Not all of the staff who work in prisons are supportive of prison education programs. This can pose challenges for anyone who teaches inside a correctional facility.
I have a colleague from the Claremont Colleges who teaches at the same time that I do, in an adjoining classroom at CRC. Both of us had a new correctional officer (CO) overseeing our two classes last Friday. This week, that CO made several allegations about us to the warden, including a claim that our students were passing their phone numbers to the inside students and touching/hugging them in class. These allegations are completely false, but have caused quite a bit of trouble for us.
Normally, the CO has very little interaction with our class. The CO unlocks a gate and lets us all into a small compound with several “portables” where classes are held. The CO usually never comes into the classroom during class. The CO comes in at the end of the class to dismiss the incarcerated students. Since the CO does not watch us interacting with each other, there would be no way for the CO to make these kinds of allegations.
Last week, I asked this new CO to watch my class for a few minutes as I needed to turn in my attendance sheet to an administrator in the next portable building. I was gone for no more than a few minutes. During that time, my students were working in small groups on some mathematical tasks. When I came back, they were still working. The CO said nothing to us at that point. We only learned about the allegations afterwards from our Justice Education program coordinator, who had been helping to diffuse the situation.
I have absolutely no doubt that everyone conducted themselves appropriately while I stepped out of my class, just as they have during every other class so far. No one passed each other phone numbers or hugged during that time. Why in the world would they do that when a CO was present? Yet, I have no way to prove that they didn’t do so.
When the CO lodged these complaints to her warden, she didn’t say whether it happened in my class or in my colleague’s class. Either way, neither of us allowed anything inappropriate to happen. I have no idea why this CO would make these allegations. Perhaps she was genuinely concerned about our safety (we have been told repeatedly that these guys are smart and are master manipulators), but I wonder if maybe she just doesn’t want us to be there. One inside student explained it to me this way today: some people who work at the prison are angry that incarcerated students are getting these college classes for free when their own children don’t get those classes for free. I can see why some people might find that jarring, but it’s a rather short-sighted view to take on incarceration and education.
As it’s the day after Thanksgiving here in the U.S. today, our regular college classes are not in session. But, my colleague and I went to the prison anyway. As one incarcerated student said, “Of course we’ll be there on Friday [after Thanksgiving], It’s not like I have other places to go to or things to do!”
I had brought some donuts for the incarcerated students (that is what they wanted), but due to some trouble with paperwork, they wouldn’t let me bring in the donuts. That was a big disappointment for both me and the inside students.
The absence of donuts and the allegations by the CO sparked a vigorous discussion today about prisons. Many of the guys shared how they feel aggrieved by the criminal justice system and the prison staff. Some expressed a deep distrust and skepticism that things will ever change for the better. To them, the prison industrial complex is a system that reproduces itself through nepotism and relies on people re-offending and returning to prison–there are few incentives for the system to reduce recidivism.
And yet, we still did great math today and shared a lot of laughs. That joy melted together with other feelings: the frustration of being donut-stymied, the anger of being accused of something we didn’t do, and my gratitude for the stories that had been shared.