“Strap up or punk out!” came the angry voice.
I turned and saw a giant of a man covered in tattoos. By his side were four of his gangbanger homies. I was in trouble.
Returning my blank stare, the ringleader said, “What are you waiting for? Get up and do something or get got!”
The fight that transpired was not fun or pretty. Five thugs against one medium-sized guy is not what you would consider a fair fight, even in a prison setting, but that is how it goes. Lawless, reckless, and violent. Nothing more and nothing less.
You might think that under the guard’s watchful eye these things wouldn’t happen. You might think that the guard was unaware. And you might think that those responsible would be punished and the victims protected from further harm. You’d be wrong on all accounts. The price of prison life.
The encounter described above happens every day in cell blocks in American prisons. To be clear, this didn’t happen to me. But similar events have. A few years ago, when I was housed in a rougher prison — one housing only aggressive but “youthful” men — this type of event was a regular occurrence. I often had to fend off two or more attackers or robbers. That was the price a young white guy had to pay in those prisons.
The sad truth is that prisoners in this situation usually have no recourse. In the cell block there are only two options: fight or run. The guards won’t protect you. The Aryan gang might, but only with consequences potentially worse than taking your chances with 4-to-1 odds. To state it simply, life can be — and often is — a living hell. One can tango with the dangerous dance partners, or endure a long sit in the hole in protective custody. While neither is fun, the latter is unthinkable to most.
From the correctional educator’s perspective, it can be easy to ignore such occurrences. More likely, it is an issue of assumed responsibility and conduct. Many educators who work in prison education departments, the schools behind the bars, often don’t see such conduct when it happens, so they assume it doesn’t occur. Such prison educators would be wrong.
Whether the educator is aware of it or not, events like these take a tremendous toll on students who are involved in, or even aware of, the event. This conduct does not lend itself to a healthy educational environment. Therefore, the correctional educator must be aware of what’s going on outside of the education department and be prepared and equipped to deal with it. If not, their students will continue to suffer, and will not be able to apply themselves fully to any kind of educational program.
STEP ONE: BUILDING AWARENESS OF COMPROMISING SITUATIONS
The first step to reconnecting with students who have gone through traumatic events is to be aware of what has occurred. While it’s foolhardy to simply assume that your students will bring such problems to a staff member’s attention, some do. But the majority will not, and thus it is important to be on the lookout for students who are, or have been, engaged in difficult situations.
Is a certain student acting distracted? Have you witnessed a threatening gesture in the classroom? Is one of your students constantly glancing at another? Are one student’s actions a significant departure from normal behavior? Any of these signs could indicate that attention is needed.
As a prison educator who is attuned to learning environments and your students, if something appears off or feels off, try to pinpoint the problem or student to which it relates. Keeping in mind that confidential conversations with staff are often frowned upon in prison society, you can ask the student to step out into the hall or stay after class to discuss any potential issues.
At most, this additional attention can motivate the student to share with you what is going on. At the very least the student will feel that someone cares, and this could improve their overall emotional state.
STEP TWO: CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF SITUATION
If the incarcerated student doesn’t confide in you, or reveal any further problems, then you can put it out of your mind. But if your antennae are still up, pay attention over the next few days to see if the situation is stable or if it is evolving.
If the prisoner-student does reveal an incident, you must be prepared to help. First, try to understand the issue in the context of prison life and gather all of the facts. Second, ask the student what he or she feels would help. If the student doesn’t have any good ideas — or if their ideas aren’t going to work — then leave it at that. Conflicts do happen in prison and your unwelcomed intervention could have an unexpected ripple effect that might not work to your student’s long-term interests. Fourth, if the issue requires outside attention (e.g., security staff, housing unit management, psychology, etc.), take the necessary action. At this moment, you’re your student’s only advocate. Get them the help they need.
Most importantly, if the student feels his life and/or safety are in danger, immediately walk the student to a secure location and call for assistance. Problems in a correctional setting often escalate and serious injuries and even death can result.
In any event, confidentiality and discretion are a must. The very act of speaking to a staff member regarding any conflict is usually considered snitching by the prison population. Doors should be closed, discussions held out of earshot, and the disclosure of any names or situations should be kept in the closest of confidence.
STEP THREE: RECONNECTING WITH INCARCERATED STUDENTS IN CONFLICT
Sometimes, simply speaking with the student might be enough to bring the student back to a learning attitude. Yet, it might also take further intervention. Regardless of which course is taken, something needs to be done to realign your student, even if this something is just buying a little time.
After the crisis has passed, you can take steps to reestablish a sense of normalcy in your classroom. This means fostering previously agreed upon assignments, lessons, presentations, and above all else, a level head and even persona. Don’t invite additional conflicts by appearing inconsistent or not in control.
THE PATH AHEAD
In correctional settings, a crisis can occur out of nowhere. It’s important for the correctional educator to keep his or her eyes open so further intervention can also occur when needed. The fact that you are your students’ only advocate can’t be stressed enough. You might indeed be the only person in your prison to care enough about the student. Be aware of this and be willing to intervene when needed.
Remember: the purpose of your job is to educate. But in order to do so, you must also monitor, observe, counsel, advocate, and intervene when necessary, in order to facilitate a healthy learning environment.
The real question you should be asking yourself is, “Am I willing to do this or not?” If not, perhaps you should consider exchanging your dry erase marker, attendance chart, and drive-to-educate for keys, a radio, and handcuffs.