The road to Rosharon has, at times, been long, and at other times, short, but the experience has always been profound. I use the road to Rosharon to refer to the roads taken, both figuratively and literally, to teach in a men’s prison.
I can’t give specific information about the prison, the program, or the students because we are prohibited to do so because of privacy and research ethics, so I will talk about it in general terms. In this post, I will also not go into how our prison industrial complex is broken, what happens when you incarcerate over 2.5 million people (more incarcerated than in India and China combined) and have around 5 million people in the system, or what happens when you privatize punishment. I will leave that for another post. I have included a book and film list at the bottom if you are interested in reading more about these topics.
A men’s prison may conjure up images of danger or complete passiveness. Groups of men sitting around waiting for the end of their lives (over 90% of people will be paroled), watching inane tv programs, playing cards, or fighting. Although some of these activities take place, it is not the complete reality. Many inmates work jobs that sustain the prison environment and also provide labor for several industries. Others provide hospice care for fellow inmates. Some work in a furniture factory where they make Christmas presents for disabled children. The incarcerated veterans group provides support for those who fought in wars spanning from the Vietnam to the Afghanistan. Many religious groups hold weekly services. Institutions are metaphors for society.
I often tell people that the students in the prison are excellent students. People comment, “ Well, they have time on their hands.” This is not true. Yes, they don’t have the distractions of the internet or iPhone, but other distractions abound. Most wake up at 3:00am and go to work a 12- hour shift. In the summer, there is no air conditioning in a concrete structure that was built over 100 years ago. And, there is constant noise. Fans whirring, people chatting, tvs blaring, doors clanging, groups singing, guards screaming, and signs reminding you that “Security is never convenient.” Yes, it is not convenient nor possible to completely control over a thousand people in a small space.
The students overcome all of these obstacles and complete excellent assignments. Some have waited years to be in the classroom. One student said proudly, “I have waited 4 years to get into this class.” Another says “I got transferred to this unit in order to be able to study.” The process to get in the program can take years.
The students have challenged me, my assignments, their grades, and the arguments presented in class. They are so invested in the class that apathy is not an option, and for an invested teacher, this is exciting. I have learned about resilience, empowerment spaces such as the craft shop where men draw, paint, make belts, and build furniture, and gender, race and class within the prison space. The classroom is a space of empowerment where we all learn together and for me that is the key. We all learn together. Information is presented and then that information is expounded upon through personal experience. It is the marriage of theory and practical knowledge. It is a space of freedom within confinement, surveillance, and control. This is what gives the prison classroom such power.
Many years of research proves that what takes place in these classrooms is the way to reduce recidivism and therefore a way to start de-carceration (http://www.thenation.com/article/prison-education-reduces-recidivism-by-over-40-percent-why-arent-we-funding-more-of-it/) Why aren't there more university programs within the prison space? Why are we not investing more in our public education starting in elementary school? Why is there a school to prison pipeline? I believe that it is because there is very little political will and too many entities making money from privatizing punishment. We know what works. It is just a question of doing more of it!
After each class at the prison, I walk through the hall and see the cells and bars. The door clangs behind me as the students say, “Drive safe” and “Thank you for coming out here.” I leave the guard house and go through two more gates. I get in my car and drive the long road home.
The scenery becomes a soothing meditation in contrast to the hallway of the prison. The rays of the sun come through the trees and the big cotton and corn fields shine, and I take this hour to reflect. Those 3 hours in the classroom become an escape from the daily realities of the prison and in this classroom space, the students become teachers and the teachers become learners. The students, who are viewed as property of the state, are able to take ownership of something, and it has been an honor to witness it.
1. Are Prisons are Obsolete? by Angela Davis
2. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
3. The Darkest Hour by Betty Gilmore and Nannon Williams
1. The House I live in: A documentary 3. the war on drugs and how the prison population has exploded from 500,000 to 2.5 million. This film is online on Netflix.
2. Angela Davis discusses the prison industrial complex: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQ2cC7LHMxA
3. Broken on all Sides: http://www.brokenonallsides.com/
4. It is more expensive to do nothing: This film specifically addresses education and rehabiliation programs in prison: https://vimeo.com/20662300
5. Michelle Alexandar discusses gender, race, and class and incarceration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gln1JwDUI64
1. Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=131
2. Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: www.tcadp.org
3. Windham School District: http://www.windhamschooldistrict.org/