Why I Go to Prison

A teacher’s plea for (societal) clemency.
By James Ferry

The education of the prisoner is for the authorities both an indispensable precaution in the interests of society and an obligation to the prisoner.—Michel Foucault

It’s always gray here it seems, sepia on a good day, like being on the set of a film noir. Thick plumes of steam roil from the sewer grates, a fugitive vapor forcing its way out into the free world. Something’s not right; what’s happening on a subterranean level is indicatively warmer than the forces bearing down from above—not a bad metaphor, actually, for the world I’m about to enter.

I’m just off the highway in Cranston, Rhode Island. Providence County had once flourished as a manufacturing mecca, costume jewelry in particular. Capital flows swept through after the war but later moved overseas, never to return, and now the place is peppered with brick buildings having that deindustrialized look: boarded up, decayed, left for dead. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), which oversees a total of seven prison facilities known collectively as the ACI, or Adult Correctional Institutions, has been headquartered here since 1972. It’s a prison town now, thus everything is abbreviated, as if there were no time to discuss what anything—or anyone—stands for. I imagine that it saves a few bucks on signage, though.

As I pull into the parking lot, I can see that the shift is changing. Off-duty officers move casually toward their cars, enjoying the last vestiges of daylight while their reliefs linger in their vehicles, smoking and scrolling through their phones. This is the Moran Building, medium security, and no one seems eager to spend a minute more here than necessary. I, in contrast, occupy a somewhat less coercive space. I am neither cop nor criminal, and though I’m paid to be here, my presence is not compulsory. I could have canceled my trip for whatever reason and no one would have interrogated me; I wouldn’t have lost a dime.

But I want to be here. I fish my ID from the console and throw the swag chain from which it dangles over my head. Support Staff, it says, Teacher. I look at it and smirk. It wasn’t that long ago that I arrived by bus, handcuffed and shackled, to a place not unlike this one.

The curmudgeon at the front desk—I hear his name is Smitty—greets me indifferently, a “game face” that his job entails. He deals mainly with visitors, a group whose presence is ostensibly welcomed (ties to the community are considered reformatory) but tolerated tepidly. We wouldn’t want an inmate’s family to feel too comfortable here, wouldn’t want to acknowledge that the prisoners, who supposedly owe a debt to society, are deserving of empathy. He shouldn’t be here, and hence neither should you. It’s an industry where basic market principles don’t apply. Both the convict, who labors for thirty-three cents an hour, and his family, who pay myriad costs associated with a loved one behind bars, are treated poorly. It’s all coldness in plain view. Any warmth is somewhere beneath the surface.

As I sign the register, Smitty rummages through my bag, upending lesson plans and books. (He leafs through the books, just in case I’m attempting to smuggle in a rock hammer or bottle of booze.) I remove my belt, my hoodie, and my shoes so that I can pass successfully through the metal detector: just standard procedure that prison educators everywhere are expected to endure. It doesn’t bother us, though. If they find it difficult to believe that we’d be here with the best of intentions, then the ritual reflects positively on us. It’s like a test we never worry about failing.

I cut through the courtyard, where the oppressiveness of prison life becomes manifest: chain-link fencing with razor wire, armed guards, surveillance cameras, all the tools of deterrence. At this point I exchange my ID for a “house badge” and an antiquated key fob, which I clip to my belt loop. Though I activated the device once by accident (which I know because some officers did eventually respond), no inmate has ever lunged at me with a jailhouse shiv. It’s not even a concern. Statistically speaking, one is more likely to be wounded at Walmart.

*   *   *

In fall 2018, I taught ENG 1005, college writing. Some students had passed the prerequisite while others had simply “tested” into the course. Some had a high school diploma, others a GED. All of them had had spotty educations. Since I knew that the elements of the essay would be new to them, I employed analogues. Prewriting, outlining, and drafting would be analogous to putting up sheet rock, drywall, and scaffolding. (I had many more laborers than wordsmiths.) Macro features they could grasp easier than micro ones: why, for instance, should they put a comma in one place as opposed to another? I picked up the chalk and scrawled on the board: Let’s eat, Michael. “This,” I said, “is how you might ask a friend to lunch.”

Then I removed the comma. “Now that might not even be legal.”

So my strategy was simple: incorporate the themes with which they’re familiar, in ways that they’ll understand, and use that as a bridge to the written word. It was less about being a showman and more about finding points of intersection: conduits by which I could convey the material more effectively.

They could understand pauses and full stops, but not always where and when to deploy them. Short, staccato sentences lacking subjects or verbs were followed by boundless, comma-spliced run-ons. In his book Writers in Prison, Ioan Davies describes the “philosophy of prison” as the dialectic between finitude and infinity: “Prison becomes for the writer an arena in which the play of the world is acted out in a confined place.” Thus the fragments signify the writers’ entrapment, their resistance to being disciplinary subjects. Conversely, the run-ons reflect their escape, their lines of flight. From Fyodor Dostoyevsky to George Jackson, prison writers reject the limitation that the (simple) sentence imposes: reduction to a subject and a singular act. Often it was a regrettable crime of passion or desperation that landed them in jail. Who among us would want to be defined by the lowest point of our lives?

A colleague had urged me not to assign “personal” writing—advice I ignored. After two essays for which I’d instructed them to stick to the third person, I could sense that they were itching to express themselves, so I pulled the relief valve. Rough drafts were like geysers, the literary equivalent of those steam-roiling sewers; they were effusively telling and hardly ever showing.

One of my students, K, crafted a piece about the crime that led to his conviction: a shoot-out that had occurred on a basketball court. I told him that his writing had potential, but that I couldn’t see very much. “You have to paint the picture,” I said, “like Ice Cube.” (We had discovered earlier in the semester that we were both fans.) I reminded him of how the hip-hop artist would describe the scene lyrically. I even rattled off some G-rated rhymes, at which K smiled. “Haven’t heard that song in years,” he said.

His final draft was a cinematic work of creative nonfiction. Here it is, edited for space:

Only the players with the best skills stepped foot on the courts, lesser skilled players watched with envy from the side line, and then there was us. This one day in July there was maybe seven of us, and all eyes were on us, [due] to the laughing, joking, trash talking, and money flashing we were doing. To us this was our stage, and we enjoyed the attention our antics got us from the girls.

While we were showing off on the side line, there was an intense battle taking place on the court. At some point one of my boys strutted across the court, to get to us. At the same time a player was on a fast break, and in the blink of an eye collided with my boy, sending them both to the ground. An argument quickly began between the two. Insults and cuss words were spit like venom, and at some point the ball was kicked over the fence by one of us, at this point one of the players say “I’ll be back” (which is an insult where I come from).

As we cool our tempers, someone makes a joke. We turn our focus to the girls as if the incident never happened. As we calmly talk and joke, two of the players round the corner shooting, causing panic to break out. As shots are fired people are running for cover. I pull my own gun and return fire. I pay no attention to the chaos and screams around me. As we continue to exchange fire, they turn to flee and one falls. Now out of bullets, I run off in the opposite direction. Back at the court two people layed dead, an innocent girl and one of the shooters, and two others layed wounded. I was later arrested.

I’ve been in prison for two decades, for a stupid act. If I could go back and change that day, I would. Unfortunately life doesn’t grant do overs, so one must make every decision as if your life depends on it. Because it just might.

Note the final clause of first line: and then there was us. K was never pretending to be anything more than marginal, a societal afterthought for whom prison is a rite of passage and where image is everything. The piece reads almost like one of Jean Baudrillard’s simulations, wherein “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements.” Everyone appears to be affecting a persona: copying a film that copies real life that copies a song. Notice how all the “players” are equal parts arrogant and envious, ostentatious and uneasy, but always onstage. While we can’t excuse the violence, K seems entirely aware of the “veneer of consensus,” to borrow a phrase from sociologist Erving Goffman, facilitated by this group dynamic.

We know from the “age-crime curve” that violent offenses peak in the teenage years (when K committed his crime) and then drop off precipitously in the mid-twenties, when priorities change and peer influence becomes less of a factor. The young K had been being a gangbanger; through iterative action he had fashioned himself into a fiction, a doer grafted onto the deed. And now he’s a middle-aged man, earning an associate’s degree and hoping to reenter society, someday.

In spring 2019, I taught ENG 1010, basic comp. I had almost all the same students. (I had had to flunk only one; he tried to pass off, as his personal essay, an excerpt from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Points for audacity, I suppose.) There was, to my surprise, a budget set aside for books, so I ordered They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. Even though it was only community college, I would encourage my students to enter into academic discourse—as composition scholar David Bartholomae would say, invite them to “invent the university.”

This presented a number of challenges. The conventions of quotation, citation, and paraphrase would all be new to them, as would be the proper way to frame an argument. Opinions are abundant in the joint, but presenting a thesis and supporting it adequately with evidence—this would almost be anathema to their whole way of life. In prison, disputes are either avoided through segregation or settled with violence. “Shot callers” who serve as representatives may convene to resolve issues, but no one ever attempts to persuade by means of rhetorical appeal. Citing Aristotle in a jailhouse debate, impressive as it may sound, just might get you shanked in the shower.

It was time to up their game in terms of form, also, so I set aside separate units for punctuation and syntactical grace. This had largely to do with sentence variance; since newer writers tend to focus on content, their sentences are often stilted. But a straight lecture on the inseparability of form and content would sound a bit hoity-toity to these guys, so again, I leaned on hip-hop. I went to the board. I’m expressing with my full capabilities, and now I’m living in correctional facilities; because some don’t agree with how I do this, I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist. Then I rewrote the verse in another form. With my full capabilities, I’m expressing. And, because some don’t agree with how I do this, I’m now living in correctional facilities. I meditate like a Buddhist, get straight. Same wording, I pointed out.

“So why do you suppose Dr. Dre went with the first version and not the second?”

“Because,” K said, “the second one’s whack.”

He was right. Words are one thing, I explained, but so is a canoe. “If words are your canoe,” I said, “then form is your oar. You’ll never make it downriver if your oaring skills are whack.”

Nuance, I knew, would be challenging as well. Binary thinking is, unfortunately, predominant in the prison setting. (This is a feature, not a bug. The hierarchal structure is in place to reduce critical thinking—an oppression that my syllabus is designed, in part, to subvert.) I had them read essays that argued for and against trigger warnings in classrooms, whether or not the government should tax sugary beverages, and so forth. “Your next paper will be an analytical comparison of two authors who disagree,” I told them. I explained that they would be choosing a side but that I wanted them to try to entertain two possibilities. One: that they might both agree and disagree with a particular author. Two: that the author with whom they disagree might actually be making the better argument. Some issues were more controversial than others, like the gay marriage debate. Early drafts tended to fall into a familiar trap: students argued their own politics and failed to think critically about the arguments being made by the authors.

One student, though, came back swinging after a rocky first draft. I knew from his previous work that T was a particularly bright student, but his draft, while serviceable at the sentence level, ultimately failed. His thesis was unclear; his topic sentences were vague and unsupportable. I composed a very detailed set of notes, and his final draft was five handwritten pages. Some excerpts followed by my commentary should be sufficient to show how much his final draft improved:

America’s socio-political fire is burning hotter than ever, and few issues fuel the blaze like the debate on same-sex marriage. The debate is crowded with opinions that are as strong as they are varied; for more insight, let’s examine two contrasting articles: Katha Pollitt’s “What’s Wrong with Gay Marriage?” and Charles Colson’s “Gay Marriage: Societal Suicide.”

Katha Pollitt, a New York essayist and poet, is a regular columnist for The Nation. Pollitt begins her essay by clarifying her question, “Will someone please explain to me how permitting gays and lesbians to marry threatens the institution of marriage?” Pollitt then addresses three of the opposition’s most popular “answers”: procreation, the domestication of men, and the argument of “history.”

This time he had successfully introduced and summarized both articles before moving into his response. Because the assignment called for deductive reasoning, his thesis would not be stated overtly until the conclusion, but his deft use of form (particularly the scare quotes) provides a nice clue as to where he’s headed. His use of the semicolon is notable, too, since everyone seemed so flummoxed by it. I kept stressing that life is about more than just pauses and stops; it’s largely about how things are linked, and the spaces in between.

But back to T’s paper:

Katha Pollitt’s essay is based on logical appeal; she does not claim specific expertise, nor does she provide a great deal of data, but instead she uses logic to “debunk” her opposition’s points. (Indeed, her essay would mean very little if it omitted one or more strong arguments against gay marriage.) It is also worth noting that Pollitt’s sarcasm and humor border on condescending, and may indicate a sneaky presence of “strawman” tactics.

Charles Colson’s article is riddled with logical fallacies—his doomsday catastrophizing represents clear “slippery slope” reasoning; his ad populum preaching is designed to empower and motivate his “righteous” Christian audience; and his fear monger rhetoric and apparent ad hoc addiction are tools better lent to fascists and cult leaders. Worth noting: as a religious man, Colson is likely opposed to any and all homosexual activity, even when it has nothing to do with marriage.

The fact that T is on the right side of the issue is nice but beside the point (I assured my students that their personal opinions would have no bearing on their grades). One of the advantages of teaching in a prison is that you can see, clearly, the learning process manifesting on the page. Remember, these guys have a high school diploma at best, no access to the internet, and (like most prisoners) a woefully understocked library. They spend most of their time in their cells.

As teachers on campus, we can’t always parse out the influence we have from the student’s own orbit, but as prison educators we have a pretty good idea. No handheld devices, no social media, no consumer distractions—T was a student who just hunkered down in his cell with the handouts I’d given him and, as Bartholomae would say, learned to “speak our language . . . to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.” Logical fallacies and appeals of argument were entirely new to T, and to see him deploying them with such confidence and precision, from one draft to the next, was immensely rewarding.

So that’s why I go to prison every week. For students like K and T, who want to improve and are willing to engage, the learning curve is nothing short of amazing.

K and T are very different writers, but what they share is the desire to clear out a space where their voices can be heard. Like all of us, they’re trapped inside the prison of language, but there’s simply more at stake for writer-prisoners. If they don’t pass my course, they won’t earn their “good time” toward early release, but that, I believe, is just part of the equation. Incarcerated students are struggling against institutional oppression, stigmatization, and being made into a “case.”

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argues that the “delinquent” is a construct, conjured not by society but by the prison apparatus. We then use the delinquent as a learning tool, so that we can codify what it means to be aberrant: “The analysis is slender . . . but it reveals quite clearly the principle that delinquency must be specified in terms not so much of the law as of the norm.” While the offense itself may serve as a pretext for criminality, delinquency is defined by its distance from societal norms. Not only have we locked these men and women away behind bars but, according to Foucault, we’ve cast them into a “confused hell” from which “there is no outside.”

Branded a deviant, forever having to check the “felon box” on job applications—the convict cannot escape the legal codes. But since all prisoners have been, from the beginning, presupposed as “objects of knowledge”—since they’re supposed to be teaching us—it would seem, as Foucault suggests, that we have an obligation to educate them. And not just for their sake—for the sake of society.

Up to this point, I have labored to avoid turning this into yet another didactic, statistic-laden prison-reform screed. But here’s the bottom line. Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated will one day return to society, roughly six hundred thousand a year. Nearly two-thirds will recidivate. The exception is with inmates who enroll in any type of educational program while incarcerated. Here the recidivism rate drops by over 40 percent, according to research by the RAND Corporation. The same research indicates that these programs serve to ameliorate ancillary damages wrought by the cycle of recidivism: children of ex-inmates are less likely to offend, families remain intact, employment is maintained, and so on.

Pell Grants for prisoners were banned in 1994, all but eliminating their access to postsecondary education. If the First Step Act lives up to its name, these grants may be reinstated, but for now prison college remains scantly funded, with charities and foundations largely footing the bill. It would be as though the medical community had developed a treatment that prevented cancerous cells from metastasizing in nearly half of all reported cases—and then decided, inexplicably, to neglect it.

*   *   *

Class is over. An officer buzzes me out the door and into the yard, the only area of the prison with no discernible hierarchy. The men stumble about like nomads on the march. Some linger. I see two leaning on laundry carts, probably wishing that they could smoke, and I decide to approach them.

“What’s your favorite prison movie?” I ask. They smile. We engage jocularly for maybe a minute, debating the merits of The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, until a corrections officer interrupts the fun. “That’s enough,” he says, motioning for me to move on. I can see that I’ve transgressed, a sensation with which I’m hardly unfamiliar. As I walk past the guard, he says to me, loud enough for the men to hear, “Don’t talk to them.”

If that guard had known that I, myself, had once worn a jailhouse jumpsuit, would that have made a difference? Not likely, I imagine.

Then I remember K’s essay, the final clause of the first line: and then there was us. I think about the unbridgeable distance between K’s “us” and the guard’s “them,” and I find myself feeling sorry for the guard; he misses the point entirely.

We are them.

James Ferry teaches writing and rhetoric courses at both the University of Rhode Island and the Community College of Rhode Island. Upon finishing his PhD, he hopes to make prison education the focal point of his academic career. His email address is [email protected].