Good Morning, Class of '64
Another Day with Larry
Crime and punishment can be
summed up in two classifications:
there are bad people and there are
people who get into bad situations.
The lines for liberation and rehabilitation
should first begin with the people who
get into bad situations.
Johnnie Dent, Jr.
Bureau of Prisons
I had not decided what I wanted to do with my life when I returned from the Army. I was pretty sure I did not want to teach Vocational Agriculture in the public schools. Since I returned in November, I had plenty of time to decide before the next school year.
I took a job in a service station. I probably learned more in the 14 months I worked there than in the five years I spent in college. I learned how tough it is to work with the public. I discovered that the most successful people are much more likely to respect and treat with courtesy those who serve them than less successful people do. We had some rather wealthy customers and some West Virginia University professors who were a delight to serve. The WVU head football coach, Bobby Bowden, treated us as equals. Other customers made us want to hide.
While I was there, a customer came in to pick up his car one evening. There was a problem with it, and as I corrected it, I engaged him in conversation to try to keep him from getting too upset. He was an assistant supervisor of education at the then-called Kennedy Youth Center. I told him about my degree in education, and he invited me to the institution to look it over. When I took him up on the invitation, I was warmly received. They assigned an inmate to show me around. I asked him a lot of questions; he was pretty positive about the education department.
Many of the teachers welcomed me and explained their programs to me. They seemed proud of what they were doing. They were using a term new to me - Performance Objectives. I soon learned that P. O.’s as they called them and what Dr. Sheldon Baker had taught as Behavioral Objectives were the same. All real teaching is based on behavioral objectives, but the public education system pays lip service to them. I was sold. It took over six months to get hired, but it was worth it.
When I started work in 1974, there was a really strong family feeling among the staff. I have never felt so much a part of a group dedicated to doing the job right. It was a special place to work. With increased inmate population and increased staff along with staff turnover, we lost much of that closeness. But we never lost it all; working there was always special.
Our students had all experienced failure in education. Some had flunked out, some had dropped out, and some had been kicked out. (A very, very few had quit school to support their family.) We had a 100% failure rate from the beginning. I had three strikes against me with new inmates. First, I represented the pooe-leece (their pronunciation). Second, I was white - my classes averaged 75 to 90% minority at any given time. Most were Blacks, but a few Hispanics, South Americans, and American Indians were included. Third, I represented school, a place where most inmates had experienced only failure. After failing repeatedly in public school, he gets in trouble, is sentenced to federal prison, and is ordered to go to school.
Many came in with a chip on their shoulder - “I don’t need this bull----! I was doing good on the street!” Before I could teach the inmate, I had to convince him that I cared about his succeeding. I did that by getting into his face and being confrontational - “Sure, you were doing great on the street, so great you’re locked up in federal prison!” It was painful and emotionally tiring, but it worked for me. It created stress; that’s one reason I retired at age 50. It is also a reason I am perfectly content to stay at home most of the time; I do like my peace and quiet.
I cannot be sure how effective I was. I did keep the inmates occupied helping to keep them out of trouble so I fulfilled my correctional mission. If I influenced or helped even one inmate to clean up his life and become a productive, tax-paying citizen rather than doing life on the installment plan, America got a big return on my salary. I hope I did.
I quickly learned that there are three groups of inmates in a prison. One group will never change. They are already doing life on the installment plan. Another group will make it on the streets no matter what the prison does. We can give them tools to make it easier, but they have already made the decision to succeed. The third group lies somewhere in the middle. They can be influenced; in fact, they are influenced by their prison experience, some positively and some negatively. The real challenge is that we can never be sure which group an inmate is in. We have to treat all inmates as if they can be influenced. That makes the job harder and more stressful and makes the failures more painful.
Education in a prison has more of a correctional purpose than a rehabilitative one. Rehabilitation can only come from within - the inmate does it himself. The best the prison can do is give him some tools. Our prisons are for punishment and separation of offenders from the rest of society not rehabilitation. The correctional purpose of education is the same as that of recreation and work assignments - to keep the inmates busy. It is cheaper and more humane to hire teachers, build recreational facilities, and provide meaningful jobs or even make-work jobs than to build cell blocks, hire more guards, and patch busted heads. We are not coddling inmates with these programs - we are managing them as economically as possible. Any rehabilitative benefits from education is a welcome bonus.
Teaching in a prison is a wonderful opportunity for a good teacher. When I closed my classroom door, the warden, the associate wardens, the captain, and the department heads did not know, or care, what happened in that room. As long as I produced a reasonable number of class completions and there was no blood on the floor, I was on my own. I could, and did, design my program any way I chose. I could teach it the way I wanted. I could try the wildest things, and I did. I could be as good, or as bad, as I chose. Lazy teachers in a prison continue to be lazy - it’s easier. Poor teachers remain poor teachers - it’s easy. But good teachers can become great teachers. It is a wonderful place to teach.
Unfortunately, too many prison educators never try to understand where they are working. In a prison, custody and corrections are central; the entire prison revolves around that. Too many educators believe that the prison revolves around them. Teachers generally have a well-deserved poor reputation in a prison. All too many think they are the elite in the prison. I learned quickly that I would not have a clean, safe, comfortable classroom if the correctional officers were not doing their jobs. I tried hard to support them. I respected them and their work; in fact, I was more like them than I was like other teachers.
I received two compliments that I can never forget while working in the prison. A correctional officer, perhaps the best I’ve ever known, said to me, “You’re the best correctional officer in that school.” It doesn’t get much better than that. One of my students came out with another. I had taught a unit in writing skills, and the class was doing a practice worksheet on the unit. Suddenly an inmate said, “Mr. See, you actually think us dumb SOB’s can do this stuff.” Success! Much of my time was spent trying to convince the inmates that I did believe that they could succeed.
In addition to teaching, I was fortunate to do quite a bit of staff training. I taught firearms to staff for nine years, about eleven or twelve days per year. I also taught interpersonal communications, security, hostage survival, and riot squad training. I even commanded a riot squad for two or three years. We were required to have 40 hours of refresher training each year. Working in training was a great experience; I got acquainted with many people who had been only a name and voice on the phone. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
People who have no experience in prisons have two questions, questions I have answered dozens of times. The first is, “What are they (the inmates) like?” The answer is that they are people, people who grew up in your community and who will be coming back to your community. Some are good, some are bad, and most have some good and some bad in them, pretty much like you and me.
The second question is “Aren’t you afraid?” Not once in 22 years. We had some dangerous inmates, but we had well-trained, competent, professional back-up close-by. I would be much more afraid in a public high school. We have written so many silly laws and rules that a public school teacher cannot defend himself from an assault by a student without getting in trouble. I certainly would have no confidence in having good back-up in a public school if the worst happened. Our public schools are the only place in America where a citizen cannot even defend himself.
By the way, low-security prisons are more challenging than high security ones. We had several staff transfer in from higher security prisons. Most had trouble adjusting; many did not stay long. Conversely, we sent many staff to other prisons - most did very well. The difference is simple. Our best restraints were not cells and bars. Our “restraints” were our ability to out-think and out-talk the inmates. If that is your best tool, you have to learn it quickly. Once you learn that, you can work effectively in any prison.
Working in a prison is a fun job. It can be exasperating, it can be stressful, it can be disgusting, and it can be hilarious. But it is never boring. Once you experience it, no other job will ever measure up.
The best part was the staff. Wardens and administrators are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often mediocre. They come and go - few line staff are much affected by them. But the line staff stay. The line staff keep the prison going. We talked a lot about being a family; much of the time we were. We grew to love each other. Sometimes that love went too far; I saw a few good marriages break up. But I also saw at least one great marriage start there.
The nature of the work requires an intimacy found only in the military and law enforcement organizations. If I made a mistake at noon on Monday, by Tuesday morning everyone there, staff and inmates, knew about it. We had to depend on each other just like a family. It was a special job working with special people.
It is interesting that women, who made up about 10% of the staff, were, on the whole, higher caliber than the men. It takes a very special woman to be successful and happy working in an all-male prison. Most of our ladies were special, really quality people.
I most appreciated the ladies who were confident enough to dress attractively letting their femininity show. That is important in a male prison; it reminds the inmates of the finer things in life and gives them more incentive to stay out of trouble and get back to the street. A well-groomed feminine lady who conducts herself in a professional manner raises the entire tone of communication with the inmates. The inmates show her respect, and some of that carries over to other communications.
I could never have been as happy in any other job. I doubt that I would have been as effective in any other job. I would not have had the privilege and joy of working with so many high-caliber professionals elsewhere. For me, it was the perfect job.