Scared. That’s how I would describe my first few weeks there. This was a job different from anything I had ever done, in a place different from anywhere I had ever been. The people here were dangerous, proven so beyond the shadow of a doubt by a jury of their peers. And here I was, all alone with 20 of them at a time, trying to not let my fear show.
Not a lot of people know that I worked in a prison. It was for six months, full-time, and it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. That old saying that “prison changes you” isn’t just true for the inmates. I think that anyone who spends any time there cannot help but be changed. It is just so different, and requires so much vigilance. Truly, things like safety and security are on your mind constantly. It is a dangerous job in a dangerous place.
My job was to teach a group of 20 inmates full-stack web design and development. It was a one-year, community college certificate program where we would cover web design to front-end development, to video editing, to Flash. It was a heavy program, a heavy program taught to an unbelievably diverse group of humans. Some of my students had Master’s degrees (plural), some had never used a computer. The average student had dropped out of the 9th or 10th grade. Some had been “inside” so long as to have never even seen the Internet. There’s a challenge for you, try to teach web design to someone who has never seen a website.
My reasons for being there were myriad. In hindsight, I was pretty foolish. But like a lot of things, if I wasn’t so naïve, I would never have tried it. Looking back, I am sure glad I did.
Before my job interview, I had never even been in a prison before. I had all sorts of fanciful notions of what I was doing there, and the social good I was after. These naïve fantasies were dispensed with, one at a time, over the coming months of actually being there, seven hours a day, five days a week.
When I started teaching I had 20 students per class, two classes a day. Of the 20 students per class, typically about 12-14 were classified as “HV”. I used to wonder what that even meant, seeing it on paperwork all the time. I even asked one of the other instructors what it meant, and she had no idea. So, I looked it up on my own, and the answer made my stomach drop.
“HV” stands for “High Violent”. “High” because, statistically I assume, the likelihood to reoffend was high. “Violent” because the crimes they were incarcerated for were violent ones. Listening to modern media outlets, one would think that most prisoners were there on drug charges due to minimum sentencing requirements. In a federal prison, perhaps, but in the prison I worked in, the majority of inmates were violent criminals.
I came out of this job a very different person than I was when I went in. For one thing, my confidence got a serious boost. When you have the experience of spending a lot of time around 20 very scary people, scary people who have shown not only the capability to commit violent crimes, but also the capacity, you cannot help but be changed. And for me, knowing that I could be around 20 of these guys, alone, and still keep my shit together, was a big deal. Frankly, there is really not a lot to be scared of in life after you aren’t scared of that.
I am very thankful that when I left my prison job, I left with my humanity still intact. Prison can be a pretty inhuman environment, out of necessity. You witness humanity at its lowest, but you also can witness humanity at its highest.
One day when I was leaving work with a co-worker, it had been snowing, hard. Our walk from our building to the front gate was about 120 yards or so, over winding sidewalks, through a courtyard. My co-worker, who is disabled, uses a scooter to cover this large of a distance.
There was about four inches of fresh snow on the ground, and the wheels on her scooter were only about five inches. The “snow crew” (the group of inmates that shovels all the snow) were out, tending to the sidewalks on the other side of the courtyard from us.
When we left our building, it was clear we would have a tough time. Nothing had been shoveled over where we were, and getting her scooter stuck was a real concern. We chatted about it for a moment, and when I looked up, an inmate had come over and immediately started shoveling a trail for her. He didn’t say anything, he just did it. And he did this all the way to the front gate, some 120 yards. He didn’t have to, he wasn’t even asked to.
I can only speculate why he did what he did. After all, there was nothing in it for him. The prison actually removed the program where you could report a good thing an inmate did. You can report all of the bad things they do, which gets used all the time. But when I actually asked the Sergeant who works our shift (the Sergeant is sort of like the foreman of that shift of guards, whereas the lieutenant is the boss) if there was anything I could do to report what this inmate had done, to at least go in his personal file or something, I was surprised by the answer. Nope, NSP, no such program.
So, one would have to wonder, why did he do it? My guess is that the inmate did this because even though he was in this inhuman place, nothing could take all of his humanity from him. That even though he had committed the crime he had committed, and he lived in this place, he could still be a complete human and have a real human experience with another person.
Of course, that might be all hogwash and poppycock. Naivety is punished, directly and indirectly, in a place like a prison. For all I know, he was trying to impress the guard who was watching him. Or, he needed to get away from the inmates he was working with, and this was a convenient way to do it. Humans are complicated animals, and I would not dare say that I possess any real accuracy in trying to predict what he thinks or feels about anything. But, selfishly, I like my theory, so I stick with it as a possibility.
The experience of working in this prison truly was a transformative one, especially when looking at what these places, these prisons, actually do. That is, their stated mission is to rehabilitate, and in the prison I worked in, there were countless people who were clearly dedicated to this goal. But in my opinion, I think it’s important to really think about this issue. That is, is rehabilitation, on a large scale, even reasonable to expect? Is it even possible? Are prisons dealing with such overwhelming odds because the task they engage in is so complex, and so many things are stacked against them? Possibly so, but I believe there are things we could do to not only assist these prisons in their work, but also send less people there (by sending fewer people back there).
Here are my thoughts about another way we can think about this problem.
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