House of Corrections – Lessons from behind bars

House of Corrections

Erin Elizabeth Clune – America Magazine

Lessons from behind bars

I stayed on the phone with my husband as I drove up to the prison, its jagged stone facade stretching outward from a large, pointed, central turret. If it had not been nestled within the beautiful, rolling landscape of the lower Catskill mountains, I thought, this building would look much more ominous. I had taught plenty of college classes before—but never inside a maximum security prison. This semester, my students would be incarcerated men, some of them presumably doing time for violent crimes. During the hefty two-hour commute from my apartment in New York City, I had plenty of time to conjure up some worst-case scenarios. Would the students be tough, I wondered, or intimidating? Was it really safe for women to work in this environment? “See you tonight,” I said to my husband, nervously signing off. “Wish me luck.”

When I agreed to work at the prison, I had not even been looking for a job. Tom, an old friend of mine from graduate school, had called me up one day quite out of the blue and said his prison college program was looking for an instructor, and he had thought of me. It was run, Tom said, by a highly reputable organization called the Bard Prison Initiative. In the absence of public funding, the program enabled incarcerated men and women to take college courses and get college degrees. Teaching in a prison might take some getting used to, Tom admitted. But they really needed someone. And, he promised, it would be extremely rewarding.

Once I was inside the facility and simply focused on the people around me, my apprehension started to fade. While I waited for my paperwork to be processed, a few employees entered through the main doors, passed through the security scanners in the lobby and chatted with the front desk officers. These folks obviously knew each other well; they shared stories about their children, their holidays, their health. Eventually, two young men dressed in sweatshirts and prison-issued khaki pants came to clean the front hallway floors. They worked steadily, quietly, occasionally exchanging a few words. To me, they looked tired and depleted. Worse, I thought, they barely looked old enough to be teenagers.

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