Teaching in Prison
A significant problem related to higher education for incarcerated persons is the reluctance of educators to teach at a prison. This is due to a number of factors which may include, fear, misconceptions, and a general lack of knowledge pertaining to teaching college courses in the prison environment. Literature pertaining to the practical experience of teaching in a prison is highly limited. For this reason, I meticulously documented my first year of teaching college courses in a prison with the intent of writing an informative book to assist aspiring inmate educators. The following sections include excerpts from the draft version of my book project.
Peter A. Zitko
Like many people, I had long considered writing a book. The problem I was faced with is that I never felt I had anything particularly interesting to write about. However, in the Spring of 2016, I was offered the opportunity of teaching college courses to inmate students at a California prison. My friends, family, and colleagues were shocked that I was seriously considering this new job prospect. It was suspected by some of my dear friends that I may have suffered an aneurysm, taken up drugs, had become suicidal, or simply lost my mind. To be honest, I had many of these same thoughts. What good could possibly come of teaching in prison?
In truth, I had not gone mad. I took on the assignment. I would like to say that I became an educator 0f inmate students for altruistic reasons. The reality, however, is that I took on this assignment because I was an adjunct instructor. For anyone who is not familiar with the college system, I am one of those nomadic gypsy-like teachers who roams from school to school, campus to campus, in an attempt to earn a meager living while hoping for that all too rare and unlikely full-time faculty position. My life was similar to that of most college educators, a freeway flyer, a person who is employed on a contingency basis as an expendable part-time employee. I took on the job teaching at a prison to ensure that I would have employment for the upcoming semester. You might say I did so for nutritional purposes.
Prior to my foray into higher education, I had spent most of my life in the private sector as a self-employed contractor. The private sector is mostly performance-driven. I was somewhat disillusioned to find that academia did not operate on the same market principles. In other words, hard work and results are not necessarily an indicator of upward mobility in higher education. Some institutions have employment models that create a sort of academic caste system in which a select few have secure employment while others are relegated to temporary or part-time status. A kind of academic bourgeoisie and proletariat. Yes, I know, this sounds very Marxian, and perhaps it is apropos. I have to be clear, however, the college which employed me to teach in prison is among the all-too-rare institutions that treat adjunct faculty fairly and equitably. I praise this college from the bottom of my heart as a model institution in terms of its treatment of adjunct faculty.
Why do I mention this? As an educator who simply desires to teach and make a living as a college instructor, like others in my position, I will take on almost any assignment the college is willing to give me. Most adjunct instructors understand they better not turn down an assignment as it may not be offered to them in the future. So, when the opportunity arose to teach college classes at a local prison, I jumped at the chance. Actually, I leaped, and put some real thought into the assignment only after I made the impulsive commitment. Had I thought objectively about the job, and knew that I would have to turn down other classes to teach in prison, I probably would not have volunteered. This was, perhaps, the one and only time in my life I can genuinely say that I am happy with the outcome of my impulsive tendencies. Teaching in prison was and still is, the landmark experience of my academic life. This modest book is simply a collection of curious events and memories of an improbable event in the life of a college professor.
In writing this book, I have necessarily left out the names of institutions, organizations, and individuals I encountered during all points of my journey as a prison educator. While I frequently find strange and twisted humor in a variety of events, which have complicated my role as an educator of incarcerated students, the jovial nature of some parts of this book are not intended to unduly disparage any of the people who I have encountered during my foray into prison education. Indeed, most of the humor, as you will see, is at my own expense. But most importantly, the light-hearted nature of this book should not override the seriousness and importance of educating people who are incarcerated in the many prisons across the United States.
As for myself, I am a political science instructor with a great passion for teaching and education. I make no claims to be an excellent teacher, nor do I feel that I am a poor teacher. Ultimately, the students will decide whether they had a positive experience under my guidance. It is my goal to continue teaching college courses and continuously hone my skills as an educator. It is my hope that the experiences I have described in this book will help inspire other teachers to take on difficult or unorthodox teaching assignments and help to educate those people who may not have the opportunity of attaining a college education. Each chapter of this book is written from the perspective of my personal involvement as an educator of prison inmates during my first year teaching in a correctional facility. In addition to being an autobiographical account of my experiences teaching inmate students, each chapter concludes with lessons which may be useful for aspiring prison educators. I hope you enjoy the book. For me, teaching in prison has been an exciting and fulfilling undertaking.
In the spring of 2015, I had a fortuitous conversation with a wonderful interim dean at one of the colleges in which I was employed as an adjunct instructor. I was hired by the college mid-semester to teach several classes for an instructor who had to take an emergency leave. At the end of this semester I stopped by the dean’s office to discuss the possibility of staying on at the school. The interim dean was complimentary of my work and agreeable to the idea of my staying on at the college. She even wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation for future use in my relentless quest to find full-time employment, or at the very least, additional work, as a political science instructor. I was sad to learn she was leaving the school for retirement at the end of the summer semester.
I would be losing a great advocate at the school, and I told her that I was sorry to hear she was leaving. During our conversation, my dean told me that she had taught in a prison and gave me an article she had written about her experience. She also mentioned that the college I was working for was possibly going to start a face-to-face education program at the local prison. She asked if I would be interested in such an assignment. Speaking before thinking, as I am apt to do from time to time, I told her I would very much like to teach in a prison…or anywhere for that matter. The truth is, I just wanted to teach.
The spring semester ended, and as it turned out, the college had already assigned instructors to teach the summer session. This was troubling news, which made my future career at the college seem rather bleak and tenuous. I truly believed that my brief single semester assignment might have been my last time teaching for this college. A “one-hit wonder,” without a hit. I wasn’t entirely unemployed; I still had a class or two at another college, and I could always fall back on my former career as a contractor if need be. But what I really wanted was to teach!
The fall session of 2015 rolled around, and to my surprise, the college actually offered me some classes. Unfortunately, the times conflicted with my teaching schedule at a different institution, and I had to decline the course offerings. At that point, I figured my opportunities to teach for this particular school were over. However, just a few days later, I received a call from the new dean informing me that an instructor was leaving the school, and several new teaching opportunities were available. I met with the new dean, who was very friendly, and seemed interested in having me continue teaching for the school. I procured two classes for the Fall 2015 semester and once again, I would be a sort of “fill-in” instructor at the college.
The fall semester began, and within a few weeks a somewhat vague email was sent to all of the instructors. The school was seeking volunteers who were interested in teaching college courses to inmates at the local prison. Without any thought whatsoever, I responded “YES, I am interested” and quickly hit send. After all, the offer did meet all of my personal employment criteria…it was a teaching job.
Responding to the email was very much a case of act first and think about it later. I had not considered any of the potential issues and problems involved in taking on such an assignment. I had no idea of the many miles of “red tape” one must endure to become a teacher inside a prison. Nor had I even thought about my personal safety. Most of my friends and colleagues believed I had suffered some kind of brain injury or mental breakdown. The most common comment I received went something like this, “are you frickin nuts!” Well, to maintain some sort of academic decorum, I took out the bawdy expletives. But you get the point.
A school representative (SR) contacted me by phone shortly after I expressed an interest in teaching at the prison. I believe the conversation went something like this.
SR: Professor Zitko, thank you for expressing an interest in our prison education program. You are still interested, correct?
ME: Yes, I am very interested.
SR: Well, we first need to have you fill out a little paperwork.
ME: No problem, I will do that right away.
SR: That would be great. I will email you the documents. Please fill them out and send them back to me.
ME: I will have them to you ASAP.
SR: Thank you, we will talk again soon.
ME: Great, nice speaking with you.
As it turned out, completing the mandatory paperwork, just to be able to enter the prison on a regular basis, was a daunting task. After several weeks of diligently reading the various official pamphlets, studying for several written tests, and finishing the paperwork, I submitted 43 pages of required documents which encompassed everything from an “oath of allegiance” to completing a test for “heat-related pathologies.”
The seemingly endless and mind-numbing documentation mandated by the state prison system was enough to steer any reasonable person away from this arduous assignment. If for no other reason, the “no hostage policy” would make any rational person rethink the job. Indeed, the paperwork was very clear, if taken prisoner the institution would not negotiate on my behalf (L1). Hmm, what was it my friends had said?
Once the boundless, mundane, and rather bureaucratic paperwork was complete and officially submitted, it was time to attend a mandatory meeting at the prison. This was an exciting development as I would actually be on prison grounds for the first time. As it turned out, the meeting was on the perimeter grounds, well outside the many steel gates and fences that separate prison inmates from the rest of society. Sadly, I wasn’t going to get to go inside the prison proper. By this time, I was quite anxious to see what it was like on the inside.
I was excited to attend the meeting and showed up about 30 minutes early because I wanted to make a good impression on my first day. It was extremely cold outside. Nevertheless, I stood outside the portable building where the meeting was to take place and apprehensively waited for the evening events. Eventually, other people began to show up. The new arrivals were all there for the same reason. The goal of the evening was to fulfill a compulsory training requirement for attaining a special identification card that gives civilians admittance to the prison as well as other privileges like access to certain keys. I would need special keys to gain entrance to the education building and various classrooms.
Unfortunately, the ID card I was attempting to procure would only be valid for one year. This meant that each year I would have to immerse myself in completing a massive amount of paperwork, attending meetings, and whatever new requirements the state, in all its wisdom, mandated. Great! Even if I make it a year teaching at the prison, I would still have to donate 40-60 hours of my life to go through bureaucratic hell the following year. At this point, the “perks” were not looking so good, and I was, once again, tending to think my friends may have been correct. To be fair, however, I should confess, the process for attaining an ID card has become somewhat easier in subsequent years. Albeit, I must go through the application cycle every nine months rather than each year as I first suspected. This is due to incongruities between ID card expiration dates and semester scheduling (L2).
As I was standing outside the building in which the obligatory training session would be held, I met a kind elderly gentleman who was quite familiar with the prison. He had been counseling inmates at the facility for many years and was just going through the motions of attending another state-mandated meeting so he could renew his ID card. “It’s just one of those things you have to do,” he chuckled. I was impressed and a little confused by his nonchalant approach to working in a prison. To be honest, I was starting to get a bit apprehensive about the teaching assignment I had so quickly volunteered for. Indeed, the imagined reality of what awaited me inside the prison was beginning to take a toll on my resolve.
The meeting was scheduled to being promptly at 6:00pm. But when the designated time came about, there was no sign of any prison official to let the attendees into the building. Did I mention it was extremely cold outside? I am still not sure whether the shivering was due to the frigid temperature that evening or the task that awaited me. Most likely, it was a little of both.
I had been repeatedly warned not to be late for the required meeting. Apparently, the people in charge of the meeting were under no such constraint. A representative from the prison finally showed up, about half an hour late, and opened the door to a portable classroom (L3). The human icicles who had been patiently waiting outside started to file into the room and slowly began to thaw. Many of the attendees were acquainted with one another and formed ad hoc discussion groups to share stories. It reminded me of a class reunion. I didn’t know anyone, so I just stood on the periphery and observed the attendees.
I should probably mention that I was not the lone representative from the college that evening. Two other college teachers were also in attendance along with approximately 60 or 70 other people representing a wide variety of interest groups. The majority of the individuals attending the meeting were counselors from various religious organizations, and there was one large group of volunteers from a local university. Like me, the young university students were also there for their first meeting and had never entered the actual prison grounds. The university students were representatives from a nascent program with a philanthropic goal of tutoring inmates. I later learned that the group had opted out of the tutoring program shortly after the training session. Perhaps the harsh reality of their commitment had dissuaded them from continuing with their plan to tutor inmates. Although I never learned the groups specific reason for dropping the program (L4).
Once the participants filed into the classroom, the attendees were somewhat dismayed to find there was only enough seating for about 30 to 40 people. The correctional officer/instructor informed us that this condition was unacceptable. “By the power vested in the state fire marshal,” or some such claim made by the instructor, only a percentage of the people present at the meeting would be able to attend. I found this situation to be rather curious. After all of the admonishments to be on-time and to take the training seriously, I wondered how the institution could be so unprepared to accept the attendees. Surely the prison administration must have known that a large number of people would be showing up that night for the meeting. To be honest, the entire event seemed very unprofessional. After having studied all of the highly bureaucratic and militaristic prison rules, in preparation for a volunteer teaching position at the institution, I thought the prison would be more professional, prepared, and efficient (L5).
As it turned out, the prison officials found a workaround solution to the overcrowding and about a third of the attendees, who had current ID cards, went off with another instructor to a different location. To where? I don’t know, but I presume it was inside the prison proper. Unfortunately, there was some question whether this smaller group would actually be able to complete the training at the new location. Nonetheless, this smaller group filed out of the classroom.
The three college instructors, were permitted to stay for the scheduled training. I was pleased that we were allowed to remain because the meeting was a mandatory requirement of attaining a prison ID card. Moreover, I was informed these training sessions only take place once or twice a year. I have often wondered whether this was an intentional barrier to limit the number of people who can enter the prison as volunteers.
Once the meeting began, I quickly noticed the instructor was stiff, stern and serious. I also realized the instructor was somewhat unprepared and uncomfortable with the task at hand. The attendees were to sit for the next several hours and learn, so we thought, everything we hadn’t already absorbed from the countless pages of required reading. My understanding was the meeting would be informative and prepare the participants for work within the prison. But this is not what actually transpired. The four-hour lecture was a rapid race through an abundance of ill-prepared PowerPoint presentations that would have made Mario Andretti dizzy. The presentation was preceding so quickly, I am surprised the instructor’s wireless slide-clicker didn’t overheat and explode. I can honestly say that I learned nothing from the session except one very important point…don’t rape the inmates!
Now I understand the need for proper decorum, and I do not want to trivialize a very serious topic. Sexual misconduct is inappropriate irrespective of whether it takes place in a prison or elsewhere. But honestly, from my point of view, who in their right mind would go to an institution full of felons and carry out such a crime? Even if a person was inclined to this type of illicit behavior, why would someone target hardcore prison inmates? It just seemed ludicrous. Yet, this appeared to be the primary topic of the evening.
After the “don’t rape the inmates” lecture, I looked at a fellow teacher sitting next to me. He was a gentleman about 6’7” and 325lbs, who could have easily been mistaken for an NFL lineman. It was as if we could read each other’s minds. What about us? Not once did the lecturer discuss what would be done on our behalf to keep us from being raped or violently assaulted. I have to admit, this meeting did very little to calm my apprehensions about teaching convicted felons. But, what the heck, I did sign up for this adventure.
The painfully long, yet blazingly fast, presentation would eventually end. I had completed an important hurdle on the way to becoming a prison teacher. Yet, I still had no idea what to expect once I got on the inside. Having never been inside a prison before, all sorts of wild scenarios were running rampant through my mind.
Lesson 1 (No Hostage Policy): The no hostage policy (NHP) is a serious matter which must be carefully considered by anyone who entertains the idea of working in a correctional facility that has such a rule. A NHP generally means that if a person is taken hostage the institution will not negotiate with the hostage taker on behalf of the hostage. In other words, the prison officials are not going to allow a helicopter to land on the yard permitting the inmate to escape in exchange for the hostage. While hostage taking is quite rare, it is important that anyone who wishes to work in a prison setting understand the potential risks, including, but not limited to NHP.
Lesson 2 (Paperwork): The initial paperwork was immense. However, subsequent ID card applications have not been quite as daunting. The prison system is highly bureaucratic and individuals who are considering this type of work must understand there will be a large amount of paperwork, which takes a considerable amount of time and patience to complete. For me, the paperwork and associated barriers has become less of an issue over time. I am thankful that I didn’t let my distaste for bureaucratic “red tape” and administrative inefficiency dissuade me from becoming a teacher of incarcerated students.
Lesson 3 (On Time! Not on Time?): Flexibility and patience are excellent qualities for prison educators. Responsible faculty members strive to be on time. This is even more important when working in a correctional facility. Arrive for class early and expect unexpected delays. The prison environment can rapidly change. A fight on the yard, medical emergency, officer training, or a visit from an official dignitary can delay a teacher’s entrance to the facility or students access to the classroom. Sometimes things don’t happen on time or don’t happen at all. This is the nature of prison teaching.
Lesson 4 (Attrition): The high attrition rate of prison teachers is disappointing but understandable. Working in a prison may not be a suitable environment for everyone. People working in a prison for the first time may find the actual experience is not consistent with the imagined experience. Nonetheless, the success rate among potential prison educators can be increased by implementing proactive induction programs specific to teaching in a correctional environment.
Lesson 5 (With us? Or Against Us?): When working at a prison, be prepared for institutional inefficiency. Rehabilitation programs (like education) are secondary to the corrections component of a prison. Delays and cancellations can be highly frustrating for enthusiastic educators. However, safety is the highest priority in a prison. Volunteers are not always privy to the conditions within the institution and must acquiesce to the decision made by prison officials. In addition, teachers may experience a moderate degree of enmity from some prison personnel who may view volunteers as a nuisance or rival to the corrections component of the institution.
Recommended Citation APA
Zitko, P. A. (2020). Teaching in Prison [Forthcoming Book]. https://www.zitko.net/prison-education-teaching
Recommended Citation MLA
Zitko, Peter A. "Teaching in Prison." Forthcoming Book, 2020. https://www.zitko.net/prison-education-teaching.