Publication Date

February 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

In 1979, when I stepped behind the walls of Pontiac Correctional Center for the first time and walked across the courtyard and into the prison’s school, I had no idea that I would remain as long as I have. I was nervous, hesitant, and unsure. What was I doing? Was I mad or just desperate for a teaching job? Could I really teach inmates anything about history? Would they even bother to listen? I had terrible visions of a James Cagney, a George Raft, or a John Garfield holding a knife to my throat and proclaiming menacingly, “You gave me an ‘F’ on that quiz, so now you’re gonna die, m— f—!”

During my first two years at Pontiac, I became more and more convinced that I had not made a wise career choice. Nothing seemed to be going my way. I kept making mistakes; I felt like a failure. I soon realized, however, that in a prison, just like on the streets, teachers are plagued by many of the same problems, not only rationalizing what a student is taught but how the student is motivated. My students, like students anywhere else, are naturally inquisitive; a simple lesson on the Declaration of Independence might include a discussion of everything from the Korean War to last night’s movie special. This inquisitive nature does not disguise the fact that many of them are distrustful of school. They are “victims” not only of the judicial process but also of the educational system. They gave up on school long before school gave up on them. In a prison environment an educator is asked to reach into the minds of these men and to try to find a responsive chord. But what of this environment? What effect does it have on an inmate?

Pontiac is a maximum security institution for men. Inmates, now called residents, serve sentences ranging from one year to natural life. Residents’ crimes include burglary, rape, and murder. No education class I ever took as an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University fully prepared me (or could have prepared me) for what I found at Pontiac. Upon arriving, my only frame of reference on the philosophy of teaching history was Henry Steele Commager’s The Study of History. Nevertheless, more than a decade later, I can conclude that I have taught a wide range of very interesting individuals, and I have both taught and learned a great deal.

The iron bars, steel doors, and walls of Pontiac create a unique teaching environment. Having spent my life on the outside, it was difficult, at first, to understand the effect this setting had on the attitudes and mental well-being of my students. But soon I discovered that whatever their crimes, their reason for being in the prison school roughly parallels traditional students. While most of them want to learn, many see the school only as an opportunity to avoid the potential violence in the cellhouse; such violence, or its threat, however, sometimes follows them into the classroom.

The school curriculum centers around the tests of the General Educational Development (GED). For those people who did not complete a regular high school program, the GED provides a means to recognize learning acquired through life experiences. A placement test—Test of Adult Basic Education—is given to all residents upon their entry into the prison system to ascertain their levels of ability. According to state law, residents who score below a sixth-grade level in reading and mathematics are mandated to be in school for at least ninety attendance days. Those entering school, whether mandated or not, are divided into three levels—ABE (for nonreaders or low-level readers); pre-GED (for fourth-to-sixth grade level); and GED (for seventh and above). Because of Pontiac’s GED testing schedule—April, August, and December—everything one needs to know to pass the test is offered at an accelerated pace. If an inmate does not obtain his GED the first time, he remains for another semester, or more, until he passes it. We have had some inmates remain in school for several semesters, entering unable to read or write but gradually working their way through the program.

I teach GED Social Studies and English. Aside from a few security measures, my classroom is not unlike the typical public school—twenty-four desks and chairs, a teacher’s desk, maps, and a storage cabinet. The physical layout is where the similarity ends. The teacher in the correctional classroom must contend with other factors—factors created by the prison environment and by the background of each student. For example, the tried and true lecture method, complemented by a filmstrip, movie, or occasional field trip, often fails because it either violates security or is rejected by the students themselves.

Therefore, I have had to search for alternatives. Two recent works that have affected my viewpoint are Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise (1985) and Paul Gagnon’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly (November 1988), “Why Study History?” Both authors discuss teaching in a manner I find applicable to my situation. The first, Horace’s Compromise, calls for a complete revitalization of teaching and a restructuring of a school’s curriculum. The “compromise” in the book’s title is a teacher’s ultimate sacrifice of teaching when faced with obstructive factors—mandates from the administration, special events, and large classes. To end the compromise, Sizer describes five imperatives for rebuilding the school system: (1) Give room to both teachers and students to work; (2) Insist that all students exhibit a mastery of basic skills; (3) Provide incentives to both teachers and students; (4) Focus students’ work on the use of their minds; and (5) Keep the structure simple and flexible.

The system at Pontiac, like all others, is full of compromise. We have our share of interruptions. During institutional deadlocks—when there is no resident movement—there is no school. Since the days allotted for the GED do not change, a lengthy deadlock decreases the total number of days to prepare students. Likewise, less-than-serious students are always entering or leaving the class to “take care of business”: They want to go to the barber; their mothers or girlfriends have come for a visit; they need to talk to the principal; they must report to the cellhouse superintendent. A late breakfast means that students will not arrive on time; an early lunch means they leave early; a lengthy lunch takes away even more valuable time. With these constant interruptions, it is often miraculous when I get through a lesson without something happening.

Unlike his colleagues on the streets, the prison educator does not have summers free. Because the central concern of an institution like Pontiac is security, as well it should be, school is in session twelve months a year. In a prison with over two thousand residents, security does not allow for a work assignment to shut down. The only relief from this day-to-day teaching schedule is an occasional conference or in-service workshop. My years at Pontiac have earned me over three weeks of vacation a year. While I usually take a week with the family during midsummer, I try to save several days to be used periodically as a safety valve. These days are mine—to be spent lounging around the house, working in the yard, or just “cooling out.” Whenever I feel the need to get away, I take a day’s vacation, returning to school the following day slightly refreshed.

The prison school is part of a statewide school district, incorporating all state prison schools—academic, vocational, and college. The school district concept has its advantages and disadvantages. Although textbook orders and simple requests often get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape, the school district does provide for tuition reimbursement for after-hours, job-related courses, although some teachers find the combination of a stress-filled daytime job and the completion of graduate courses at night too difficult.

As with most jobs, the release of job-related stress for prison educators is extremely important. Each of us deals with it in his or her own special way. A long-time prison employee taught me something I have since passed on to others: “Leave the job at the front gate.” In other words, don’t take troubles and worries home with you. I have taken this advice to heart and generally refrain from discussing my job or job-related problems with my family. I have found relaxation—and release—through a regular exercise program and a return to school to work on a doctorate. Together with the love and understanding of my wife and two small sons, I find a stress-filled day quickly forgotten.

Although many inmates entering the Department of Corrections dropped out (or were thrown out) of school in the tenth or eleventh grade, their educational level is often far below that. An inmate may sometimes admit that he stopped trying while in the lower grades, even as early as the third or fourth. When he enters prison, he may or may not be able to do simple addition and subtraction or even write much more than his name. Before we can challenge his mind, we must first address the basics—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Lesson plans, although required by the school administration, are often useless. In a prison school, flexibility is the key. While I might plan to examine the geography of Central America or Article III of the Constitution, I may end class by discussing the conjugation of the verb “to be” or the pyramids of Egypt.

Sometimes during the study of a topic related to United States history or English grammar, a GED student will protest, “Is this s— on the test?” Of course the answer is supposed to be “Yes.” If it is not, the students want an explanation. The U.S. Constitution test promotes even more appropriate responses. “If it ain’t on the damn test, why am I learning it? I’m locked up. It don’t matter to me. I just want to get my GED.”

Paul Gagnon asks a similar, if more general question: Why study history? Like Gagnon, I tell my students that the study of history helps us to make judgments. Judgment implies nothing less than wisdom—about human nature and society. Indeed, Gagnon has helped me to see that a primary goal in teaching history is to help students to understand the difference between fact and conjecture, to realize that most problems have one or more solutions, and to grasp the powers of ideas in history.

But whether a teacher is teaching history, science, reading, or math, he must help students to understand what they read—to comprehend, to evaluate, to apply. Few subjects illustrate this better than the Constitution, which is more, in my estimation, than a series of articles and amendments, more than rights and duties; the Constitution is the foundation of our government. To understand the government, one must understand the document that established it. Through the study of its history and contents, it is hoped students reach a better understanding of why our government is the way it is. Also, by studying various landmark cases, students increase their awareness of their rights and responsibilities. The success of this teaching cannot be measured by a single examination. It can only be measured when students are released from prison and become productive citizens.

Throughout his article, Gagnon stresses the importance of civic education: “The truly tough part of civic education is to prepare people for bad times.” Teaching civic education is my real pleasure in the classroom. Although it would take only one to two weeks to prepare a student for the GED version of the required Constitution exam, I expand my coverage into six or eight weeks. I discuss the historical background, philosophy, and interpretation of the document. To impress me, an occasional student will rattle off the Preamble. He will say, “I learned it in high school before I got kicked out.” When I ask him what it means, he does not know. I smile and suggest, “What good is reciting it if you do not understand its meaning?”

My students are quite naturally interested in the Constitution and how it relates to their individual rights. In fact, few places allow individuals the opportunity to become more aware of their rights than prison. When their lives are on the line, possibly facing twenty or sixty years or even life behind bars, individuals must learn what their rights are. They must know about the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination as well as its insurance of due process. They must know about the Sixth’s guarantee to a speedy trial and right to a court-appointed attorney. And, in some cases, they must know of the Eighth’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The most difficult problem in teaching the Constitution in prison is the inmates’ negative attitude about “the system” and how it did not work for them. Since inmates often see themselves as victims, they rarely believe the document could ever work for them. It is for this reason that I spend so much time discussing such topics as habeas corpus and ex post facto. By understanding the spirit or intent of these terms, a student can better understand the significance and usefulness of these guarantees of civil liberties. I explain that the Constitution is nearly perfect. If there are faults, it is not the document itself that is in error, rather it is the interpretation of it by judges and courts.

Aside from an occasional traffic ticket, most traditional students only encounter courts on television or in books. My students, on the other hand, have been brought into court and have had a judge look them in the eye and say, “Guilty.” They must look at iron bars and gates twenty-four hours a day, knowing they are locked up for the next, say, twenty years. The judicial system is very real to them, and they will not simply accept a teacher’s speaking of the “virtues” of the system. If I were to say, “The system works,” I would be hanged (figuratively if not literally). I must understand this delicate balance and try to instill at least a little respect for the Constitution.

Whenever an inmate begins to talk about the law, invariably he turns the discussion to his own case. Trying to keep a student from talking about his case is difficult, but I try to keep such discussions to a minimum—it tends both to waste valuable time and to confuse those students who are already having difficulty. Instead of looking through personal experiences, the student must look to various aspects of the court system impartially; otherwise, personal bias will keep him from understanding and learning the facts.

Most people are aware of the old cliche, that everyone in prison says he or she is innocent. Surprisingly enough, when you talk to inmates, they will generally disagree. Inmates do not complain that they were locked up for something they did not do; but they do complain about the judicial process. They claim that evidence was suppressed at their trial; that witnesses were not called for their defense; that the evidence used against them was circumstantial; or that their lawyers (usually a public defender or “penitentiary deliverer”) were incompetent. Over the years, I have asked students how many people locked up at Pontiac are really guilty of their crimes; the answer is almost eighty to ninety percent.

While the casual observer might think my classes are chaotic and lack cohesiveness—and sometimes they are—there is still a lot of learning going on. As in any school outside, a teacher becomes attached to his students, and while he must always remember where he is, a prison educator must also try to forget that his students are criminals, so as to think of them only as students. It is for this reason that I don’t like to know why a resident was locked up.

Although we do not issue grade reports, my students still like to see grades on their papers—but I refrain from using the word “failure” or the letter “F.” Success cannot always be measured by a test or a worksheet; sometimes the interest and attention given a subject is enough. Through reading and discussing various subjects in class—whether it is the location of Sri Lanka, the causes of the War of 1812, or the rules governing subject-verb agreement—the inmate/student develops a wider range of skills; he may also become more aware of the world around him.

An appreciation of history is an important part of this awakening. Why should inmates study history? The litany is well known to all history teachers: Their lives would be poorer without it; it provides companionship on a journey through life; it connects the present with the past; most of all, however, it adds new dimensions and perspectives. I wish I could say that I continually use all of these motivational speeches in school, but I cannot. I do not have time for lengthy discussions on the meaning and value of history. The pressure of the short term and, not unimportantly, the reward of passing the GED test prevent long discussions on any one topic. But whether discussing the Constitution or a particular historical reading, students will still ask questions: “How did ‘they’ let this happen?” “Why didn’t ‘they’ try to stop it?” If we are discussing, for example, Plessy v. Ferguson, students want to know why and how such attitudes toward blacks developed. Why didn’t someone try to stop segregation? Why didn’t the Supreme Court try to end it sooner than 1954? When such occasions arise, I try to explain causation in history, how we interpret these causes, and why certain things happened the way they did. But more importantly, I try to keep students from drawing an unsound or illogical conclusion based only on their perspective when they arrived at Pontiac or on the basis of their present mind set.

Teaching in a correctional setting is not easy. It certainly is not for everyone. As with many jobs (teaching or any other), the good points often outweigh the bad. A prison educator, at least at a maximum-security setting, is faced with the possibility of violence (e.g., a riot). The potential for a disturbance may, and should, remain in the back of the mind, but one still has a job to do. The possibility of a disturbance must not interfere with a teacher’s responsibility to his students. And, if inmates are treated with respect, they will, most often, reciprocate. This enthusiasm is reward enough. When a student walks into my room carrying the GED diploma and says, “Thank you,” I feel I have truly accomplished something. It has all been worth it.

Quite often when I meet someone new outside the prison, I will be asked what I do for a living. When I answer that I teach at a prison, the questioner’s mouth drops and his eyes widen. “Aren’t you scared?” is usually the first response. Then I hear, “You mean my tax dollars are going to give those guys a free education?” I find it difficult to understand why people would deny someone, even an inmate, an education. Regardless of his crime, an inmate deserves the chance to turn his life around. Most of my students are from the inner city and dropped out of school early, taking to the streets. In prison they have the opportunity to improve their lives; part of this change can be through education. Although it is not a total answer, or a solution, it is part of one.

I would not readily return to teaching on the outside. I feel a closeness to the original Mr. Chips, who at the end of his life questioned his impact on his students. I hope I will never have to teach my present students’ children and grandchildren, but statistics show that today’s recidivism rate among inmates is extremely high—in some states as high as eighty to ninety percent. I have lost count of the number of individuals I have seen go home only to return a few months or years later. I pray that some of what I teach will contribute to breaking this “revolving door” tradition at Pontiac.

Since direct contact with former residents is prohibited by the Department of Corrections, the success stories are harder to document, but two stand in my mind. One young man wrote me a letter to say “Thank you”—he had been paroled, taking a part-time job while attending a local junior college. A second resident actually called me at work to thank me. He, too, had returned to school after his release and found a good paying job. He wanted to thank the other teachers and me for helping to turn his life around.

I wish there were more, but even if these are the only two, it is enough to demonstrate that education for prisoners is justifiable and, for teachers, rewarding.

Donald L. Wasson has taught at Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, IL, for more than a decade. He is a Doctor of Arts candidate at Illinois State University.