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In Our Toxic Prison System, Is There Room for Hope?

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I didn't expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I'd done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I'd talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.

Most wanted to be police or correctional officers, a few mentioned probation. I wasn't surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.

Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn't deny the things that I wrote about: how "the system" is toxic both physically -- the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence -- and morally -- the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be "tough." Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, "Sometimes I feel like I'm the one doing time." What they didn't like was that I said these things publicity: I was the worst kind of jail scum: a rat.

However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who's got it, who wants it and what they'll do to get it. It is a culture based on "us" and "them." I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the "bad guys" were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the "good guys" were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy. Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person -- inmate and staff alike -- as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.

I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as "bad," getting what they deserved.

And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by "the system."

"What I want to know is how you didn't get discouraged by the whole thing and just quit?" Jake was sitting in the front row, baggy shorts, sneakers and backwards ball cap. With his book opened, eager and interested, he'd been asking tough questions. I should've known that he'd get to the heart of the matter. "I mean, what with inmate recidivism and the conditions in the prison, what about hope?"

I'm not sure the students bought the "long view" I presented. I wouldn't have at their age. It sounded too simplistic, downright hokey. But I gave it anyway. Although I saw young kids return to jail time after time, and watched officers and inmates bowed by prison's oppressive conditions, I never gave up hope because I had a bone-deep belief that no effort to be fair, to be respectful, to be decent in the face of all "the system's" negativity would be wasted. Early in my jail time I made the decision not to tally my efforts with the results. I'd let others keep score. I just held fast to the belief that small change would happen sometime, somewhere and that that's all it takes to turn things around.

At the end of class I'm pretty sure I left the students with more questions than answers. It's not something I like to do. Maybe it's a teacher thing. I know Jake wasn't satisfied. He told me so, quite respectfully, when he came up to have me sign his book.

But looking back at that morning I feel now that Jake's "What about hope?" was a good question for the class to carry into their challenging futures as correctional professionals--and as people. Too many of us forget, in our professional and personal lives, that there will always be more questions than answers in whatever we do. Maybe the only way to keep hope alive in our jobs and our lives is to keep asking those tough questions and hope we don't come up with answers.

Post originally appeared on Beacon Broadside

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