Behind the Razor Wire

Helping prisoners learn despite the barriers

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Like so many teachers, I spent much of my first day on the job asking myself, “What am I doing here?” But it was more than the usual first-day jitters. The school where I teach, Rosewood High School, is patrolled by armed guards and is located behind fences and razor wire on Rikers Island, a complex of grimy city prisons adjacent to noisy LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y. It is one of three high schools on the island, but the only one for women. The students are either awaiting trial or serving sentences of up to one year.

To get to my classroom that day, I had to go through three checkpoints—one on “the mainland,” one after I had crossed a three-mile bridge to the island, and one outside the parking lot—where guards stopped me to make sure I wasn't bringing in guns or other contraband. Then I rode a bus to the locked iron gates of the prison, where I handed over my board of education ID and received another one from the corrections department, which I clamped on my shirt. Finally, I passed through a double set of locked doors leading into the school. The whole process took half an hour. When it was time to go home, I followed the same procedure in reverse.

While I tried to teach, prison officials barked announcements over the intercom, and guards continually interrupted my class to count inmates. But worst of all was the never-ending roar of jumbo jets taking off right over our heads, making sustained conversation, and sometimes thought, impossible. There was no disturbance that day. If there had been, I would have been locked in the school with the inmates for hours.

Almost two years later, the conditions at Rosewood haven't changed, but now I know the answer to the question I asked myself that first day. When you help a student who wants to learn, or reach a troublemaker who has the cards stacked against her, the inner rewards are clear, immediate, and immeasurable.

That feeling of accomplishment doesn't come easily. Rosewood's goal is to prepare students for a general equivalency diploma, but that is a tough task when within any one class your students' abilities range from the prekindergarten to 12th grade levels. Instruction must be individualized because group learning is next to impossible. Finding appropriate materials is difficult at best.

I am the resource-room teacher, and I usually have five students each period. But since inmates are often called into court, released, or transferred to another prison, I am never sure who will be in my class from one day to the next. I focus on reading and mathematics, but my two main objectives are to motivate students to attend class and learn, and to help them relate in a normal way to the outside world. Fostering hope, bolstering students' self-esteem, and helping them overcome negative feelings about past failures in school often take precedence over academics.

Take my experience with Anne, a 26-year-old student. While she was growing up, Anne's father constantly abused and sexually assaulted her. He kept her out of school, fearing that officials might discover what he had been doing. She is now married and has eight children—seven of them by her father. After much testing, I determined that Anne's abilities were on a prekindergarten level and that she was possibly mentally retarded. She did not comprehend why she was in jail. Unaware of what she was doing, she had dropped a match into a hospital garbage can and started a fire. She was charged with arson and was awaiting trial.

Because Anne lacked basic hygienic skills, my primary objectives became teaching her personal hygiene and family care. I used a hands-on approach and brought the necessary tools for demonstration: soap, deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and shampoo. Throughout her two-month stay, she moved slowly and painfully from one step to the next, driven by a desire to become a better and more responsible parent. Her greatest fear was losing her children.

I also set two simple academic objectives for her—writing her name and writing her address. The most effective approach was to help her trace the letters and numbers. First Anne felt letters with her fingers and repeated aloud the letter's name. But when she tried to trace the letters by connecting broken line patterns, she couldn't do it—a painful experience for us both.

We kept on. After five weeks, she finally traced the letter patterns unaided. Her personal hygiene improved noticeably, and she caused fewer disturbances in class. But she still struggled to retain what she had learned.

During our seventh week, I learned that Anne had been found incompetent to stand trial and would soon be released. Our work became more intense, and finally something clicked. Anne traced her entire first name. I developed lessons in which the patterns of broken letters became sketchier; she was able to complete them. Then she copied the complete letters below the pattern.

Because of her strong determination, I worked with her every free moment I had. During that last week, Anne wrote her name without any assistance. Although she continued to have difficulty verbalizing her address, she managed to copy it on a slip of paper in case she ever needed it.

Then it was graduation time. We gave Anne a certificate she truly deserved for improving her skills. It was the first time she had ever succeeded at anything. The faculty members were all aware of her painful progress, and when she was called to receive her award during the ceremonies, the entire staff gave her a standing ovation.

So when I wonder, as I often do, why I continue to run the daily gauntlet and struggle with the problems of teaching at Rosewood High School, I think of my experience with Anne. Small triumphs like hers (and mine, in that case) are the answer.

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 8-9

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