step Drug Recovery programs -and they still bounce back into jail once they go back home to an environment where those same drugs are easy to get and those nice jobs are near impossible to be hired for.  

On the other hand, every human has a choice.  

So, in the classroom, I try -though it takes time, so much time, and lots of patience- to see where they're coming from. I try to figure out what they weren't told and not to take for granted that they know there are other options. I try to realize that most of them will end up in the general population again and that I have a chance to help give them ideas about what they could achieve. You wouldn't believe me, reader, but some of them have the most beautiful hearts and minds. Some of them are destined to go back to college, and to do something great, and a few words of encouragement might be the thing that they never really got growing up. You might not believe me, but some of them have learning disabilities that they aren't aware of that has kept them from graduating with a High School Degree, and some of them are panicked about getting out and not being able to change their circumstances.  

You might not consider this, reader, but some of them will end up dumped on the streets, kicked out and abandoned by their families because of the mistakes they've made, and all at the age of just 20 years old. Some of them had been kicked out and homeless since the age of 15, and through their industrious nature they made money and a place for themselves before getting into the illegal activities that eventually landed them in jail.

And you might not believe me, reader, if you have never seen my face or smile, if you have never known my real age or demeanor, but even as officers and family and staff tell me to be careful, to tell me to trust know one, and that I am surrounded by con-artists and dangerous men... I am not afraid.  

I look forward to it every day. I think about how I might best do right by them, and the second I walk off the compound I begin to worry if I have even begun to help them at all.  

And that's the truth as I see it, so far. There's no way to save every person, or change every mind. People will do what they're going to; that's free will. However, when I walk into the classroom I'm hoping to help them learn the skills to pass the exam... but also the skills to open new doors for themselves when they reenter society, and maybe -just maybe- make it a better place.