Teaching English Inside Prisons Might Have its Risks, but the Rewards Are Worth It
I had been teaching English and developmental English at Northern Essex Community College (NECC ) for 11 years when I decided to apply for a sabbatical. The end goal of my sabbatical project was to find a way to increase literacy for people in carceral systems and set them on a path to pursue higher education.
According to the Washington Post, our country is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but warehouses nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Recidivism is the reason for such high rates. About 50% of incarcerated people end up back inside within five years of being released, according to a 2015 article in Slate magazine. Because a high percentage of individuals currently and formerly incarcerated lack a high school diploma or college education, good job prospects are often out of reach.
Access to education while serving time reduces recidivism and costs taxpayers less money than re-incarcerating them would, according to the Bard Prison Initiative, a college education program for incarcerated students in New York state.
Shortly after my sabbatical proposal to create a college-level English class for incarcerated students was approved, NECC was awarded a grant from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department to direct the educational programs at Middleton House of Correction and its satellite facilities in Lawrence and Salisbury.
How to place incarcerated students was my first challenge. Normally, academic placement in English and math courses at NECC relies on a high school GPA or computerized test. But many of the students we would be working with didn’t have high school diplomas, and none had access to the internet. Fortunately, a group of faculty from the English department at NECC and I had designed an alternative assessment for early college students the previous semester, and I was able to utilize this placement process.
I administered this alternative assessment to prospective incarcerated students several times in the fall of 2019, and met with other educators to teach them how to administer and evaluate the test. By January 2020, more than 20 incarcerated students had scored well enough on the test to be placed in college-level classes and were ready to enroll. Those who did not get a high enough score to be placed in college-level classes were able to enroll in the HiSET (high school equivalency test) prep class.
I also attended the 40-hour orientation that the Essex County Sheriff’s Department requires for anyone who wants to work with incarcerated people. I learned so much that week. Some of the things the orientation covered were expected, like CPR and self-defense. Other things surprised me. I learned terms like “downing a duck,” an expression used by prisoners that refers to taking advantage of a staff member who can be easily manipulated.
A lot of what I learned that week showed how the values of higher education and working in a carceral system don’t always match up. Things I took for granted in my regular college classes, like freedom of expression and talking with students after class about their families, needed to be thought about carefully “inside.”
My research also took me to two maximum-security facilities in California, where I observed a former colleague teaching college-level English classes. And I attended the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison conference in St. Louis, an eye-opening and inspiring experience.
I was finally able to put my project to work in the 2020 spring semester. To eliminate the need to use the internet, I created a course pack containing almost all the class materials: about 116 pages of step-by-step instructions, outlines, sample essays, a detailed weekly assignment schedule, writing advice and all the supplementary articles the students would be reading. Two novels, Omar El Akkad’s “American War” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” were also included.
The students were curious and challenging, and our discussions were insightful. At the beginning of the semester, which began in January, before COVID-19 arrived, I had some students who just wanted to take advantage of earning “good time,” and some who just liked coming to class, but didn’t do much work. However, about half of them were dedicated, determined and very invested in their own learning. These students completed their work and wrote some impressive essays.
I didn’t anticipate it when I created the course pack, but it became instrumental when COVID interrupted our programs. My students continued to do their work, even without our face-to-face classes. (At the end of the semester in May, their work was delivered to my doorstep.) I wrote a letter to the students every week, explaining the work they needed to do and trying to encourage them to keep pursuing their learning even though we had been interrupted.
One student wrote at the end of the semester that he had already shared “American War” with five other guys inside who had not enrolled in classes, and they loved it. Another student wrote an essay about how the class gave him a community he needed, and that he had never realized that he loved to read and write until taking my English 101 class. When I told another student about “Parnassus,” NECC’s literary arts magazine, he expressed an interest in submitting a poem. Since our incarcerated students have only small pencils and yellow lined paper to work with, I typed up his poem and sent it in. It was accepted for publication.
Near the end of the semester, I also submitted an essay by this same student to the English writing awards at NECC. Out of hundreds of essays, his composition won one of the top prizes for English 101.
Perhaps most profound was the experience of one student who was released from Middleton in February, about a month into the semester. A quiet and respectful student who always did his work, he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to finish the class. We transferred him to my class on campus.
I will never forget his face, walking into my “regular” class that first day. He was like a kid on Christmas morning, so full of joy and expectation. He fit right in and always asked the most thought-provoking questions. He had to learn how to navigate NECC’s online Blackboard system and get used to using email, but he always rose to the challenge. After my class, in which he did very well, he enrolled in two online summer courses and two fall courses at NECC, majoring in business. I can’t wait to see what he does once he graduates.
Teaching in a prison setting was challenging and at times made me feel uneasy, but it was also extremely rewarding. I found that it really pushed me professionally and made me feel vulnerable in a way that I’ve never felt before. Just getting to my class was sometimes an ordeal.
One day, I rushed out of a meeting on NECC’s Haverhill campus later than I had planned and hit traffic on the way to the prison in Middleton. I arrived just in time, feeling stressed and weary. After going through the first security check at the door, I had to sign in with my fingerprint. I walked through the first locked door, two-way mirrors lining the wall, and paused to wait for the next door to open. Finally, I walked through the cage outside, barbed wire curling against a gray sky atop a 20-foot chain-link fence. The metal gate clicked on the pavement on the other side of the cage. I walked quickly through two more locked doors, reeling at the industrial lighting and stuffy air.
I arrived at class just before start time. I sat at my desk near the door and tried to organize my handouts. As I waited for my students, I reminded myself why I was there. My job is to create light for them, to show them a path for learning.
Five minutes passed and I wondered why the students were held up. One of the other educators popped in and told me there was some kind of shakedown happening. When my students finally lined up at the door to sign in, my anxiety lifted. Suddenly, they broke out singing “My Girl.” I’d taught for 30 years, in California, Massachusetts and Japan, and I’d never been serenaded before.
By the end of NECC’s first year working with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department we had served more than 500 incarcerated students in Essex County: teaching classes, administering the HiSET, tracking down high school diplomas, advising and offering library services. These students need us. They are capable, and they are worth it.