By Nick Hacheney and
Reprinted by permission
from College Inside
What should educators know before walking into a prison? The landscape may look vaguely familiar, Nick Hacheney and Tomas Keen write, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot outsiders can’t see, and need to understand. As prison education programs are poised to expand, the two incarcerated writers offer a guide for working with students like them in this strange land. (Also a shout out to incarcerated artist Daniel Longan for the illustrations!)
If given the opportunity to teach abroad, say in Papua New Guinea or France, you’d likely head to a bookstore and purchase a guide on the region’s culture. You’d study the history of the place and how significant events shaped the things you were about to see.
But nobody buys a guide before entering a prison.
As prison-based education programs slowly return, many newly inspired educators are unknowingly about to walk into a foreign land. Few will get a guide on what being in prison is really like. And even if they do take the time to scour the growing tome of prison-centered writing, they’ll find little has been said about the ways in which outsiders should approach this place.
This guide aims to fix that.
Arriving at the prison gates, you’ll find what you first expected: high walls, glistening razor wire, imposing towers with armed guards. Stepping inside you’ll see polished “Programming Center” signs adorning buildings with neatly configured tables and chairs, inspirational quotes, and hastily-scrawled-upon white boards. It may seem for a moment very reminiscent of any other site of academia.
Because the setting is what you expected, the people look familiar, and the language is one you can understand, you might assume you know this culture. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Like all tourist traps, you’re experiencing what prison administrators want you to. You’re not seeing the cramped and dirty living units; you’re not hearing the nonstop shrieking of amplified loudspeakers, you’re not feeling the soul-twisting desperation to be somewhere, anywhere, other than this place. Despite a keen eye and keyed up senses, you’re not experiencing what this place really is.
You’ve undoubtedly come intending to do some good. Yet that requires understanding something of the place you are in and the people you are with. Here are five cultural foundations that you should know about:
Almost all prisoners have experienced trauma – there are disproportionate numbers of people of color who have been subjected to racist systems, victims of violence, graduates of the foster-care system, people suffering from mental illness, and people who turned to substances to suppress pain. In no other place will you find these specific demographics in these sizable concentrations.
Prisons create a culture that responds to power as a reflex, like a flinch. Prisoners understand that anyone who has power over them has the ability to hurt them – enemy and friend alike. The natural reaction is to distance yourself as far as possible: what you don’t have cannot be taken from you, what you don’t love cannot break your heart.
Prisoners have trust issues. We have experienced extreme oppression from our custodians, been betrayed by our fellow captives, and been abandoned by some of our advocates. This leads to a truncated ability to give and receive trust, making it a measured commodity offered and taken only in the quantity we can afford.
The prison environment is one shockingly scarce in choices. We don’t choose where we live or who we live with, what time we will wake up, eat our meals, or even use the toilet. The choices that are left to us are guarded fiercely.
Education programs become baby carrots that barely grow in the shadow of monstrous sticks. An ever-present threat of having valuable things taken away spawns toxic selfishness and narcissism. In short, prisons are mean spaces with inadequate resources and a culture of survival.
It’s wrong to walk into prison and think that terms like equity, fairness, and anti-discrimination are going to mean the same thing here that they do outside. Prison educators need to identify more closely with Harriet Tubman than John Harvard. You need to read the words of Michelle Alexander and look for modern day underground railroads.
Here are 12 tips to help you navigate this new land:
1. Leave your culture and assumptions at the door.
2. Take the time to learn this culture. Sit with prisoners who live here and are doing the work day in and day out.
3. Understand that when you come to a visiting room or a prison classroom you are in a tourist trap. You will hear stories and have a better idea than most, but you will not see us in our cages or experience the violence and madness that are part of our daily lives.
4. Give up on the idea that your set of values will fix this place.
5. Become an agent of empowerment.
6. Don’t spread yourself so thin that you end up helping no one by trying to help everyone.
7. Say no to the temptation to take risks that will endanger the whole community and deprive them of resources. Something that feels as innocent as bringing in a magazine or pictures of your vacation can get a program shut down.
8. An educator should never become a prison guard. A student comes into class frazzled and aggressive. But what you might not know is that he was stopped on the way to class and harassed by an officer for not having his shirt tucked in. Give your students the benefit of the doubt.
9. Don’t get sidetracked by the loudest or most disenfranchised or most manipulative.
10. Take a marathoner’s approach. Commit to long-term solutions that are sustainable instead of short-term fixes that make you feel good.
11. Understand that if you do not take care of yourself, you will become another advocate who did their prison tour and left.
12. Accept the fact that prison has a pretty messed up culture filled with broken people.
Prison education is hard work. But it matters in ways that few other things can compare. It empowers transformation, prevents future victimization, and breaks cycles of incarceration, poverty, abuse, and disenfranchisement. It’s rarely fun and only sometimes rewarding – but it’s absolutely vital.
Don’t forget to send us a postcard!
Nick Hacheney is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center and is a longtime advocate for environmental and educational programs in prison. He has been previously published in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, BioCyle, and Filter and presented a TedX talk on the environmental program he started in prison.
Tomas Keen is a writer from Washington State, where he’s been incarcerated since 2010. His work prioritizes issues of social justice and legal reform and has been published in The Crime Report, The Appeal, Inquest, and The Economist’s 1843 Magazine.
Daniel Longan is serving a 40-year sentence in Washington State. His art has been featured in the LeMay Car Museum in Tacoma and in a video for JSTOR Access in Prison. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanLonganArt.