With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The volunteer coordinator warns you many people cry when entering or leaving this prison, a red-brick high-rise in rural North Carolina housing the state’s youngest male offenders, ages fifteen to twenty-one. It’s a “dry facility,” she explains, meaning no sinks or toilets in the 488 single-occupancy cells. Between the scheduled, guard-escorted bathroom breaks, inmates routinely urinate out their barred windows. During summer, with temperatures in the high nineties and humidity in the hundredth percentile, the gallons of hot piss streaming down sixteen stories of brick produce fumes so acrid your eyes begin to water in the parking lot. Most days, the coordinator says, you’ll enter the first set of exterior doors weeping.
The coordinator makes you sign papers stating you understand the risks of working with violent offenders and you release the state from any liability. After confirming that you’ve passed the mandatory background check, she wheels an ancient audio-visual cart from a locked closet and sets up the two training videos every volunteer must watch.
The first is titled “Prison Rape Elimination,” after the 2003 act signed into law by George W. Bush, and it outlines the protocol for reporting rape claims made to you by inmates: always go to a chaplain or your civilian supervisor, never to a corrections officer, since inmate allegations against COs are as prevalent as inmate-on-inmate complaints. What you take away from this video is that inmates are going to lie to you — for fun, to get even, or simply out of boredom — and you should be prepared for the likelihood of getting conned.
Nobody needs to remind you that boys can be dangerous. You worked three years in crime analysis for the Los Angeles Police Department in bloody, crime-ridden South Central. You’ve read thousands of incident reports, an unrelenting litany of viciousness, stupidity, and violence. South Central being prime gang territory, a majority of the perpetrators were young men. Though your own teenage son is a good boy who’s never given you trouble, you’re under no delusions about what a sixteen-year-old is capable of when his back is against a wall. And inside boy prison, there are only walls.
The second video, titled “Undue Familiarity,” is a harrowing lesson about the pitfalls of compassion. In it, a grinning convict explains how he meticulously destroyed the life of a female chaplain just to prove he could. A fake suicide attempt scores him a bedside visit in the infirmary, followed by private meetings in her office for spiritual counseling. His purported remorse and desire to know God sucker her in. Alone in his cell, he parses their conversations for clues to her vulnerabilities and concludes he can use her own innate goodness against her. Patiently, over the course of a year, he leads her closer to and finally across an invisible line. He wins on the day she tearfully removes her pantyhose to give him, persuaded that otherwise he’ll be shanked by an inmate to whom he owes money. (Apparently pantyhose are a valuable prison commodity, easy to conceal and used to strain prison hooch or feminize a prison “spouse.”) The chaplain is then brought up on charges — with the convict as victim. Estranged from her family and her faith, she kills herself. “Open your heart to me,” the convict boasts, “and I can open your wallet and your legs and make you into a window to crawl out of.”
You’re not one to be seduced by felons or become anybody’s window. You lack the Samaritan’s belief in the fundamental goodness of man. Plus you recognize that prison is a Darwinian universe where, when the lamb lies down with the lion, the lion will always rip her throat out. You’re only here for the teaching experience. If the local community college had been hiring, you’d be working there instead.
You sign documents confirming you’ve watched both videos and return them to the coordinator. She gives you a xeroxed pamphlet to study prior to your first class: “Working with Offenders: The Do’s and Don’ts.” The list of do’s is short and obvious: things like “be on time” and “be yourself.” The don’ts cover three pages. When you’re done reading, the coordinator asks if you have any questions, and you tell her she’s covered anything you didn’t already know.
She neglects to mention the coins that dot the walkway in front of the prison’s main doors. As you leave, you bend over for a penny and discover the coin is sticky with ejaculate. Cheers and howls erupt from the many floors above your head, and more coins rain down, along with obscene invitations. You drop the penny and wipe your fingers on your pants, but the damage is done. They now have your measure.
The coin trick is excellent preparation for what you’ll have to navigate behind these walls in the days to come. More than the eye-watering urine smell, what pervades this place is the stench of suppressed boy energy, testosterone humming like a thousand-volt live wire. In the absence of sufficient exercise and physical outlets, this thwarted energy channels itself into the myriad hustles and scams known as “fishing” — complex manipulations and one-ups designed to provoke small explosions of violence that release the pressure.
As you retreat to the parking lot, fingers sticky with jism, back burning from the scrutiny of so many pairs of eyes, you remind yourself the word convict begins with “con.”
The first night of class you discover getting into prison is as hard as getting out. Four uniformed guards man the entry. You place keys, purse, and book bag on a table for the first guard to search. You remove your belt and jewelry for the second, walk through a metal detector, and hear a beep. The third guard makes you assume the felon position: legs apart, arms outstretched. He wands you back and front, between your legs and around your breasts. The rivets in your jeans screech. So do the tiny eyelets through which you lace your shoes. The underwire in your bra practically screams. You produce a California driver’s license and exchange your letter of authorization for a numbered visitor’s badge. You sign in with date and time, and under “Purpose of Your Visit” you write “Teacher.”
The fourth guard escorts you to a cage with remote-controlled doors on either side. At his signal one set of bars slides open. You step inside and the bars shut, locking you in. A fifth unsmiling CO scrutinizes you from behind a bulletproof window. You wear a visitor’s badge, so your body orifices are potentially packed with contraband. You look away while he stares you down, according him the dominance all prison relationships require.
When he opens the bars on the other side of the cage, you walk forward and press the intercom button beside the elevator and state your destination: “Teacher to three.” Check the buttons before you step in. The coordinator has warned you never to get on the elevator if your floor isn’t lit up or if a different floor is; any place you’re not expected is a danger zone.
The elevator smells like food cart. A flyer on one wall announces a pancake breakfast the COs union is hosting for kids with spina bifida. On three, an education supervisor meets you. He’s the first person you’ve seen tonight without a uniform, walkie-talkie, and baton. He gives you a list of your students’ names and prison-ID numbers. Don’t be flattered when he tells you there’s a waiting list for your writing class: the tiny library where you’ll teach has the only air conditioning in the building; what you are is a three-hour respite from the heat.
The supervisor turns you over to a female CO who lacks his PhD but has the authority to overrule him on everything. At six foot three, she’s a ponytailed amazon in jackboots who tells you she drove big rigs with her boyfriend till the transport industry tanked and they both wound up here. She scans your list of students and nixes several of the supervisor’s choices. A few boys are behavior risks; plus you’ve been given all six canteen workers, meaning there would be nobody to open canteen on class nights, a situation guaranteed to provoke riots. She substitutes Johnson, M. for Johnson, T. (currently in the segregation unit for assault) and replaces a shot-caller, who’d use your class to conduct gang business, with an inmate who’s up for parole in six weeks.
She hands you a stack of composition books with no metal wires or fasteners. She counts out a dozen pencils, which you’ll collect again from the students after class. You’re given a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the tiny strip of metal that attaches each pencil’s eraser to its shaft. The smallest bit of metal can be fashioned into a weapon; if inmates could sharpen coins, they wouldn’t toss them out windows.
The amazon unlocks the library and turns on the overhead fluorescents. The room contains a dozen shelves of donated reference books; duplicate volumes of religious, inspirational, and self-help bestsellers; tattered, boy-friendly paperbacks by Clancy, Grisham, and Koontz; and a smattering of outdated history, sports, car, and how-to books. The most current Guinness Book of World Records is circa 1988. The literature section is slim; Shakespeare rubs spines with Danielle Steel, who outnumbers him seven books to three. (Dog-eared Danielle is the prisoner favorite: her books have sex scenes and are also written in English.)
The library holds three rectangular study tables, which you push together to make a single large one. You want to create a collegial atmosphere, a circle of equals, but you’ll discover inmates are comfortable only when separated by race: whites on one side, blacks on the other, the lone Asian or Hispanic creating a buffer zone at the corners.
Your students are brought down on the elevator in groups of four by a guard. They wait silently on a bench opposite the amazon, who sits behind a metal desk with nothing on it but a PA phone to broadcast emergencies. You watch them through a window that looks onto the hall. Hearing the instructions she gives them, you’re shocked to realize she won’t be inside the room with you for the next three hours but on the other side of that glass.
Your twelve students are technically high-school graduates. Each one has completed his GED in prison. The average age is eighteen. Two of them are twenty and technically transferable to adult prison, but with a short time left to serve, enrollment in a “college” class like yours allows them to finish out their sentences here. Your appeal isn’t only the air conditioning.
Your students wear dun-colored jumpsuits that button up the front over white T-shirts. Sneakers are of various styles and colors but primarily the New Balance brand. Shoes are one of the few possessions an inmate can buy for himself, and New Balance is the status shoe inside prison, not so different really from the way your California son and his friends favor skateboarder Vans. (When you eventually think to ask your students why New Balance, you’ll get an oblique answer suggesting they offer the roomiest hiding place for contraband. Months later, back in LA, you’ll replace your old gym shoes with New Balance and be delighted with their thick, cushy soles. You’ll razor a small slit in the heel to hold your locker key and stalk the gym with the power of someone in possession of a secret.)
Aside from sneakers, your students’ differences manifest themselves in hairstyles and tattoos. You see dreadlocks, Afros, buzz cuts, and fades; shaved-head Aryans and long-haired hillbillies; chest-length beards and soul-patch goatees; even a waxed-and-curled Vandyke. Necks, arms, and hands are heavily inked: professional, colored tats from the outside and the cruder blue-black ones acquired in prison. Predominant themes are gang signs, girls, and God. The fingers of one student spell out H-A-T-E-R; another is a R-E-A-L N-I-G-G-A. Only your lone Muslim student, a white boy with a beard and kufi cap, appears unmarked. Though everybody is dressed identically, nobody looks the same. All seem decades older than your teenage son.
The first two inmates through the door take seats on either side of you, boxing you in. The rest arrange themselves around the table according to race and gang affiliation. No one speaks. You feel authoritative till you realize you’ve never been assessed with such calculation. If you look away, down at your papers or lesson plan, you’ll confirm what they already suspect about you. Don’t look away.
When you do look away, two inmates pass notes under the table. You see these not-even-furtive movements out of the corner of your eye but say nothing, confirming what they now know about you for sure.
Before you open your mouth, you mentally review the instructions given by the volunteer coordinator for your safety:
When calling on a student, use last names only or point and say “you.”
Don’t reveal your own name. Students must address you as “Teacher” or “Miss.”
Offer no personal information. Where you live or work and details about your family and past are all clues they can use to track you down outside.
Avoid all physical contact. Even a pat on the shoulder can be misunderstood.
Never lend or accept anything. Gifts create debt, and prison debts are always collected.
Never agree to forward letters or messages. A birthday greeting to a baby sister is rarely what it seems.
Don’t show fear; it’s an invitation.
Never, ever fool yourself into thinking you’re smarter than they are. You may have read The Iliad in Greek, but they know how to make a shank from a toothbrush handle inserted in a cake of soap.
You hand out pencils and composition books and try to regain authority by making them write. The room is quiet. Prisoners are trained to follow orders, and these are the “good” boys. When you tell them to read aloud what they’ve written, they do so without excuses or complaints. After three interminable hours you get to go home. Leaving, you tell the amazon the boys behaved well. “Those aren’t boys,” she tells you. “They’re felons; every single one is in here for a reason.”
Your job is to teach your students to write, so you make a list of prompts. During the second class you ask them to write instructions for something they know how to make. Six give you personal recipes for “swole,” the staple food of correctional institutions, a swollen “loaf” made from ingredients available at the canteen: Top Ramen, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, beef jerky, and ranch dressing. These ingredients are pounded, mixed with hot water, and allowed to solidify in the Cheetos bag. Three students describe how to make “state cake,” a cellblock pastry used to celebrate birthdays and release dates. One student offers instructions for making a “fe-fe” while the rest hoot and laugh. He’s deliberately vague, forcing you to ask what it’s for. Too late, you see the trap: it’s a homemade masturbation device. Another volunteers his recipe for making air freshener from lime Jell-O. You learn “pruno” is produced by adding stale bread to fruit juice and hiding it above the ceiling tiles in the showers, where hot steam makes the yeast ferment. Predictably you’re given instructions for making — and hiding — a shank. You see they want a reaction, so you give none.
You ask them to write simple directions from their cells to the library and discover they all parse time in steps and stops: Three steps from my bunk to the cell door. Wait for the guard to pop my door. Fourteen steps to the guard booth. Wait for the guard to pull my folder. Three steps to the elevator. Wait for the guard to take me down. Seven steps from the elevator to the bench. Wait for the teacher to let me in. You think about how your own son becomes despondent when physically constrained by space or circumstance, how tedium and exactitude are the twin crushers of a boy’s spirit. You know they all did something to deserve this, but a hobbled boy feels vaguely like a crime against nature.
In the weeks that follow, they write, then read their work aloud. You ask them to describe an everyday noise that drives them crazy. A prized possession. The thing their father is famous for in the neighborhood. A list of what they love.
You discover they prize prom pictures, letterman jackets, Little League trophies, and family photos. All hate the loudspeaker that interrupts every hour, calling, “Code 2,” for head counts. Some love the smell of cut grass; of clean clothes; of gas at the pump; of rain on hot asphalt; of Japanese-cherry-blossom lotion on a girl. They love the sound a turbocharger makes under the hood when the car gains speed and how driving too fast makes them sweat and their hearts race. They love how they feel when their favorite team wins. Biscuits with mustard. Granny’s chicken-and-grits. Sunday football with a bowl of dip. One boy loves “how easy people can be with each other thirty seconds after being at each other’s throats.” They love sisters and girlfriends. Women with long hair and shaved legs. Every single boy loves his mother, even if she turns tricks or shoots dope. One dreams of buying his mom the simple black pantsuit that will magically carve her a path from hooking to an office job.
Fathers are mostly famous for their fists, their tempers, and their ability to consume alcohol. Many are notable only for their absence. One has the nickname “Letter Man,” due to regular raids on their home by the “alphabet boys” — DEA, ATF, and SBI. This father is serving three consecutive life sentences at the adult prison down the road.
One night you ask them to write their life stories using only seven words. Inmate Dupree, Q. (#3475) writes, “I’ve waited my whole life to die.” You begin the discussion, and before you know it, you are calling him by his first name. “Dupree” has become “Quintarious” — not just an easier name to remember and an excellent one to say aloud, but a birth gift from his mother, something he likely won’t hear again from a woman for five years. His eyes light up every time you call on him. This ability to confer pleasure with a single word proves so enjoyable you treat yourself to more of it. “J’Marcus,” you say; “Charles”; “Julio”; “Tyree.” What harm, really, in this small transgression?
To encourage honesty and the boys’ natural penchant for confession, you stipulate that everything written in class will be deemed fiction. You’re amazed by the ease with which they expose and convict themselves and their willingness to share secrets. They explain the prison economy — based on postage stamps — and the costs of various goods and services: one stamp for a bag of chips, twenty for a magazine, thirty for a blow job, fifty for a blunt. They reveal tricks for bartering, gambling, and fighting. They describe segregation and lockdowns. You read things that could adversely affect parole hearings, transfers, and upgrades. These secrets bind you to them, a key in the sole of your sneaker.
You read them Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” then ask them to write a letter of advice to anyone entering prison for the first time. You learn that when inmates get quiet, something bad is coming down. That threats not kept mark you as a “wolfer,” and the only power you have in here is your word. That not all prison sex is rape. That hanging a calendar makes you weak. They teach you how to eat state food without puking, how to keep your jaw clenched on the yard, how to act when mail stops sliding under your door. A student born the same month and year as your son explains what to do when the walls of your cell start talking and suicide looks like a reasonable option.
You ask them to describe favorite foods or Christmases past, and as they do, pictures of their homes and families take shape in your head. You learn whose daddies taught gangbanging and dope slinging, whose mothers never visited the group home; how easy it is to get turned out by loved ones. Despite the overpowering evidence of neglect and betrayal, family is what they all dream about when they think of release.
You begin to see how boys become inmates.
You begin to feel inmates becoming boys.
Still, you are not a window to crawl out of. You have no illusions about your charges. Your intelligence is almost insulted when a student slips you a note warning, “Don’t get comfortable. We’re all criminals.”
At home you look up your students on inmatetracker.com. You pull conviction records and learn what each one did to get put in here. Your mildest-mannered charge, the white Muslim who asks for poems by Rumi and Hafiz and whom you’d pegged as a burglar, is a thrill killer. The muscle-bound hulk with the knife-scarred cheek isn’t a gangbanger at all but a loner who steals cars — not to chop up, but to joyride at high speeds down backcountry roads, not stealing so much as fleeing.
Your curiosity is engaged, so you design prompts to solicit specific information: Write a breakup letter with the thing that broke you. Write about the last lie someone told you. Write about your happiest moment. The best gift you were given. The funniest thing your mother ever did. The thing you believe for certain with all your heart.
You’re surprised to discover that every one of your students is a devout believer. All have spent solitary hours with Bible or Koran and can quote psalms or suras with ease. When you take turns reading aloud from a contemporary short story, many skip over the bad words. You assume this is some social conditioning of the churchgoing South or a calculated piety — a way to impress parole boards or get girls in Epiphany Ministry to write them letters — but it’s not. These boy inmates identify with Jesus. Jesus is a fellow convict and leader of a “crew,” a young man jailed and sentenced to death for his crimes. If his story is true, there’s hope for them, too — the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, of rolling away the boulder and walking out of this high-rise tomb reborn. Don’t mistake the tattoo “Disciple at War” for a Bloods or Crips slogan. It’s not; it’s Christian.
An article you read one Sunday in The New York Times suggests that the prefrontal lobe of the human brain — the region responsible for judgment and decision-making — isn’t fully developed till a person’s mid-twenties, meaning all teenagers possess poor impulse control and are biologically inclined to make stupid choices. You think of boneheaded things your teenage son has done that could’ve ended calamitously. You think of all the boneheaded things you did as a teenager, both dangerous and illegal. One night you borrow a copy of the North Carolina penal statutes from an attorney who lives down the street and make a list of every law you personally broke before you turned twenty-one. You calculate your maximum sentence. If caught, you could’ve done fifteen years; you wouldn’t have a teenage son.
You start arriving at the prison early and waiting for the elevator to bring your students down. After one of them mentions that what he misses most from the outside is the color green, you begin to dress more colorfully — a departure from your standard black and gray. Though allergic to perfume, you spray yourself with a floral scent you steal from your daughter, a tiny olfactory gift to mask the omnipresent stench of urine, sweat, and food cart. It’s not contraband, so where’s the harm? There’s a rush to grab chairs closest to you. When your daughter asks why your arms and neck are covered with a rash, you lie. You hide the bottle of perfume in your glove compartment and spritz yourself in the prison parking lot so the smell will last longer.
You remind yourself a window can also be a lens to see through. Or a barrier. Not necessarily something that opens.
You stop counting the pencils and deliberately forget to collect them after class. You return papers with long, personal letters and attach the small forbidden gift of a paper clip.
When a student hands in a notebook containing naked shots of his girlfriend, you don’t bust him to the CO or toss the photos; maybe it was unintentional. Plus you recognize the prison value of the pictures. When he tries to apologize, you pretend you have no idea what he’s talking about.
You stop speaking — the way your students do — when the amazon enters the room for the hourly Code 2 head counts. What’s discussed here isn’t for outsiders.
You grow anxious between classes. Prison transfers happen with no advance warning and always in the middle of the night, to prevent inmates from making plans or settling scores. You lose two students this way. One has entrusted you with a sheaf of poems written for the baby daughter he’s never met. When you ask for a new address to forward them to, your supervisor tells you to throw them out; the prison doesn’t transfer personal possessions. In fact, it doesn’t allow personal possessions.
One weekend you correct an essay about making a tattoo gun and then construct one yourself from Bic cartridges and paper clips. When your son finds it on the kitchen table, you pretend it’s a busted pen and toss it in the trash. He never sees the four-leaf clover you inked on the bottom of your foot. In the grocery store you add ingredients for swole and state cake to your grocery cart. You experiment with making prison snacks after midnight, when your children are asleep. You feel vaguely guilty for the clandestine behavior, but it’s only curiosity. Though the first bite is unappetizing, the second makes you feel closer to your boys on the other side of the county. It would’ve cost them three stamps, so you finish it.
During class you talk about LA and drop casual references to celebrities you’ve met. You wish the list included people they cared about, like Young Jeezy and Laurence Fishburne’s porn-star daughter. You reveal that your mother has cancer; that you have an ex-husband. You cop to the biggest thing you ever stole — a sailboat — and the smallest: a three-legged dog you later returned to its owner. You describe a Christmas when Santa Claus screwed up and brought you Poor Pitiful Pearl, the world’s ugliest doll.
You stop short of mentioning the three years you worked crime analysis for the LAPD, knowing any connection with law enforcement would put you irrevocably on the other side of a line. You never mention your children.
Even if you are a window, you’re locked tight for everybody’s protection.
One night, as you’re waiting for the elevator to deliver your students, a new code is called over the loudspeakers, and the prison goes into lockdown. The amazon hustles you out of the building by an unfamiliar route. Transmissions from her hand-held are deliberately unintelligible: random codes and numbers. A voice asks, “Who’s got the teacher?” and she responds with your location. You wait in the parking lot for the situation to be resolved and are appalled to discover lockdown lasts for a minimum of twenty-four hours and can potentially continue for days. Someone will contact you if and when classes can resume.
When you return after an endless week of no communication or information, your students greet you like a rock star. The lockdown (caused by an arson fire on an upper floor where none of them live) has upset schedules and routines, the only way inmates measure time in prison. They’re thrilled to see you. Unlike your own children, who take your presence for granted, these boys consider you a gift.
In class you lecture them unnecessarily on how important it is for a writer to be a good observer; if the ability to see and infer is an asset for a writer, it’s life-or-death for an inmate. For fun you ask them to write down everything they know or can guess about you. Most have noted the vulnerability of your right leg (due to an old injury); the scar above one eyebrow; the tiny green feather braided into the back of your hair. Nine students remember the night you wore a black bra in place of your standard white one (because its busted and safety-pinned strap wouldn’t have passed the metal detector). From a plastic water bottle you once brought to class, a souvenir from a youth-soccer tournament, every single one of them knows you have a son.
Don’t pretend to be shocked by the close attention they’ve paid you. Besides, you wanted to know.
In the weeks that follow, you print lyrics of rap songs off the Internet at their request, though most of the songs contain subject matter your supervisor has told you is inappropriate. When a sweet-faced meth dealer asks to see something you’ve written, you give him a short story about a Rwandan refugee working for the LA phone company who gets trapped inside a crack den during a SWAT raid. You’re ridiculously pleased when he claims it’s the best thing he’s ever read.
Some nights so much laughter emanates from your classroom that the amazon comes to investigate. In prison, humor is usually at the expense of someone weaker, but not here; this is sharing. Some nights you receive gifts — a poem called “You” or a pencil drawing of the view from a cell window. Some nights it’s requests: “Can I get your LA address to write you?” “Will you ask the officer to bring me down early so we can talk alone?” You know what the rules say, but rules can be arbitrary, so you adjust them as needed. What matters here is that you’re making a difference.
Nobody warned you that empathy is an unraveling; that familiarity becomes “undue” when you’re no longer familiar to yourself.
During the final weeks of class, you conceive of giving each student a personally chosen book when you depart. Each boy’s book will prove how deeply you’ve understood him, how you see beyond his crime to the boy he is underneath and the man he might still become. Or maybe leaving a piece of yourself in his cell is a way not to leave.
Your supervisor reminds you inmates can’t be given gifts under any circumstances. Gifts create debt and familiarity, the twin minefields of incarcerated life. He doesn’t realize you weren’t asking permission.
You might sneak the books in a few at a time, past the wand guard and the cage guard, but the amazon escorts your boys back to the elevator, and she’d see the bulges in their jumpsuits. And even assuming you could get the books in, guards would find and confiscate them during the next cell toss. Contraband is usually snuck in on visiting day, taped under vending machines in the day room and retrieved later by inmate janitors for a fee. You wish you knew some janitors.
A little research offers a solution: Individuals can’t give gifts, but organizations can donate, so you create a fake organization, which you call the “Write Bank Collective.” You design a fake logo and fake letterhead, complete with a made-up list of founders. You spend hours fabricating a “donated by” sticker for your fake group. You select the books you want online and charge them to your personal credit card. You enjoy this little deception so much that you conveniently forget you’re breaking not just rules but possibly laws.
A friend sees you at Quik Copy printing the “donated by” stickers and insists on contributing money to your fake prison-book fund. Without telling you, she e-mails mutual writer friends, who force your phony organization to become legit by mailing you checks. Three volunteer to be board members and push you to register a domain name. If this kills your pleasure in the enterprise, you keep that to yourself.
You badger your supervisor for an extra night to conduct one-on-one conferences. You’re allotted fifteen minutes alone with each student in the library while the next three fill out teacher-evaluation forms in the hall. Along with his particular book, each boy receives a handwritten letter from you. You sit next to him at the table rather than across. You praise his talent and dedication. When he gets up to leave, you take his hand in both of yours, which are covered with Japanese-cherry-blossom lotion — something of you to carry back to his cell.
You read their evaluation forms while you pack up for the last time and discover that what most students liked best about class was the “time to chill,” which probably refers to air conditioning. Liked least was their sense that the three-hour sessions passed too quickly. Asked if the teacher had any particular skills, one student writes, “She smell nice.” In response to the final question, “What can the teacher do better?” every student gives a variation of the same answer: “She can come back.”
Outside, you lean against your truck in the parking lot, staring up at story after story of barred windows above your head. You feel deeply satisfied. You imagine a boy up there rereading the letter you wrote, already calculating where to hide it. A slit in his mat would be your choice — safe from prying eyes, but always within reach. Weeks from now, that letter will have been folded and unfolded so many times its words will be finally rubbed away, but by then he’ll know them — and you — by heart. You savor this image, this connection.
What you don’t yet know: that though you’ve rented a P.O. box in California so your students can write you, not a single one will. Sending a letter costs a stamp — the same as a bag of chips, a soda, or the rental of a fresh jumpsuit. In the prison economy you’re worth less than the underwire in your bra.
But for now, go ahead and allow yourself to imagine a boy in a cell tethered to you by a letter. Picture him lying on his mat, cheek resting above the place where your letter is hidden. Yes, you have given him something valuable: paper. He will use it to roll blunts or start fires in the next riot.
Being incarcerated, I’ll make no pretense of objectivity, but I was surprised by the strong backhand that Ellen Collett’s “Undue Familiarity” laid across the face of prison education.
Yes, there are predators in prison writing classes, but are they more pervasive than in fraternities and corporate America? In my experience the predatory types who attempt to dupe teachers are about as subtle as the average soap-opera villain.
I hope people will see for themselves how beneficial prison writing programs are, both to the incarcerated population and the general public. I’ve been in an excellent volunteer-driven program for five years. Writing improves communication, broadens one’s worldview, and builds a capacity for compassion — the same virtues embodied by every volunteer teacher I’ve had the honor to meet.
After reading Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity,” about teaching inmates in juvenile detention [September 2016], I was questioning my own relationship with younger inmates here in prison. I’m reluctant to talk to them other than to ask how they want their hair cut at the prison barbershop where I work. A day or so later I cut R.’s hair. He’s twenty-three and told me he has been locked up since he was fifteen. I felt compassion for him.
Collett’s essay had humanized R. for me. Last week I asked R. if he wanted to read it. He did, and afterward he and I had a good conversation. Collett gave us a way to talk to each other in spite of our age difference. The Sun broadens my perspective, increases my empathy, and softens my hardened opinions.
I’m a thirty-seven-year-old inmate. I spent time in a juvenile facility from the ages of fifteen to seventeen and have been in prison since I was eighteen. Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity” [September 2016] struck a chord. Over the years I’ve experienced every feeling she observes in the boys she writes about.
Collett clearly cared for her students. That none of them wrote to her after she stopped teaching them only shows how fickle boys and inmates are. On occasion these capricious youths mature and become what few thought they could be: good men.
I don’t know anyone in prison, but The Sun has made me feel like I do. After reading prisoners’ contributions to your magazine, I find I have more empathy for them.
Chris J. Pemberton, who spent more than two years in solitary confinement, became a real person to me when I read his letter [Correspondence, September 2016]. Everything longtime Readers Write contributor David Wood writes — whether about life inside prison or out in the free world — has made me think, cry, or laugh.
Then there was the time that The Sun had to reprint thousands of issues because a prisoner’s life would have been endangered if his Readers Write entry on gang violence had been published over his name [September 2007]. Most recently [September 2016] Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity,” about the young felons in her prison writing class, didn’t end happily, but I still learned from it.
These prisoners have gone from being unknown criminals who I glibly think deserve what they get, to actual people who, although they have committed crimes, are human beings just the same.
The glimpses you provide into their lives sometimes make me uncomfortable, but I appreciate that The Sun forces me to sit with that discomfort over and over.
I’m touched that Jeremy Gross spent a stamp on me. I don’t blame my students for not writing; I was the naive one. I continued to teach in that prison until it closed. After that first semester I described in my essay, some of my new students did write. The ones I heard from all became the men I knew they could be.
I share Andrew Krosch’s belief in prison writing programs and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. My students were fearless, focused, and brutally self-aware. They wrote to understand themselves and to survive the total annihilation of self that prison has as its goal.
As I continued to teach, I had each student write a document that explained his incarceration to a future employer, landlord, or college admissions officer in a way that proved he was no longer the boy who made that initial mistake. I take great joy in hearing about the students who are now finding success on the outside.
I am a prisoner who has benefitted greatly from the teachers who have come into the maximum-security facility where I live. As I sat in their classes, I witnessed everything Ellen Collett writes of in “Undue Familiarity”: those manipulative tactics and vile behaviors that frustrated inmates exhibit. The teacher’s attention is held by the loudest inmates. She rarely observes the quieter ones who soak up her every word in their quest to recover their sanity. I’m certain there are a few inmates — perhaps ones she can’t even remember — who would tell Collett that her teaching saved their lives.
Ellen Collett’s essay was fascinating from start to finish, but also the most depressing, dispiriting, and disturbing thing I’ve read in a long time. The decrepit facility, the way our society creates young sociopaths, the attitudes of prison staff, even some of the writer’s own decisions along the way — all were troubling.
In response to Deneise Jennings-Houston, I want to clarify that those inmates were the finest and most disciplined students I’ve ever taught. They inspired and humbled me. After the experience I wrote about in “Undue Familiarity,” I turned down paid teaching jobs at universities in order to volunteer at that prison. I did this for years until the prison closed due to budget cuts.
I hoped to show it was not my students but their teacher whose failings were on display. I agree with everything Jennings-Houston says about our incarcerated students and share her sense of feeling blessed to spend time with them.
Back in 2000 and 2001, I was incarcerated at Morganton High Rise, the prison Ellen Collett writes about. I wish I could have met her then. Sometimes all we need is someone to listen.
I’m currently in another prison. While doing time, I’ve come across some of the smartest people I’ve ever met: good people who have become lost in the system. Yes, the men inside these walls are criminals who did wrong in society’s eyes, but we are human: someone’s brother, dad, friend, husband, or boyfriend. Instead of condemning us for the things we got caught doing, try volunteering at your local prison, donating a book, or simply corresponding with someone on the inside. You would be surprised at the difference you can make.
Though well written, Ellen Collett’s “Undue Familiarity” was cynical and one-sided. Are those who are paying their debt to society to be viewed as criminals forever?
At the end of her essay Collett portrays these young inmates as incapable of feeling gratitude or compassion. I taught in a state correctional facility in New York City for fifteen years, and my experience was that, despite inhumane conditions, many of my students proved themselves to be resilient, decent, and capable of giving and receiving love.