Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series about experiences faculty, staff, and students have had working with the Georgia State University Prison Education Project (GSUPEP). You can learn more about the project at their website (https://perimeter.gsu.edu/gsupep/)
by Barbara J. Hall (firstname.lastname@example.org)
So, it surprised me – that I was nervous – that first day, entering the Atlanta Youth Development Center near College Park, 20 miles outside of I-285. Me, a veteran teacher who had been through GSUPEP training sessions, prep talks, online orientations – feeling as prepared as I could be. However, passing through the barbed wire fences, electric gates, sign-in stations, body scanners – and having my book bag of class materials checked thoroughly – was what I had anticipated. It was the going through six locked doors with the Education Coordinator, Ms H and the Assistant Superintendent Mr Z, and the presence of five or six security guards at every turn that made me wonder: was I really cut out for this? Could I offer these young men something worthwhile? Would they see right through me, see me as the novice?
When we reached our final destination – a spacious and well-lit classroom (not unlike the college classroom I have at Clarkston, only with fewer desks), seven multi-colored young men sat before me: Dalton, Derrick, Reid, Jaheim, Alex, Marvin, Keith – ages ranging from 17 to 21, – and their classroom teacher greeted me warmly. No orange uniforms, but blue polo shirts with navy blue pants and belts. Looked like I was teaching at a prep school.
I dressed like a nun (well, almost). Turtleneck, long sleeves, loose-fitting pants. Mistake #1: my first class, and I could not stop sweating!
Because the ENGL 1101 class I was designated to teach for Spring 2019 got postponed, I was brought in to do some supplementary instruction, academic workshops to prepare the group for college/tech schools/careers. Mistake # 2: handouts with staples. It took me five minutes, just to unstaple the materials, which were a few articles, some info on core curriculum, choices for them when they get “released.” Of course, I did not know when they might be released, nor could I ask.
I thought of all the writing topics I could not use: Write about a mistake you have done in the past and what you learned from it. Write about something in your past that you would do differently now. Write about someone who influenced you in a negative way and how this changed you.
But the future – oh, yes. That could work: Where do you see yourself five years from now? What career are you hoping to do in the future and why?
The next class I came with some new articles: more choices and more specialized pathways. “I want to be a business man,” Reid said. “I want to be a psychiatrist. Know how many years I need to go to school for that?” Alex asked. “I just plan to join the Marines, when I get out,” Marvin said, looking down. “I’m going to a cookin’ school,” said Dalton, “Know of any in Florida?” “Motorcycle maintenance is what I’m doin’ ” said Keith, “Where I go for that?” Yes, I was a novice – so many questions I couldn’t answer, and yes, Mistake #3: paperclips on articles – they were not allowed either.
I drove the 45 minutes back to campus, not turning Sirius radio on and almost blindly traveling I-285, and all I could think of was the faces of these young men, eagerly looking forward, to the road ahead.
The Georgia State University Prison Education Project seeks to bring higher education into prisons, support reentry into society by those who have been incarcerated and reduce recidivism. GSUPEP offers support and opportunity to incarcerated students to promote lifelong learning that strengthens human character, increases understanding of life experiences and motivates students to engage in productive citizenship.You can learn more about their work at https://perimeter.gsu.edu/gsupep/