Lessons in Lock-Up: What It’s Really Like to Teach in Prison

If you’re a fan of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), you may have been shocked by inmate Taystee’s abrupt return to Litchfield Correctional just three episodes after her release. However, if you’ve worked in the education department of a correctional facility, you’re more than familiar with “bounce-backs,” or as Alice*, a teacher who has worked at three correctional facilities for almost 20 years correctly calls it, “recidivism.”

Teachers like Alice* understand the importance of recidivism, or inmate returns, because it’s the reason their jobs make a difference.

According to a 2013 RAND study , correctional education reduces recidivism by 43 percent. Correctional education includes teaching for tests such as the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion) that Alice does in her classroom. It also includes the vocational training that Piper and Nicky do in Litchfield’s electrical department on OITNB. These jobs matter.

RAND also found that prison education programs increase prisoner employment rates by 13 percent. That number jumps to 28 percent when speaking specifically to vocational training — training that may have helped Taystee when she left Litchfield and found herself out of options.

To put those results in numbers:

  • Prisoner education costs between $1,400-$1,744 per inmate.
  • Prisons themselves save up to $9,700 in re-incarceration costs for each inmate enrolled in correctional education.

When you multiply those savings by the 40 inmates in Alice’s classroom, you see how quickly the value of her work adds up.

With taxpayer dollars at stake, there is an obvious need for teachers in the prison systems. However, many qualified educations do not realize that correctional education is an option. Alice jokes,

“I don’t know any teachers who went to college thinking they were going to end up in jail.”

However, with the field of correctional education offering good job security, pay and benefits — not to mention freedom from merit-based teacher assessments — teaching in the prison system may be a viable option to consider.

We spoke with Alice, a public and private middle school teacher who spent the past 20 years of her career working in an unlikely place: three medium security prisons. Here’s what she had to say about her experience teaching in the prison system.

Q: What is your teaching background and areas of certification?

I have a bachelor’s [degree] and a Master of Education in Curriculum. I taught in public and private schools for seven years, and then was hired by the state correctional facility to prepare inmates to take (and hopefully pass) their high school equivalency exams, [such as the TASC or GED.]

Q: What made you switch from teaching middle school to teaching in a correctional facility?

For one thing, it is a safe job — good positions, great benefits and better pay. I had been previously working for a private school, and was being paid about half of what the state offered me to teach in the prison system.

Q: What type of prison do you work in?

I’ve worked in three different prisons, and they have all been medium-security. Each facility is tailored for different inmates’ needs, or for the types of programs they have access to.

Q: Why might someone prefer to teach in the corrections facility? Why do you?

Some individuals find that they prefer working with adult students. For me, I’ve found that many [adult] students are very agreeable to school from the beginnings. Most of them, at some point, feel that education is relevant and important to them and their future. Many of [my students] have children, and oftentimes feel ashamed that they don’t have basic skills. They feel very proud that they can go home and help their kids with schoolwork. Teachers use that as a motivator for them.

Q: Aside from passing the equivalency exam, what do you feel is the immediate goal of prison education?

Research has shown that there is a significant drop in recidivism depending on an inmate’s level of education. That doesn’t mean that they won’t go back to jail, but it does mean that if they go home with an education, there’s less [of a chance] that they’ll find themselves back here.

One major issue with today’s education is that [teachers] are so busy trying to cram facts into students’ heads that we forget to tell them why we learn these things, explain why they’re important in the long run.

Q: When you first made the switch to correctional education what was the biggest difference?

[In a traditional classroom], it’s important for teachers to develop a rapport, and in most cases, a personal rapport is possible. Teachers may have a picture of their family on their desk, or talk about their family [to their students]. In a prison setting, you don’t do that. You develop a rapport, but it stays within the curriculum. It’s not personal.

Q: What about access to classroom materials? How does that differ?

For security purposes, we don’t have the same technology — it’s very limited. When I worked in elementary schools, I thought nothing of bringing in materials to use in the classroom. Anything I thought I could use to enhance instruction, I’d bring it in without a second thought. When you work in a correctional facility, everything has to be cleared by security, and you can only have it for a finite amount of time. Everything that comes in has to come back out.

Q: Has your style of teaching changed? What has stayed the same?

I still approach the subject matter the same way, using the same tricks of the trade. However, in public school, teachers are very hands on (roaming around the classroom, giving students high fives), while teachers in a prison setting feel more comfortable teaching from behind their desks, letting their students come to them. I do all of my teaching from the front of the classroom, and if a student needs assistance, they come to me.

Teachers are, by nature, the type of people who like to help people, and they’re very involved in their subject matter. So there is an adjustment in having to hold yourself back and become accustomed to working in a different type of teaching (and learning) environment. But often times you find the students are much the same.

Q: Was it difficult adjusting to a new classroom environment?

My first day, I went in very apprehensive, but the curriculum is the same. Math is math and writing is writing, no matter where you’re teaching or to whom you are teaching. You have the same academic needs and idiosyncrasies that you have with children in the public school systems.

Q: What advice can you offer to someone who’s contemplating teaching in the prison system?

As far as qualifications, you must be a fully certified teacher — just as in a public school system — and you must have a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

[In terms of breaking into the career], teaching in the corrections system is a 10-month position. During the summer months, some teachers opt to not teach. Often times this is how many correctional education teachers get started — by making connections and working a summer term in a facility. Summer programs are modified school year programs. For those who are interested in a career in corrections education, I would suggest contacting your local facility and speaking with the education supervisor. See if you can schedule a meeting or visit the facility itself; speak with the teachers and supervisors, get a feel for it.

Q: What are some common misconceptions of teaching in the prison system?

A corrections classroom is much like a classroom you’d see in any school: same desks, tables, and textbooks. Some have chalkboards, some have smart boards — the usual amenities. People seem to be shocked that they are so similar! [Another misconception] is that academics are not the only things that are taught. There are also vocational programs where students can learn skills in fields such as mechanics, electrical and plumbing. Anything you can imagine in a vocational school setting, there are probably classes for that in the correctional system as well.

The focus is to have our students leave as successful adults.

Q: Would you say teaching in corrections changed your worldview?

I’ve learned to become a better teacher, for one thing, because I always try to keep in mind that if I were sitting in that seat, and I was told to do assignments, [I’d need to know why what I’m learning] is important, and that it is important. I try to express that to my students.

Q: You’ve worked in prisons for almost 20 years. What’s an experience that shaped your work?

I remember I was working with a student years back — a young man, and he was exceptionally good with math, but had a terrible time with reading. We were working together at my desk, and at one point, and I meant this sincerely, I said, “You’re very smart.” He looked at me and said that no one had ever told him that before.

That was a real turning point for my career. So I try always to remember that one student and reflect that in how I teach. When you’re proud of [a student’s] accomplishments in anything it’s very important to tell them.

Are you interested in an alternative teaching position? Learn more about how to become a teacher, and visit the U.S. Department of Education’s resources for Adult Education and Literacy for more information on teaching in the corrections system

Post by Cathy Vandewater