Finding Meaning as an Inmate Instructor

By Andrew Chen

As an inmate tutor at a federal prison, I get one of three responses when I answer another inmate’s inquiry as to where I work.  In order of increasing frequency these are: first, a shrug and a nod — a somewhat reluctant acknowledgement that being a tutor is probably a commendable thing to be doing; second, a “Why would you want to do that?  I would not have the patience to attempt to teach a bunch of half-wits who don’t want to learn anyway”; or, third, by far the most common response, “For real?  I really need some help with my math and essay writing.” 

So why did I choose to become an inmate tutor, and was it a good decision?   The answer is one that requires some context.  It took me three years to move through the U.S. judicial system from arrest to arrival at my designated federal prison facility; three years of being confined to a succession of wholly indoor, steel and concrete cell blocks with perhaps a hundred other anxious federal inmates and a couple of televisions for company; three years during which there was no opportunity to do any meaningful work, or to participate in any educational or vocational courses.

It’s fair to say that I’m not a typical inmate.  I’m a workaholic with two doctorate degrees, and an almost compulsive drive to always be doing something meaningful.  Watching TV and playing cards all day really didn’t cut the mustard for me.  Thankfully, I was able to find enough suitable books through the prison book carts and from friends outside, to study literature and history, two subjects I had never really had the time for since leaving school.  Still, it felt like a rather self-absorbed pursuit, and I yearned to do something that would allow me to make more meaningful contributions to my newfound community, the federal prison community.

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