While I taught in a maximum security prison in Wisconsin, I learned a sad lesson. I learned what was most important in prison. On this particular day, the director of education told me I had to shorten my class by half an hour. “There’s a group from the state government in Madison coming to inspect the school and it has to be cleared ofclassroom all inmates. (I wondered why a school should be cleared of its students for an inspection, but I kept my mouth shut.) Instead of two hours, I would only have an hour and a half.

I accepted this change without complaint. At least I had a class that day. Sometimes I drove up to the prison only to find that the place was locked down. The men were confined to their cells and there would be no class. I got the class started quickly and launched into our plan for the day.  After forty-five minutes a young security guard opened the door of the classroom, walked in and, without even a nod to me, interrupted what I was saying and told the men to get out.

I have spent a lot of my life in school.  From the nuns at St. Ann’s to the professors at the University of Wisconsin, everyone held the classroom as inviolate. No one could barge in on a class as this guard had just done. Besides – we had forty-five minutes left.

“There must be some misunderstanding,” I said

get outThe guard looked at me for a second and then faced the men. His face tightened and his voice rose. “I said OUT.”

“We have another forty-five minutes,” Walter said.

“The State Inspection Team is due at 10:30,” Brian added.

Jim looked worried and began to fidget.

“The director of education…” I began.

The guard cut me off. His whole body tensed. “You men get out of this classroom or you go on report.”

Nobody moved. “You got no right,” Walter muttered.

“Listen,” I said, trying to find a reasonable answer, “why don’t you check with the director. He’s in his office.”

The young guard’s face flamed red with anger.  “This is your last warning, you men. Get out.”

I saw from Walter’s face that a confrontation was coming. Another prison riot could start in the school.   I tried to calm things down.  “Men, I’m going to take this thing right to the top.  Not only is this against what the director said, but it’s an invasion of the classroom.  In my opinion the classroom is sacred.  I’m as angry as you, but for now I suggest you comply.”

Amid angry mutterings, everyone left. I went to the director immediately. When I explained what had happened, he shrugged.  “That’s one of the things about teaching in prison.  You have to learn that security is top.  Just forget it.”

But I didn’t.  On the way out of prison, I stopped at the office and asked to see the head of security.  Surprisingly, he admitted me.  After I explained the situation again, he said, “That’s young Burns, the guy who came into your classroom.”


“His dad worked here until last year.  Had a heart attack.”

“Do you think it’s right to just barge into a classroom?”

“You come up here all the way from Milwaukee?”


“The director of education tells me you volunteer.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  Can I get clear the rules for the classroom?”

“You have to understand this is a prison.  But what we need are more volunteers like you.”

The man was dodging me, not very artfully. “I’m very upset about what happened.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are.  The Department of  Corrections needs good people like you.”

“What about the classroom? Can a guard just barge in like that?”

“This is a prison.”

What could I say?  I had no threat to deliver.  If I said I was walking out and would never teach again, his response would have been indifference.  After fifteen minutes of listening to him give me public relations, I left, defeated.  Security was king.

I was powerless. Funny. That’s the word convicts use to describe their situation – powerlesspowerless.

Images courtesy of:

  • newforyou1991.blogspot.com
  • diverseeducation.com
  • openclipart.org
  1. raven's witch says:

    so maddening how the corrections officers use their position to play like they are important in the grand scheme of things(power mongers with no real power is what they are). it’s true though that the prisons need more individuals like the man in this article.

  2. raven's witch says:

    Reblogged this on Raven's Witch and commented:
    this really doesn’t surprise me, it does anger me though.

  3. Seb says:

    That’s a harsh way to learn it but in the end, the Director is right. You leave the world where normal rules, conventions and ideas of what is sacred apply and enter a new one where the survival of the institution is paramount and I guess you have to compromise those “outside” ideas to accommodate what you can of them.

  4. It is not really that “this is a prison”, since, in this case, typically, (even actual riots are caused by this kind of thing), was a nonsensical reaction to a visit by inspectors. The real problem is that staff have a hostile and punitive attitude towards prisoners, and relish the opportunity to do them harm (without taking any risk, of course). In the Correctional Service of Canada, in my observation, staff are universally contemptuous and ill-intentioned towards all of the prisoners–even those they are pumping–or is it pimping–for information. The actions you experienced were really intended to damage your program because of resentment by staff.
    This is most evident in the rehabilitative “programs” that they pretend to offer, always criticised by outside evaluators as “nominal”. That is, the programs are done as badly and incompletely as possible, or are purely imaginary–another lie. In fact, these “programs” are just another way of insulting and intimidating prisoners.
    There has been complaint lately that the number and size of these programs are being reduced but it has to be realised that they were never any good, not because these programs were inherently ineffective, but because staff made them so. When CSC staff assure prisoners that “programs never work”, they knew this because they sabotaged them. The only programs that accomplish anything are provided by outsiders (educators, chaplins, aboriginal elders) or by the prisoners themselves (12-step). Of course, attendance at these are being made more difficult, too.
    This has a number of implications:
    – prisoners who desist on release do so naturally and spontaneously (maturational reform; neither does the penitentiary make them penitent, nor does “corrections” do any correcting), and,
    – the programs would work if they were conducted in the manner that they were designed for, and by staff who evidenced the requisite interest in inmate’s welfare. That is why these programs do reduce recidivism when applied in other settings.
    – Innovations in programming and assessment that have been found to be even more effective are bitterly resisted by staff and, if done at all, are experimental and temporary, available in only a few institutions, and never extended, then abandoned, despite glowing reviews by evaluators.
    This determination to operate a perpetual incarceration machine extends beyond the walls, into the Parole Service. Apart from being “almost totally ineffective” (Zamble and Quinsey) in enforcing conditons of parole, their harrassment of parolees increases stress on them that increases alcohol and drug use and, probably offending, and allows P.O.s the gratification they seek by returning them to prison. That Service could usefully be disbanded; although Parole Officers are probably unemployable otherwise, CSC says it needs 1,300 more institutional staff for the beds they are building, and P.O.s are really just out-of-uniform prison guards on whom little or no extra training has been wasted.
    Has anyone seen the 2011-2012 CSC Annual Report? What does “fundamental transformation” consist of this year? Maybe it has been abandoned altogether, as HQ finally realises that, when it comes to anything useful or constructive, their staff can’t and won’t and don’t.

  5. Joanne says:

    Taking even more power away from those who have so little to begin with (many of whom offended in an attempt to gain more) is clearly counterproductve. It is akin to a parent teaching their child to stop hitting other kids by delivering a good spanking. This “do as I say not as I do” mentality just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many prison employees are attracted to this work precisely because it affords them the opportunity to get back some of the power they lost to their parents, to other corrupt authority figures, or in the school yard.

    I must emphatically disagree that, as Chris suggests, ALL prison employees are like this. In fact, and I know from personal experience, many program officers are attracted to those positions precisely because they do want to help. Unfortunately, they must do their work, just as Ed did and does, in a system filled with others who are power hungry. This creates a machine that seems to be run by people like the young guard in the story because it is too difficult for the few who truly care or those who manage them to interrupt the momentum toward a punishment model. This becomes even more difficult when the government of the day believes in punishment over rehabilitation, as is currently the case.

  6. I’m sorry to hear about this, Ed, but not surprised. Unfortunately, prison often attracts a certain type of personality that’s not conducive to ordinary reasoning. Do you have any information on what psych tests prospective guards are put through before being accepted?

    • Hi Danielle,
      So far as I have been able to determine, in Prairie Region at least, no psychological tests are applied to applicants to be employed as Correctional Officer, Parole Officer, or appointment as a member of the National Parole Board/Parole Board of Canada. I have certainly encountered individuals in all of these positions who could not possibly have passed any test whose purpose was to seive out those who, by the standards of decent people, were not psychologically suited.

  7. Joanne says:

    As far as I know the only employees of CSC that are asked to complete psychological tests are those who apply to be part of the emergency response team in the institutions. They are used to do cell extractions in difficutl situations and during riots, etc.

    There is a civil service test that Parole officers write, but it is not a psychological (i.e., personality) test.

    • Thank you, Chris and Joanne. Your answers are very alarming. it is all part of the punitive take on gaol, rather than the remedial one, I guess.

      • Joanne says:

        Actually Danielle, I believe that the biggest problem, in Canadian prisons anyhow, is recruitment and retention. Very few people want to work in a prison in the first place. It’s not like one’s parents proudly state to their friends, “my son/daughter is a prison guard! I’m so proud of him/her!” Also, telling your friends and acquaintances what you do (as a prison employee) brings about very strange responses! The best one can hope for is “Well I guess someone has to do it”. Add that to the fact that the power hungry in the prison system tend to rise to the top, thereby moving from bullying prisoners to bullying employees, and you have a very unsavory situation, indeed! All this means that prisons tend to have to hire whomever they can get. They cannot be picky in terms of personality. All they can hope for is that the workers they choose will not let the prisoners out before their time. Although this is a slight exaggeration, it, unfortunately, isn’t too far from the truth.

      • Ed Griffin says:

        Yes, thank you to Chris and Joanne — and Danielle who expresses my feeling — it’s very alarming.

  8. I had an experience about twenty years ago–long before I developed any interest in this–that adds to Joanne’s views. Friends of mine were among residents of Selkirk, Manitoba, opposing the construction of a new facility nearby (I don’t recall whether it was to be provincial or federal). My friends, who are reasonable, intelligent people and were school teachers, remarked that one of the reasons that they didn’t want a prison or jail nearby was they they didn’t “want their children playing with the children of prison guards.” That seemed harsh to me, then.

  9. Correctional Services of Canada is the only part of the public service that imagines that the convenience of staff (as they decide it) is far more important than doing their job, as prescribed in the Act, their Policies and Procedures, and the Commissioner’s Directives. So, they do the half (or less) that suits them, avoiding as much work and responsibility, and certainly anything to benefit inmates, as possible. The only things that HQ can get them to do are those that increase cruelty and reduce work, since they have always wanted to do that. Fewer programs, fewer visiters, crappier food, higher charges for board and room, even lower wages for work, all the things that have been proven to increase tension and prevent rehabilitation. CSC just reported an increase of 15% in assaults. I wonder why. The studies in Byrne, Hummer and Taxman’s “The Culture of Prison Violence” (Pearson 2008) found that the most powerful correlates with increase in assaults (all kinds) were malicious and incompetent staff, inept management, and bad staff-management relations. Does CSC have any other kind?

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Chris, my little association with community parole officers has not been positive with one exception. I have a friend who worked in prison and now works in the community. He’s a guy who cares. But all my other contacts have been extremely negative. I remember one horrible prison official who was in charge of programs in a prison I worked in. His staff hated him and so did the inmates. When he was transferred to work as a parole officer, there was widespread rejoicing, but then I thought of the guys who would come under his care. Not good.

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