|How (Not to) Get an Education in Prison|
In the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Danbury, there is a little school, consisting of two classrooms. The walls are lined with bookshelves, but the school does not possess enough books to fill those shelves. There used to be many more books when the school was in a different building. That building, however, became infested with mold and mildew, which made the students ill.
Much of the instructional material, including textbooks, was thrown out, reportedly unusable, due to mold infestation. The ruined material was not replaced. At about the same time, the entire English-language GED curriculum disappeared. Rumors abound as to what happened to it. The only thing that is certain is that it?s gone.
In the Danbury FPC, as in all federal prisons, prisoners who cannot verify that they have either a high school diploma or a GED are required to attend classes for 240 hours. Aside from their physical presence, nothing more is mandated. It seems that there is no requirement that students be supplied with textbooks or any other kind of materials to facilitate learning. In fact, students were ?strongly encouraged? to buy composition books at the commissary at five dollars for a three-book set. This is a large sum for the students, many of whom earn twelve cents an hour at their prison jobs (?this is a working camp?). The staff instructor/correctional officer (co) told the students who suggested that the ?school? provide them notebooks, ?I am Joe Public. I have to buy notebooks for my children. Why should my tax money go to pay for notebooks for inmates?? His face wrinkled into an expression of distaste as he uttered the word ?inmates.?
When the students complained about being forced to attend school after working all day, the instructor shouted. When they argued or failed to pay attention, he shouted. If they expressed discomfort about reading out loud, he shouted. ?You are in jail!? ?You are an inmate!? Occasionally, the shouts turned into threats. ?When the lieutenant sees how many times you?ve refused a direct order, he will say, ?Oh my! She needs to go to the SHU right away!??
The SHU (?Special Housing Unit?), also known as ?seg,? is nothing like detention in high school. It?s more like a scene from a bad prison movie : three tiers of two-person cages and guards marching orange-clad inmates in handcuffs through the corridors.
Out of class, the instructor told his English-language tutorial staff of his intentions to send at least three students to the SHU for ninety days before heading off early in June for his vacation. He commented, ?I don?t care if they never learn that one plus one equals two. I get paid for eight hours of work.? He also demanded complete loyalty from the three tutors: ?Either you?re with me or you?re with them.?
Before my job as an educational aide/tutor ended, the instructor?s comments became increasingly vitriolic. Complaints were lodged about the racial and sexual nature of the commentary, but I cannot go into any more detail as the matter is under investigation.
I decided that it was time for a career change. I had become a tutor to help students develop their writing skills. I did not feel that I could do so in such an oppressive atmosphere. My requests for reassignment or even for firing went nowhere. After hearing the offensive comments, another tutor and I went to speak with various staff members about the teacher?s conduct. I then decided to try to invite a firing by going on ?strike.?
Going on strike in prison has more dramatic repercussions than merely a firing. It involved various staff members conferring about me. An incident report was filed, and a lieutenant was summoned from the FCI (the big medium-security prison down the hill). He questioned me and said, ?I have to take you to the FCI.?
The lieutenant walked me down the hill into the front entrance of the FCI, across a courtyard, and into the SHU. The place was creepy, yet familiar. When I arrived to begin serving my sentence on April 6, I spent a night in the SHU, as many new inmates do. This time, I was taken to the top tier and was put into a cage, all by myself. My khaki uniform, socks, and shoes were taken from me. I was given an orange t-shirt, orange socks, and a too-large pair of pants. The shoes that I was handed were so orange that they could glow in the dark. They fit like sausage casings. The guard left me to contemplate my new home and fashion statement. Where was Martha Stewart to help me accessorize it?
The next day, I was released from the SHU and was taken back to the camp. I found out that two of three English-language tutors had been fired. A few days later, I started a new job in grounds maintenance. I work outside, with minimal supervision. I?ve seen wild turkeys, chipmunks, cardinals and butterflies.
Today, as I cleared grass from a walkway, I looked at the far off hills, seemingly melting into the pale blue sky. I wondered about the attitude of someone who repeatedly roared, ?You are an inmate!? Does identifying people as ?inmates? or as an ?enemy? or as ?terrorists? make them easier to target for poor treatment? The abuse of the prisoners in Iraq is not an aberration nor is the treatment of detainees in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, denied prisoner of war status.
?Inmate,? ?enemy,? and ?terrorist? are just words. But words have power and they reinforce the ?us vs. them? attitudes, which seem to make abuse and violence almost acceptable. But not quite.
Alice Gerard served three months in federal prison for her act of nonviolent civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Georgia in November of 2003 calling for the closure of the School of the Americas.
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Madeleine Breen of the Dominican Sisters of Peace