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 don’t really know what made me sign up to be part of 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. “You have to be aware of everything in here. If you are not scared, then you aren’t being aware,” uttered the guard that very first day.  As the years went by, I came to understand how aware one can be as part of the civilian population behind bars. I saw so many things that saddened and discouraged me. I also saw things that sparked my curiosity and brought joy and encouragement.

1. Be Tough. They are Going to Look. Being a female in an all male facility is hard. You have to become used to the pointed stares of inmates. You have to find ways to mentally diffuse the catcalls, smiles, and frantic waves of men you don’t know. Though I experienced awkward glances and stares every time I went to prison, I didn’t view it as sexual harassment. I knew that many of the inmates were probably thinking about me in ways I wouldn’t reciprocate, but in some ways they are creatures of their environment. 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 this. I did not allow students to disrespect me or engage in inappropriate conversation. The inmates I tutored knew that one bad report could lead them to lockup, so they never pushed it too far. For the most part, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Most knew not to ask me personal information. As a volunteer, you have to learn how to not divulge information that could compromise your safety. Some volunteers I knew over the years couldn’t handle this, but I knew what my purpose was and did not allow this to bother me.

2. Adaptation is Key… knowing a little slang doesn’t hurt. One of the things I learned early on is that sometimes you have to speak the language of those with whom you are interacting. I couldn’t go into a classroom with students of varying levels and talk to all of them as I would my professors at Princeton. I had to learn how to break simple concepts understandable chunks of information. I even started to learn prison lingo. The students appreciated that I could “understand them” and they could “understand me.” I changed outdated lessons plans to ones that were more effective ways of teaching. When needed, I broke into slang to let them know that I understood their side whispers and did not appreciate foul talking in the classroom. I think that my students respected me for this. As much as I was there to teach them, I was also there to learn. I didn’t come to “stand out”, but I came to help make them feel comfortable, so that in turn, they found education appealing and worthwhile.

3. Everyone Has a Story. During one of my last semesters, I taught writing. One day 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, in particular, stood out. A rather boastful guy (as I knew him) 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.

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 was 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…but Mentorship is Important. A recent RAND study showed that education and vocational training in prisons reduces recidivism and improves future job prospects. While I totally agree, I also think that mentorship that can come from education training is also equally important. 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 do believe that our presence was a bit 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 such as “What are the popular songs out?” or “What do you think about Obama?” and get answers from peers who aren’t fellow inmates. The type of socialization that comes from this type of mentorship is important.

6.Race Matters. As a black female, I found that many of the guys looked up to me. They told me that they didn’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 white tutors, I think that me being black was very important to them, too. I was able to plant little seeds of hope with the inmates I tutored, and likewise they did the same for me.

Programs such as Petey Greene can cause a significant mark on both inmate and volunteer. “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 semester’s end.  His words struck me.  Though convicted of crimes, some of which may have been extremely heinous or violent, I tried to treat each inmate I encountered as an individual. I miss my weekly interactions with inmates. I miss feeling like I’m doing work that is important, appreciated, and has a profound, direct impact on underrepresented individuals. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a NJ Department of Corrections administrator who told me that he believes the future of the criminal justice reform work lies in young people. I agree. We have to start speaking out about these injustices because by the time change is able to be made, we are the ones who will be funding and creating the opportunities.  I encourage more people (young and old), to find ways to get involved. Be an inspiration.

Would you volunteer in prison? Why or why not? Share your thoughts…

Follow Rana on Twitter (@rainshineluv) if you’d like to know more about her experiences in prison and current work within criminal justice reform.

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