Prison Vignette: Educators Only Whisper in a Custody World

This is an extract from our book Prison Vocational Education in the United States.  Palgrave MacMillan 2016, by Andrew J. Dick, William Rich, and Tony Waters.  

The passivity of the education administrators was at first striking, but I came to understand it as a normal response to this system where the concept of safety as defined by custody officials always holds sway. Custody was in charge and they held all information confidential. Lives could be at stake, they dramatically whispered.

This perspective at first appeared melodramatic. To make matters worse, correctional custody officers in green uniforms are closely watched by internal affairs custody officers in black uniforms. The black uniforms make sure the green uniforms are not involved with smuggling cell phones, drugs, and other contraband, which can be a very lucrative side business.

The dangers custody feared became more apparent when a librarian was stabbed in one of the prisons we visited. The incident emphasized to all that inmates are locked up because they are criminals, not simply the victims of poverty, poor education, alienating foster care, neglect, childhood abuse, and violence. They could hurt other people, and the librarian was just one victim of that convoluted world.

A gang contract had been put out on a prison employee and an elaborate plan developed to carry out the contract. The outcome placed the librarian as a player in another Kafkaesque scene, because she was not the target of the contract. But the inmates were intent on stabbing the person identified by the gang arrived at the appointed location but went through the wrong door to the library. The intended victim was not there. Left on their own to figure out what to do next, they decided they should stab someone, even if it was the wrong person. So the librarian was stabbed and killed. The entire prison went on lockdown since the incident because it was feared that more gang violence would follow if inmates had contact with each other. Lockdown means every inmate remains in his cell. Inmate movement outside cells to eat, exercise, stand in line to get meds, or go to or from class is a chief source of problems for custody officials.

With such experiences in mind, education administrators inevitably deferred to custody officials. One vice principal crystallized the concept with the statement, “It’s a custody world.” For anyone operating in prisons, it is truly a world controlled and defined by custody officials. This results in a passivity among educators that gave me the impression that principals, vice principals, and teachers made few decisions. They wrote reports, accreditation applications, consulted with other officials, and moved paper around, but none actually pressed a particular instructional agenda. They seemed to have mastered the bureaucratic skill of waiting for orders. The issue detailed in the “Greenhouse” story (see Chapter XX) only confirmed this perspective.

Passivity appeared was most evident in situations where important educational decisions were made. Placement hearings serve as a prime example. When inmates enter the prison system, they are assessed and assigned to a level based on their danger of violence using a custody risk scale of I (low) to IV (high) which depends on commitment offense, sentence, gang affiliations, disciplinary record, and so on. After each inmate arrives at a new prison, they meet with a board consisting of a counselor, custody captain, an educator, and any other appropriate experts such as medical personnel. The school principal is also invited. This is a placement hearing, and since the advent of AB 900, its educational purpose is to determine the most effective path towards rehabilitation for each inmate. The educational decisions should move the inmate toward a GED and a vocational trade certificate.

However, these hearing committees have been in place for a long time before AB 900 and serve another purpose, not easily displaced even by legislation: the safe operation of the prison by placing individuals in the context of their medical needs, the gestalt of the yards and prison gangs. So, inmates were placed expediently in a class with an opening so that no seat remained empty—educational goals were peripheral. The educational representatives in placement hearings, left in the dark about the information custody officials used to make placement decisions, were relegated to making uninformed suggestions to a committee. Likewise, the inmates we interviewed believed their educational interests had nothing to do with the work of these placement committees.

For example, once while visiting a welding classroom in another prison, I had a conversation with an inmate-student who looked as if he were studying the text intensely. I introduced myself to him and he was very willing to talk with me. I asked him if he used the new electronic welding simulator in the classroom. This simulator looked a bit like a video game with a rod that students manipulated as if they were actually making a weld. The student told me in broken English that he was already a welder on “the street” so he already knew most of what was taught in this class. His big problem was that he couldn’t pass the written tests since he couldn’t read English very well. He indicated that if he had a Spanish-English text in which he could read for understanding in Spanish and then learn English at the same time, he would succeed in the course. He had already failed several tests in English and believed he didn’t have a chance to pass any other tests in English.

I wish these prinicpals would take a risk in the placement hearings. Their passivity in accepting the “custody world” left me frustrated and disappointed. To make matters worse, the areas where they spent their energy were narrowly focused on operational matters: How many days off could teachers take, and why did they take them on that day? From an operational perspective, these issues are important because they impact instruction. Yet one hopes that educational leaders would stretch beyond keeping the classrooms staffed as a mission for their professional lives.

Following these experiences, I expected that some relationship existed between the level of custody risk of the inmates in the prison and the degree of passivity exemplified by the principal and vice principal. In other words, it seemed reasonable that in the institutions that housed the highest risk Level IV inmates, the educational administrators would be the most passive. Even starker custody requirements overpowered rehabilitative efforts through education. However, once again, prison surprised me.

One prison in our study is famous, even notorious, for the heinous nature of the inmates housed there. Prisoners who entered the prison system were involved in violent behavior, intense gang activity, or increase the threat they posed to others and custody staff to be transferred to this prison.

After we arrived at this dank place, we were met by the principal, a woman who wore warm pants and a jacket. She welcomed us and was eager to know what we wanted to see. When we were checked in through the security checkpoint, the principal addressed the officer by name saying, “Good Morning Officer” and introduced us as visiting researchers.

We spent time talking about the study as we walked through the gate and saw the yards for the first time. There were many smaller sections of yard fenced off for different groups of prisoners so they would not be able to form a large group and rush a door. This had been learned through an unfortunate experience in the past.

We visited a shop class with a very effective teacher, where the principal introduced us, again addressing the person by his name. She also introduced us to the correctional officer who was assigned to the classroom and addressed him by his name. She then left us so we could observe.

Later, the principal led us to the educational programs being offered in the highest security section of the prison, in “administrative segregation.” As the principal took us up a flight of stairs, we ran into the assistant warden. He stopped and said, “Good Morning,” and the principal introduced us. He told us that he had not believed the program we were on our way to see could work but the principal finally convinced him to try it. The assistant warden is now the biggest supporter based on the results with the inmates. The principal then explained to us what a huge difference it made to work with such an open-minded, dedicated, and caring individual as the assistant warden. She let him know our itinerary and indicated she could be available at any time even though visitors were present. He indicated he would see us again in the program we were on our way to visit.

When we arrived in the area, we not exactly underground but it felt that way. We were surrounded by concrete, bulletproof glass, steel doors, and steel bars. When we entered the Administrative Segregation Unit (Ad Seg), we were required to check in with the checkpoint officers and issued standard bulletproof vests. The principal greeted each of the officers by name and then introduced us. An officer was then appointed to serve as our guide and take us into one of the pods. These pods consisted of hallways, like spokes of a wheel, with a console and armed officer at the center hub. The officer wore a helmet with a visor that extended below his chin. He wore a bulletproof vest, and an automatic rifle was slung across his chest. This officer was sitting in a kind of turret so he could easily swivel to see any of the hallways. This turret sat above us with no way to enter from below without first going through a kind of hatch that he controlled. The principal waved and said hello to him, also addressing him by his name. He smiled down and they exchanged greetings.

We were led into one of the hallways where four or five cells were lined up next to each other. Each cell held only one man who was clad in a kind of white underwear, long shorts and a T-shirt. In the cell were a closed-circuit computer and monitor that provided the programmed learning that made the assistant warden so proud. Inmate students were making steady progress toward getting a GED using this equipment and program.

The cell itself was completely concrete and contained two bunks, a toilet, and sink. We saw through what looked like 4-inch steel bars into the cell from the hallway. We spoke with the inmate who told us about the program and how glad he was to have something to do in this cell.

Two cells away, the principal was leaning against the bars and speaking very softly, whispering through the bars to an inmate and listening to him intently. I walked over slowly and learned the story. This young man was tattooed on his neck and face and finishing the last weeks of a 10 year to life sentence. He was to be paroled in three weeks and, as the system required, would be released with $200 back to the county of his crime, Los Angeles. He appeared to be upset, as if he would almost come to tears. The principal introduced me to him addressing him by his name and changed the subject to his use of the computer and the program. He explained he enjoyed the learning and felt he was close to earning a GED. We were then escorted to the exercise area at the end of the hall. It was a small concrete room outside, and looking up the 15 foot walls, one could just catch a glimpse of cloud or, if very lucky, sunshine.

She explained to me that this young man was 26 years old and had entered prison at 16. He was terrified to return to his neighborhood because he feared being killed by his gang or a rival gang if he did not rejoin and become an active member. The principal said she simply spoke reassuring words to him, but also told him she would advocate for him.

On the way out of the Ad Seg unit, walking down the tunnel-like hall, we passed a correctional officer sitting in a chair looking at what appeared to be the wall. As we came closer, we saw that he was watching a naked man lying down in a small cell. The principal introduced us to this officer addressing him by his name, and at that point, the assistant warden appeared again. He asked us about our visit, and we shared how impressed we were at the system and programmed learning that received praise from the inmates. We then turned back to the officer and asked him what he was doing. He shared that he was waiting for the inmate to pass a pen that he had shoved up his anus. The inmate could see us through the glass, and the principal moved further down the hallway. I quickly followed.

We exited and walked through the yards to the library. Along the way, we encountered several correctional officers and were introduced to each by name. In the library, a teacher and two porters (assistants) managed a closed-circuit academic program that could help an inmate earn an Associate of Arts degree through a community college in southern California. All courses, lessons, and work were to be accomplished individually by inmate students in their cells. We were introduced to the teacher and the porters as well. Each porter was addressed by his name with the respectful salutation, Mr. We enjoyed an informative conversation about the way their program operated. The porters managed an extensive file system of student work and other assignments that could be taken while locked in a cell.

We continued to visit with the principal over lunch and learned about her background in the correctional system. She had been a teacher and recently completed an MA degree at a nearby state university. Her major paper addressed the issue of selecting and educating teachers for work in prisons. I asked her if she could share her paper with me, and she made a point of bringing it to us the next day in the parking lot. Her interest and questioning perspective combined with her desire to build a team across the education- custody divide was remarkable.

It was clear from the interactions I witnessed and took part in that this principal knew and respected every correctional officer she met. She saw herself on the same team with custody officials, not a member of a group with separate goals for inmates. She moved easily among inmates throughout the institution, whether in cells, the library, or classrooms. She knew the teachers well and was able to understand what they needed. I never sensed disdain for custody staff; neither did I sense passivity about any part of her role in the institution. This principal worked through and with custody staff for the benefit of her students, and did not relinquish power to them in ways that would foster the resentment we saw elsewhere.

Subservient passivity of education to custody within prison environments is the wrong response. The institution we visited in this story contains the highest threat inmates and, in some ways, appears to be operated for the violently insane, yet this principal was not subservient to custody officials. It might be said she held a servant attitude towards the ideas and ideals of each role: custody and education. And her adherence to each did not exclude the other. Like a good teacher, she treated custody staff as her students, individuals to be understood, not opposed. And once understood, she was able to elicit a kind of membership, Gemeinschaft, in the mission she carried into the prison: rehabilitation through education.