classroomYears ago I taught creative writing in a maximum security prison in the States. One day I found out what was really important in prison. On this particular Friday, the director 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 of 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

The 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. powerless

“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 repor

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. A 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.

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

Are convicts powerless? Why do many of then think they are? Why do so many staff think this?

Images courtesy of:

  1. Catana says:

    Well, that’s the whole point of prison, to take away every last bit of control, to enforce the idea that you’re helpless and dependent. But humans can’t live that way, not and still stay human.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thank you, Catana. You are right — people can’t live this way and be human.
      As a side note, I no sooner posted that blog and you were there to make a comment. Amazing.

      • Catana says:

        I’m subscribed to your blog, and check my WordPress subscriptions several times a day, so this just happened to be good timing.

        By the way, I’ve started working on a book about prisoners on death row or sentenced to life without parole, who’ve managed to turn their lives around and do good for others. Thank goodness for the internet. Without it, I wouldn’t have access to nearly as much research.

      • Ed Griffin says:

        I so agree about the Internet. I wrote a novel about the UN and I found almost all of the information I wanted on the Internet.
        Great book concept. Keep me posted. Here is the name of a lifer in Wisconsin. Out now after 24 years. I think the email might still be good. Use my name
        Adrian Lomax
        PO Box 2377
        Madison, WI
        When I taught him in Wisconsin, he did not have a grade school education. He taught himself and became a jail house lawyer. I wrote a whole section of my book, Dystopia, on him. I’d be glad to share it with you, but I’m not sure he fits your idea

      • Catana says:

        Ed, thanks for mentioning Lomax. I read Dystopia sometime back, but as usual, didn’t remember any specific names or people. Now I have a reason to reread it. I have so much material about so many people that I’m overloaded, but Lomax certainly deserves a mention. I did a quick Google search and found an old article by him on Counterpunch, which I’ve read regularly for the last couple of years. I’ll be looking for more. Doubt that I’ll need to contact him, but I’ll keep the addresses, just in case. Much thanks.

        Will let you know how the book’s working out. Lots and lots of raw material to work with, and I’ve just made a bare beginning.

  2. Canada is worse. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act, regulations, policies and procedures, and the Commissioner’s Directives which constitute what there is for a field manual, place heavy emphasis on rehabilitation to diminish recidivism, and the Correctional Service of Canada does none of it effectively. Of course, their program supposedly includes a variety of forms of education, but little of it is actually done, and that is done so badly as to be useless. Staff are lazy, incompetent, childishly irresponsible and, to cover the problems those cause, habitual liars. Canadians pay extra for CSC’s almost total failure.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thank you, Chris. I think it is only thru money that change will come. The taxpayer has to become aware that this system fails totally.

      • Hi Ed,
        No question, more funding would help; these years of tax cutting have left public services crippled. That is not the only, or even the most serious, problem at CSC, though. It is an absolute system which means in practice that nobody outside of it knows what is going on. Even the prisoners have only the bit that is their own observation to go on and almost no one is interested in listening to them, or, for that matter, doing anything to solve the problems that they observe. As a society, we have become so used to no rehabilitation, other than what happens naturally, that we do not expect better. CSC staff have, for generations, reported whatever fabrications that suit them so they have no inclination to acknowledge the disgraceful truth (except, occasionally, in academic journals and books, observing, for example, that they current parole supervision is “almost totally ineffective”) that no one among them would report their inactivity and other failures. Each of the institutions operates with a high degree of disregard for what Ottawa wants, and prefers it that way. Everyone ignores their Act and other prescriptive documents in every respect other than the simple locking up of prisoners and avoiding too many embarrassing deaths (CSC seems not to have found a successful way to conceal these, too). Part of the problem is that, to foster desistence, the more sophisticated new assessment tools and anti-recidivism programmes would have to be employed, but staff cannot and will not use them. Starting new institutions with new staff, properly trained, motivated and paid would soon show the old ones up, which is why this is not done here (successful in several US states, though).

      • Ed Griffin says:

        Chris, as always, your notes are a joy to read. You give me the big picture and you connect things that I miss. I really appreciate hearing from you.

  3. Ed, I have the weirdest feeling I’ve read this post of yours before. Perhaps you posted something similar a year or so ago – or perhaps I’m just going round the twist with my copy-editing :).

  4. judith says:

    Powerless is the best word for it. The system pits many men with guns against powerless men who want guns and power. What goes on in Prison is often not related to actual security,but power and control; each warden holds his prison like a fiefdom, and no one interferes, whether the result is good, or not. Our head of corrections believed in change, and in hope for the men he was in charge of. He was only here about 5 months when someone showed up at his door and blew him away. I am not sure that our prison will recover, although he would have been the first person to offer compassion.

    Powerless – it’s difficult to comprehend just how much one person can make hell out of anothers existence in that sort of controlled environment.

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