Imagine your perspective if you are the one who is incarcerated: You have done something terrible to others and fully deserve it. You may have grown up “on the streets” or may have had a good life that you threw away because of some terrible choices. You are now stuck behind bars. You want to change but everything around you prevents it. Everywhere you look there is rampant corruption. You feel like you are living in a cesspool. Every day you worry that you will anger the wrong person, inmate or guard. Every day you wonder if this will be the day that you are beat up or thrown in Special Management Unit (SMU, a secure holding cell), sent to a county jail or worse. Every time you dare think you can change and make the attempt to do so, the reality of where you are, and all the obstacles, including the “system” are staring you down.
Imagine you are a guard: getting up every day with no hope. Imagine going to work every day knowing full well that the environment where you are going is hopeless and meaningless. In the beginning you had hope. You are charged to guard inmates. You imagined you could make a difference. You thought that you could help. After a short time, however, you realized that the system and the environment are too overwhelming to do anything positive. Every time you try, you run into a roadblock within the system. You are criticized for trying to create meaningful change. You are told that it won’t make a difference. You are told that those you wanted to help don’t deserve it. You are considered a traitor because of the “us vs them” attitude that prevails at your work place. You are stuck in a job that provides little in the way of positive outcome for you or for the people you are supposed to be serving. You spend your day in boredom.
Now imagine my perspective as an educator and seeing 1,500 students who need help, lots of help. Many of these students made grave mistakes. Most have done serious damage to someone or something. Many were remorseful but saw no clear path to correcting their behavior. In fact, they are living in a world that encourages and develops criminal behavior. Imagine being there with your “students” and having your hands tied. Your responsibility to help is real. However, because of a broken system, you are not allowed to do anything positive. You come every day to work with 200 students who are mostly passive. You know full well that there are many, many more out there who need your help, though they may not want it. Your predecessors told you that you would have nothing to do, that you would spend your days reading the paper and standing in the hall during “movement” of prisoners between classes. They advised you to keep your door closed so as to not invite the “students” in.
Imagine, through either providence or sheer dumb luck, that, you as an educator, find your way to help all these parties see a better path. In your daily interaction with these “students” and their jailors, as well as your faculty and staff – eliciting the help of all – you are able to see the many flaws in the current system and develop a program that, in a small way, opens the path and opportunity of growth for many of them. Imagine a grown man, 58 years old, standing in the doorway of your office pitching a fit because he had to come to school. Then imagine him two and a half years later as he stands in the same doorway, this time in tears, thanking you and your staff for the opportunity of learning. For the first time in his life he felt he has hope for the future. Imagine an officer, who at the beginning of your tenure, was critical and mocking as you started to try to make change. Now he comes to see you before you retire, thanking you for the positive effect the changes have had on those with whom he worked, as well as on himself. He was dreading the “next 15 years” but now comes to work with hope and a vision.
This is an account of how our group of teachers, inmates and some Corrections staff, over the course of eight years, effected real change inside the Gunnison prison (CUCF).