7 Lessons I Learned from Volunteering in Prison

I'll never forget the first time I went to prison. The officer's words, "If you ain't scared then you probably shouldn't be here right now!" still ring clear in my head. What was I, a black 19-year-old female college student, doing inside an all-male correctional facility? Everyone I had told about my volunteering had been skeptical. Why do you want to help convicted criminals? I thought being part of the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, a program that runs outs of Princeton University and takes community and student volunteers to local state prisons to tutor young men getting their high school diplomas or GED, would allow me to better understand the realities of being incarcerated. Whole volunteering in prison, I learned some important lessons about prison and myself. A lot of what I experienced saddened me, but some things also gave me hope.

1. Be Tough. The Men Are Going to Look. Being a female in an all-male facility is hard. You have to find ways to mentally diffuse the catcalls, smiles, stares, and frantic waves of men you don't know. For many, I'm the only young woman (or female) besides a correctional officer or prison administrator they've seen or interacted with in months or even years. It's not for everybody, but if you are going to volunteer as a female, you have to find a way to be mentally okay with the fact that the male inmates are going to look at you. However, that didn't mean I allowed students to disrespect me or engage in inappropriate conversation. Some female volunteers I knew over the years couldn't handle this and left the program, but I knew that I had to overcome this in order to be an effective tutor and continue the work.

2. Knowing a little slang doesn't hurt. Sometimes you have to speak the language of those with whom you are interacting. I couldn't first go into a classroom with students of varying levels and talk to them using language they didn't understand. I had to learn how to break simple concepts into understandable chunks of information. I even started to learn prison lingo. The students appreciated that I made an effort to "understand them" and they could "understand me." I changed outdated lessons plans to ones that were more effective ways of teaching. Being a girl from an urban community, I understood a lot of the slang they used in side conversations and had no problem interrupting letting them know that I did not appreciate foul talking in the classroom. My students knew I was not afraid to "put them in their place" and they respected me for this. I barely had problems controlling behavior in my class.

3. Everyone Has a Story. During one of my creative writing classes, I had students respond to the prompt "Tell me about the moment that changed your life." Some stories were comical, odes to a long lost childhood, while others were much sadder. One student stood in front of the class and told us how he helped save a young father and baby's life after their car crashed into his front stoop during the middle of the night. He had taken a lot of time to get the details right and the nervousness and emotion in his voice as he read the story to the class moved the entire room. He showed vulnerability in a place where that usually is not accepted. We sometimes stereotype individuals incarcerated as being bad people and not capable of deserving empathy. This young man's story was simple, but yet filled with such a desire for life and compassion for humankind, that I don't think I'll ever forget it. I looked around the room into the eyes of the inmates and realized that there were so many more stories similar to his that existed in the room. Who would ever get the chance to hear them?

4. The Revolving Door Isn't a Myth. One day a teacher that I didn't directly work with pulled me aside to ask a random question. I ended up asking her how long she had been a prison educator. She responded telling me that she started off working in juvenile facilities, but later moved to adult corrections. She said that many of the men she now teaches were once her students back when they were 10 and 11. To me, this shows the problem within our system. How is it that so many young men are being funneled from juvenile to adult facilities? How can we make the system better so little boys (and girls) that find themselves in trouble at a young age don't have to find themselves back in the system as adults?

5. Education Saves Lives. A recent RAND study showed that education and vocational training in prisons reduces recidivism and improves future job prospects. I was so surprised by the low levels of academic achievement I witnessed. Many students could barely read or do simple math. I knew that allowing inmates to be in programs that helped them get an education would be instrumental to their future. Gaining a high school diploma would allow these men to be more competitive in the job market when returning to their community. It also allows them to continue on toward postsecondary education, hopefully creating better lives for themselves and their families. Plus, the look of joy on an inmate's face when he gets his high school diploma is priceless.

6. Mentorship is Important. The mentorship that comes from tutor-volunteer relationships is essential. Individuals behind bars need personal championing, positive role models, and motivators. A lot of students told me that they didn't have anyone in their lives that could really help them with the "education thing." One inmate, who was to be released in a week, relayed that he was "scared as shit" about going home because he thought he would get mixed up in the wrong crowd. I remember telling him to be strong and stay focused. As much as the volunteers were there for an educational purpose, I believe that our presence was consoling to inmates who have been excluded from normal life for so long. Nonacademic supports and reentry services are critical to making sure offenders don't recidivate. Volunteering allows inmates to ask questions and get answers from peers who aren't fellow inmates. This type of socialization and cognitive stimulation matters.

7. Race Matters. In many instances, inmates of color have told me that they look up to me. Some have said that they don't personally know any black person who went to an Ivy League school and hoped one day their daughters could accomplish as much as I have. They encouraged me "to stay out of trouble" and to "keep working on being the next Oprah." I think what really resonated with them was that I came from a community in New Jersey that is not recognized for its educational successes, but more for its criminal activity and economic fails. Though I know they appreciated the other tutors, I think that the color of my skin signaled something to the young men I tutored. I was able to plant little seeds of hope, and likewise they did the same for me.

"Ms, C -- thank you for spending your Fridays with us. You really didn't have to. I wouldn't if I was you, but I'm sure glad you do!" one student told me during one of my last volunteer sessions. His words struck me. Though convicted of crimes and labeled "felons," I tried to treat each inmate I encountered as an individual. As Michelle Alexander says in her book The New Jim Crow,"the fate of millions of people -- indeed the future of the black community itself -- may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society." We young people have to start speaking out more about these injustices that affect our communities and find ways to create change that matters.

Would you volunteer in prison? Why or why not?

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