On the first evening I drove to teach in a prison, I was nervous. Would they respect me? Would they be interested in the lesson I prepared? Even though I was excited about the material, I wasn’t sure if a room full of prisoners would be, and as a 21-year-old woman in a men’s prison, I didn’t think my students would respect me. I was so wrong. Many of the students were more engaged and curious than I had ever been in class. Even after teaching for two semesters, I am still constantly surprised by how much the students want to learn. Besides all the trivial stuff like gates and visitor badges, my students’ curiosity and engagement feel like the biggest difference between this class and any other class I had been in or taught myself.
I teach with a program called The Prison Education Project, which aims to educate and empower incarcerated people through various programs, which may be related to career development, general life skills and enrichment, or academics (that’s what I do). Through this program, the inmates can enroll in courses like Business 101, Intro to Modern Dance, Forgiveness and Healing, Introduction to College, and Introduction to Computer Science. I specifically have helped to develop and teach chemistry and physics classes.
I wanted to write about prison education on this blog because it is a form of science outreach that few people think about. I became involved in this program when a few students at my college started a club to organize students, specifically at my school, to get involved with the Prison Education Project. There are some unique challenges that arise when teaching in the Prison Education Project. For example, the students in my class are adults of diverse ages and wildly different levels of prior education. And, because it’s prison, we cannot bring in the fun demonstrations that would normally be used in an introductory science class (think flame test demonstrations).
Instead of that, the power of a lesson must come entirely from the words we say. We must rely on the imagery that our words can evoke and we can’t fall back on demonstrations or videos to explain something. It can also be challenging because my goal is to help people with more than just the lesson plan. I want to teach the basic science, but I also want to inspire my students to pursue further education (the Prison Education Project calls this a “prison-to-school pipeline”). I want to explain some of the science that I think matters to any member of society, such as a lesson on fuel and climate change in my chemistry class. I am not necessarily preparing my students to take future chemistry or physics classes, which was usually the goal for the introductory classes I took myself. My goal is not even necessarily to encourage my students to go into science at all, which I think is different than a lot of science outreach. These differences make my experience sometimes difficult, but also uniquely rewarding.
A program like the Prison Education Project has many benefits. An important metric of the success of the program is the decreased recidivism (or likelihood of future offenses) of participants. Inmates who participate in a prison education program are far less likely to return to prison after release compared to other inmates,1 indicating that education is very important for rehabilitation. Furthermore, inmates often have difficulty getting jobs after they are released due to the stigma of their records, but job outlooks are greatly increased with education.
My fellow volunteers and I, of course, also benefit from the program. A key idea of the program is that teachers learn just as much as they teach, and the students teach just as much as they learn. I have learned to be much better at explaining fundamental concepts and thinking about how these concepts connect back to tangible experiences. My students show me exceptional kindness, which I have learned to carry into other aspects of my life. I absolutely would encourage others to find a local prison education program and get involved. Mass incarceration in the United States is an enormous problem, (see ACLU on mass incarceration, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander) which needs to be fixed far before people are in prison. Until that happens, we need to help people already in the system, too.
- Prison Studies Project. Why Prison Education? 2018, Retrieved from: http://prisonstudiesproject.org/why-prison-education-programs/