Monday, June 04, 2007

My prison time (a response to comments)

Text removed to protect the innocent.
The concession stand did well, today. And turns out I didn’t have to pay anyone for today’s service there. But, I have to deal with the next Monday. I’ll put it on my “to do” list and start my hunt early for volunteers.
Now, someone asked about my stint at the prison. A few years ago, I gave a year of service to my country as an AmeriCorps worker. It was the hardest year of my life. The program I worked with worked to intervene and stop the cycles of child abuse, neglect and domestic abuse. As apart of the program, I taught parenting and literacy classes. I was the first to take our program to the local jail. We were invited first by a church group who went their regularly. No one wanted to go. But because I knew my calling was to teach, I stepped up to the plate and volunteered to go. I WAS VERY SCARED because I didn’t know how to react or how they would react to me . . . especially since I didn’t have any children.

My inaugural class had over 30 women who signed up for it! I was shocked. Then, I had an additional 10 women who just showed up hoping they could get into it. The chaplain sat in of the first few classes. We always had a guard posted by the door. I was nervous b/c I went to the penal farm by myself, no one else in my AmeriCorps group went with me. But after about the 3rd lesson, I realized the ladies had nothing better to do all day AND they actually looked forward to class and the conversations there. Many of them did the homework! They respected me. They wanted me there. They wanted to learn whatever they could. They were successful in my class. Many who had reading difficulties would work with other inmates to prepare for the next lesson. They did have incentive for passing the class and receiving a certificate, they would receive some time off their sentence. So maybe this was the reason for my success.

My term in AmeriCorps came to an end and b/c I had no other prospects, I volunteered to teach them over the summer. They knew this and shared it with other inmates and the next session of the class, I had more and more enrollment. At the end of the summer, I was so sad to say goodbye. They had really changed me. I am now more sensitive to what people really have going on in their private lives. Especially in poor communities, you never know what is going on behind closed doors.

Yeah, these women had A LOT of drama. I met women who had killed their babies. Crack addicts. Con artists. Women who suffered severe domestic abuse and fought back & killed. And lots of non English speaking immigrants. Everyone of them had a story. I really wish I had documented it all. I remember some nights while watching the news thinking, “That’s my student! Ooooohhh, that’s why she’s locked up.”

I took a year break from AmeriCorps. When I came back a year later, what I started had developed into a solid program out the prison. And there were several classes happening there. They had even started a class at the men’s prison. I signed up for the prison classes, again! I loved working with these women. They invited me to work at the men’s prison. I refused. My co-worker said that she liked it better than the women b/c they didn’t cry and were lots of fun. She said the men were adamant about protecting her. She said they wouldn’t let her get hurt over there b/c they wanted her there. I still refused to work with them. There is a tinge of regret now.

I actually looked for jobs working in prisons when I started my job hunt. But honestly, jobs teaching prisoners only exist up North. I didn’t want to move North by myself. I had just finished college and had NO money for moving expenses or even friends and family who could help me make the move. Every job I looked into did not cover these type of expenses. I was young and scared, but I knew I had made a difference. I wanted to continue to make a difference. But down here in the South, I don’t believe that educating our prisoners is a priority. So there are no jobs like that here. The only thing I could do was to sign up to be a social worker and implement classes and learning that way. That was NOT going to happen, b/c it would have meant I would have to deal with the inmates drama. I tried to sell the leadership at the jail about letting me set up a permanent literacy program through AmeriCorps, with me as the coordinator, but they kept dragging their feet and by the time they were ready to act, I had already enrolled in grad school.

Now, how does this matter to what I do now as secondary classroom teacher? I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post b/c I’m tired.


Lara said...

wow, you are a brave woman. my admiration for you continues to grow as i learn more about you. :)

Betsy said...

That is absolutely incredible. Really. What a difference you made! That must have been an immensely fulfilling job.
Thank you for your dedication to our "lost" members of society. I am in awe.