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How and Why I Teach in Prisons

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This is the first installment in a four-part series. Check back later for parts two through four.

One day in September of 1981 I was jogging in FDR Park below Houston Street near the East River. At the time, I was living on 14th Street near Avenue A, on the sixth floor of a tenement walkup. I was involved in running my own import-export business. To pass the time between sales calls, I got into the habit of jogging in the park below Houston Street. On the day mentioned above, I passed a group of kids who were no more than 14, and said as I went by, "Look at the river -- it's so low." "Get him," they yelled, and then they grabbed and hit me. I thought I could fight back but their energy overwhelmed me. I was completely humiliated, and cried from surprise and anger. Then several of them pulled out knives.

It felt like a movie and I can still see myself running away as I glanced at some young men playing soccer in a field to my left, men who were clearly oblivious to what was happening to me. The gang caught up with me and I was sure my time was up. They slapped me but then stopped. I ran again, toward the FDR Drive. I turned around and one of them went down on one knee and held up his hand, as if to say: We hunted you down but we decided to let you live.

On the way back to my apartment, I saw two policemen on 12th Street and told them what had happened. "Once you're in the park, you're on your own," one of them said.

The trauma of that event had far-reaching consequences. To cope with the flashbacks and feelings of powerlessness and humiliation, I went to see the famous psychologist Albert Ellis. His advice was to teach the kind of children who had attacked me in their neighborhoods in order to better understand my attackers and their motives. That made a great deal of sense to me and I started by teaching three young people in my building: José , Janet, and Jesse. We used an abandoned room in the building that had formerly been a recreation center. The lessons were on basic business math. José was 21 and had been in an incarceration facility in the Bronx called Spotsville. He was smart and fearless. He had charisma. However, he had been unable to get a job since dropping out of school. After being released from Spotsville, José had not gone back to school because he was embarrassed.

I showed him how to go to the wholesale market and buy products by the dozen at a lower price than buying them individually, and then I showed him how to sell them door to door. We discussed how to keep a log of everything he sold (I had had this drummed into me in school and so had a thorough understanding of the principles of prices and costs). I was able to show him how to do market research in our building and how to keep an inventory sheet. We used the same sheet I used for my own business; it listed the price of each product and its wholesale cost.

Janet was a beautiful 19-year-old. She lived with her parents and baby on the floor below. She had gotten pregnant when she was 14. She was in the welfare system and was desperate to make more money so she could help her family and take better care of her baby. She had tried to sell Avon products, but they were targeted to white women. We talked often about what she could sell in our neighborhood. Finally, she got the idea of babysitting. One afternoon in our class, Janet glanced out the window and saw her friend go by with her own baby. She said: "I could watch Gisela's baby!" She soon was running a babysitting service for women who lived in the building.

I stayed in touch with Janet and José for years. Both, inch by inch, climbed out of poverty. The last time I saw José he was a restaurant manager with a door-repair business on the side. Janet eventually became a teacher's aide.

Jesse was a wonderful young man. Handsome and bilingual, he was proud of both his Jewish and Hispanic heritage. He lived with his grandmother, who spoke only Spanish.

After one of the classes he said to me, "Hey, Steve, what's up?"

"Good. I'm fine."

"You want to buy"?

"What? No - but what?"

"Marijuana - weed."

"No, I don't smoke. Why are doing this?"

"To make money."

"Did you graduate?"

"No, I don't know math."

"But you seem smart in math to me. You did great today. Can you do this?" And I showed him some basic procedures that we hadn't covered yet.

"Of course, I can do baby math. I can make money."

"If they catch you selling marijuana you'll be in trouble."

"Hey, everyone does it. And you drink wine-that's worse. I would never do that!"

"Why did you drop out of Seward Park? It's a great school."

"It was boring. I hated it."

"Let's walk over there," I said. As we walked to his former school on Grand Street, he said: "I wish you were my father, Steve."

A month later, Jesse was arrested for assault. He was fighting another drug dealer in Tompkins Square Park. His grandmother told me this through an interpreter, a young woman who lived on the floor above me. And then, three weeks later, Jesse was dead. He had been hit over the head with a chair by another inmate while on Riker's Island.

That was when I first thought about education in the prison setting. However, it wasn't until 17 years later, during which time I had been teaching entrepreneurship to at-risk youth, that the memory of Jesse resurfaced and eventually led me to teach at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, where there are so many fathers of kids like Jesse. It happened like this:

In 1999, I received a letter from Joe Robinson, who was then the president of the Association for Community Teamwork (ACT), an inmate-operated organization at the Green Haven Correctional Facility. He wanted me to come teach incarcerated men about financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Joe's poignant letter explained that he had been in prison since he was 21 for killing another young man, who threatened Joe and accused him of being an accessory to an attempted robbery. In a barroom fight months later, the letter said, Joe had wrestled a gun from his would-be murderer and shot him in self-defense. Joe was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Read part two here.