A Teacher Gets Educated

By Laura Trice, MD

"Why are you wasting your time?" "A woman in a man's prison?" "Aren't you afraid for your life?" "They deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away." "You are so noble." "You must be crazy!"

These are just a few of the comments expressed by family and friends when I decided to volunteer in a federal prison for men. It wasn't the normal encouragement I expected for doing what I thought would be some type of community service on my part. However, I got to learn first hand that many of those reactions from others were coming from fear and not truth. I also learned that I had unknowingly bought into many of them as well.

I had never before felt a calling to do any type of community service. One day though, while stuck in traffic, I tuned into Sister Helen Prejean talking on public radio about her book, Dead Man Walking. Traffic finally got moving, but I was now momentarily motionless outside a photocopy store - car running, blocking traffic - because I was completely captivated by her words.

I went right out and bought her book and read it that day. It bothered me that, according to her assessment, the death penalty seemed to be based on the color and economic situation of the accused and the victim, rather than the crime. Something about life and freedom being for sale in America did not sit right with me. I was also living in an area where a serial rapist had been attacking women, and there were constant, official warnings listing all the precautions we vulnerable women should take. In short, "Never leave your completely locked up house."

I hit a point of having had enough of being afraid and, at the same time, wanted to do something about what I felt was an injustice. I decided to do some type of work in a prison to see for myself if our taxes are paying to lock up people fairly - and come face to face with 'the criminals' I had been taught to fear, and had grown to fear.

I love to read and write; so I started teaching a class called "Advanced Literature and Creative Writing" in May 1999 at a local Federal Correctional Institution. I have to admit - because of many warnings from friends and officials against interacting in any way, shape or form with inmates or prisoners - I had misgivings myself. I really had no idea what to expect.

I hoped and wanted to teach motivated students; so I decided to make the workload heavy. On my first day I was excited and nervous. Who would sign up for a class with a lot of work and no credit? What would these men be like? What would the guards be like? Once inside the place, would I ever come out again in one piece? Was this a really bad idea?

What I found was a blessing and an education. For nine months I've had the privilege of learning with some very bright, intelligent students. Let me introduce my current class.

I have a student who writes profound and touching poetry in both Spanish and English. I read some of his work to a 'free world' audience at an open microphone in a large bookstore. The host that evening, a well-known published poet who also happens to be a professor at UCLA, came up to me afterwards and said, "That guy is really good."

One particular student who has developed a vegetarian cookbook for inmates also writes wonderful short stories. He covers world issues, combining comedy with a style so intelligent and sharp that listening to him read his work sometimes makes me want to give up writing. Another student is writing a poignant autobiography, another developing a comic strip, and yet another's poetry ranges in emotion from angry, to humorous, to as gentle as a spring breeze.

A new student found that his passion is writing fairy tales for his daughter. Having loved fairy tales my entire life, and having 'devoured' almost all of them at the local library, I was excited to hear a new one. His tales are some of the best I've ever heard. His imagination, combined with sweet love for his daughter, has clearly created something unique, educational and entertaining.

Another student, also a dad, writes in all genres. Recently, he penned a wonderful, rhyming children's story about a little girl who had a perfect day. My newest student reads his unique and clever poetry in varying accents, from cowboy to British, depending on the work. I never really enjoyed poetry until hearing the poems in this class.

What I once thought might be a bad idea - what I was told was a huge risk to my physical well being - has become my favorite part of each week. The talent in my classroom is astounding. Honestly, in some ways at the start I did see myself as one who was going 'to do good for them'. I really didn't expect to have my own life changed so positively by this experience of classroom teaching in a federal prison.

I like my new work so much that most of my unfounded biases and judgments about prison have now gone away. Everything I had once believed about prisons had been learned from mainstream television and news. Stories such as: "inmate escaped and killed someone" or "guards did such and such horrible thing" now seem so obviously biased and inflammatory.

My experience after one year of teaching in a prison is far different from what I used to learn uncritically watching television about prisons. I feel I'm in a normal college classroom. The men have treated me with respect. I have always felt 100% safe, and I am alone in the classroom with my students. They enjoy reading, writing, and sharing their work with the group. They are eager to learn and to develop themselves academically, emotionally and spiritually. Even though many of them have years or decades left to serve on mandatory sentences, I believe many of them could leave prison sooner and contribute positively to their families and communities.

I am grateful God gave me the courage to do what felt right, and the wisdom to disregard friends' fearful warnings. It's always nice to become more educated and lose some ignorance along the way.