Teacher in Maximum Security Prison

Rennie
Contra Costa County Detention Facilities (Contra Costa County, CA)
University of Mary Washington - B.A. 
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Interview Date: 01/05/08

Interviewer: Ashley Archibald

What kind of special qualifications must you have to work in a jail?

You have to go through a security clearance process through the state and the county. Certainly felony convictions, probably misdemeanor convictions and perhaps significant debt would be a problem, because you'd be susceptible to bribes, but that's probably about all that would prevent you from getting the job.

How many hours a week are you responsible for?

I teach 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon. I have to work at least 22 hours a week to be eligible for benefits. There are full-time positions and part-time positions. I gravitated towards part-time positions, because I was a stay-at-home-Dad.

What kind of teaching did you do in the jail?

The jail has basic adult education, GED (General Educational Development test) preparation and a computer learning lab, some of which I had to build from scratch. A colleague and I decided that the computer labs were useful to our students. So we built out the jail system with additional units.

Was it just you and your colleague? Where were you able to implement those programs?

Yes, it was just us. There were four jails in Santa Clara, California, two in Contra Costa County, California and two in Texas.

Who else do you work with in this position, other than your students?

I work with the jail staff, which consists of deputy sheriffs. The school staff consists of the secretaries and the principals, and the jail staff consists of the deputy sheriffs. The deputy sheriffs have to spend at least 30 months in the jail in Contra Costa County before they hit the streets, so they can know who the criminals are when they see them on the outside. Those are the two big groups. Then there are the peripherals, like clergy and psychiatrists.

Is there ever any conflict between the different groups of staff, or the inmates and groups of staff?

You always lose in an argument with the jail staff, so it's better just not to have them. I never had any trouble with the jail staff. I tended to make them feel warm and fuzzy so they would trust me and know that I'm not going to be bringing knives or drugs to the inmates. The conflict between the inmates and the jail staff definitely reinforces their low self-esteem. The jail staff expects to go out in the squad cars after three years and expects to arrest these people again. They don't expect any positive outcomes from education.

I've read that education reduces the number of people who go back to jail. Is that true?
That's a fact, that's established in the literature.

Q: Is the jail education system set up to make that happen?

The jail education system still needs to be improved. Some places, like Texas, didn't even have books, pencils or paper. Some places like California do a pretty good job, so it depends on where you are.

What kind of education did you obtain prior to this job?

I started my education at Mary Washington in the 1970s, and ended up in San Jose State in 2000s. I ended up going to a variety of different schools, maybe seven or eight. First was Mary Washington College, where I graduated with a BA in economics and education. I got my first credential in Virginia. Then I went to the University of Virginia extension, San Jose State, San Jose City College there are so many of them.

What kind of classes have you taken? Did you find them useful or relevant to how you teach today?

Some were fundamental academics. For instance, I had to re-teach myself enough math to be an effective math teacher. Then there are a series of education courses, most of which are completely useless but it makes everyone feel good that you have them.

How are they useless?

The courses never teach you how to manage a classroom, they never teach you how to deal with multiple learning levels, and never teach you how to individualize lesson plans. In adult education you have to do all those things. These are things they should be teaching people, and they have the ability teach a lot of this stuff. One of the biggest problems in education is that schools don't prepare the teachers to actually be in a classroom; they only teach them some psychology silliness and how to make lesson plans. I haven't been in a basic education classroom for a long time, but they never even showed us a grade book. They never taught us how to create a calendar so that students knew what was going on, and they didn't talk about discipline at all. They never even talk about problematic parents. These are the biggest roadblocks in education.

What jobs did you hold, and where, prior to becoming a teacher in the jail?

I started off in the Senate Republican Congress committee, clipping newspapers and creating files to help embarrass Democrats, much to my chagrin. I took a job teaching a private school for emotionally disturbed adolescents and worked there for three years. Then I moved to Seattle and worked at a bank, in the mortgage industry, and was sometimes self-employed. When my brother committed suicide, I decided there were some things more important than making money, so I went back to teaching.

How did you find yourself teaching in a jail?

I got started in jail education when we moved to San Jose and my wife had just taken a job with a large computer corporation. There was no way for me to go from bank to bank and build a career, and I didn't really want to do that anyway. My wife generously agreed to be the primary breadwinner, and I went back to education, which is where I really wanted to be anyway. It was the logical thing to do.

Prior to that I'd been working in the mortgage industry and real estate for nine years. I was just making other people money. It didn't pay very well, and then all you're doing is making somebody else richer.

What jobs did you hold in various jails? Are the teaching jobs similar?

When we moved to San Jose I got my first jail job and was there for three years. Then we moved to Texas, and I got a job in Denton for two and a half years before I had to leave due to a security issue. I have spent seven and a half years in Contra Costa County.

Every job is different, of course. In San Jose I set up computer learning labs, taught classes and set up a classification program for the Sheriff's department. In Texas, I pretty much wasted two and a half years because of the incompetence of the officialdom there. I had a high security job in Contra Costa, and then took a medium security job, mostly with women. What you do changes according to the facility and the kind of inmates you're dealing with.

What other career paths are there available in jail education?

There's a school system that's in charge of the education program. And in the school system, you can be a teacher or a principal. So if you want to be a principal, you take a different track than if you want to be a teacher. I decided not to do the principal track because I prefer working with inmates to pushing paper.

Why didn't you choose to take the principal route? Wouldn't you make change there as well?

Well, you make the change happen with the individuals rather than the institutions. That's what I do.

What would a typical day look like for you in your jail in California?

I got out of bed, took a shower and such. I would make breakfast for my two kids, pack their lunches and go to work. I would ride my motorcycle 20 miles to work, which isn't an unusual distance in California. The first thing you do when you get to work is find out what's gone on in the jail overnight, generally to see if any difficulties had happened that you need to concern yourself with, like riots, people put in solitary, releases, that sort of thing.

Are your classes canceled if there's a riot?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the situation. I've had both circumstances. I had to leave my job in Texas because of a riot. It depends on what happened and how many inmates are involved. Sometimes, it's just not safe anymore.

What then?

Then you turn on your computers and ask the staff to send down the inmates, take attendance and get to work. The teaching is individualized, completely, at least the way I did it. Different people are doing different things all the time, especially in the computer learning lab. But there are some classrooms that are just run like a typical classroom, although you are wise if you break the students up into groups.

A different lesson plan for every inmate? Isn't that hard to coordinate?

It's more work to keep the individualized lesson plans organized, but it's not a big deal once you get used to it. The way I ran my computer learning lab, the students were working individually at their own pace at the computer, and I'd fill in the gaps they weren't getting out of the computer curriculum. At the same time, I take small groups on the side and teach them everything from how to get a job, to geometry, to how to write an essay. Really, you just have to know where you're at in the cycle in terms of getting people their GED and plan accordingly.

What were your students like? Did you work with the same ones every day?

The typical education level was about eighth grade, and my students ranged from ages 18 to 50. It's always the same people, but the turnover rate in a jail is phenomenal, so you always have entry and exit situations. You have a core, the people who have long county sentences or have long trials, and they're in class every day unless they're in court. Then, you have the people who are there for a couple of weeks, and then they leave. So the core is there all the time, and the others are in and out.

Do your students have to be there, or is their education done on a volunteer basis?

It's always a volunteer system. I think it makes it easier because the people want to be there. It's one of the reasons I did it.

Now, you've taught in traditional public schools. Why didn't you like those as much?

I didn't like traditional public school as much. There was more control by the administration and more rules, which I didn't necessarily appreciate. There was a lot more paperwork and testing, which I don't appreciate. For example, some schools I have taught in want you to turn in your lesson plans; they should just be satisfied with the fact that my students learn the required material in whatever fashion necessary.

How much do you make as a teacher?

Part-time, you start at $25 dollars an hour. I made about $30 an hour working 22 hours a week. The full-time teachers in California school system are paid a set amount according to the school district that employs them. That's probably something starting at $30,000, ending at $60,000. I've never worked full time, so I don't know exactly.

Is it hard to find people to fill those jobs since the pay isn't great?

It's not really that hard to get people to do this kind of teaching. If you like that kind of work, you're going to do it. Nobody expects to get rich in education.

Jails are generally not the safest places to work. What changes in your lifestyle did you have to make to keep yourself and your family safe?

Well, you make sure your phone is unlisted and tear the address labels off the magazines you take in so no one can find your address. You get a mailbox that locks, and remember to keep your keys in separate places; jail keys in one place, home and car keys in another. They give you security briefings and general advice that you might not know, like the magazines. It seems obvious, but it's not.

It seems that this job may come off pretty heavy on the "cons." What are some positive things that you like about your job?

Well, there's a flexible teaching environment, and you actually get to do something good for people. You have minimal oversight because nobody's interested in taking the time to find out what you're doing.

What makes this job worthwhile for you?

When someone doesn't come back to jail and you had a part in their success, you're proud. Teaching fulfills me. It's the human contact, the way people's eyes light up when something goes right and they understand something for the first time. Successful GED candidates are quite a joyous group, and you keep people from coming back to jail sometimes.

What kind of flexibility do you get out of teaching in jail?

In Contra Costa county, where I spent 7 years, if you want to be an adult ed teacher, you get your credential and then you go to the school system and say, "I want to teach X." And X could be French cooking, French shoelace tying, whatever it is. If people sign up for the class, they'll hold the class and you'll get paid. If they don't get the minimum number of students required, they won't hold the class. In the jail system, it's more structured, because you have an existing curriculum and a principal, and they hire you to do a certain job. There are a lot of different teaching styles, and as long as you're productive, they're happy with it. They have a curriculum, but you can be quite flexible in the presentation of the material. You can do whatever you want, and that's an attraction, at least for me. And nobody ever pays any attention to you.

Do you get a sense that your students benefit from the education you provide? Does everyone in the jail get that impression?

Among the teaching staff, yes, there is more of a sense that our students can be reformed. The sheriff's department has a different opinion. Their job is completely different. The only good we do for the sheriff's department is exerting a positive influence over the people involved in our programs. Our students tend to be less scheming and less violent, so the sheriff's department is happy to have us there to hold down the violence and the scheming, but they doubt any character redemption on the part of the inmates will occur. But a happy mind is doing happier things than an unhappy mind, and if an inmate's self-esteem and education levels are being developed, then he spends less time trying to figure out how to smuggle cigarettes or attack someone.

What are the cons?

Well, the jail staff is not necessarily a fun group of people to be around. Some kinds of inmates are not fun to be around. Some school systems, particularly the one in Texas, were just pretending. It also gets tiring walking in to a jail because every area is locked. You're constantly unlocking doors, locking them behind you, hearing bars slam, all those things you'd expect in a high-security environment. That can be a drag after a while, it can feel very claustrophobic.

Isn't there a certain danger component to the job?

Oh sure. These are not all good people. There are addicts, robbers, killers, prostitutes, pimps and all sorts of nasty people. I certainly wouldn't want them to know where I live.

Do you ask what your students have done, or do you prefer not to know?

Most teachers don't want to know and don't ask. I never needed to know any specifics, but I like to know why people are criminals because it helps in the way you approach them. So I didn't have any trouble knowing that somebody had done something, other than the fact that I felt that some crimes were more innocent than others.

What is the hardest part about your job?

The biggest challenge is to develop sufficient self-esteem so that people who are in jail and have been 'losers' in the past become confident that they can make positive changes in the future. A lot of the problems in their lives are caused by that basic lack of self-esteem, and some kinds of education can help make that work. It can be one of the tools you use to help build confidence.

What kind of advice would you have wanted before you entered this field?

I don't think I'd really want any advice. I was already a competent school teacher, so you'll have to acquire a style that's appropriate to these particular students and you're not going to do that by somebody telling you stuff other than the obvious stuff that they force down your throat, in terms of safety and legal commitments and that sort of thing.

Would you suggest this job for people who didn't have a lot of experience in the teaching field?

Jail education is not the place to start. If regular students like to run games and scam you, these guys are professional scammers. That's how they live, so that's a bad mix for amateurs or inexperienced people. So go teach in a public school, go teach in a slum, or go teach someplace where you get to know that type of demographic.

You're currently not working in a jail, but instead in an underprivileged area of New York. Would that be a good place to start?

I try to teach basic education principles to immigrants to America. I work with people between 18 and 80. They come from Antigua, some places in Africa, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic all those types of places. Almost all have learning disabilities. Dyslexia seems quite common. I work specifically with a literacy program in New York City and a library in Queens. You could start there, because you just have to be a teacher. In adult education, it doesn't make much difference where you start.

How do you get information and experience about how to get a job teaching in a jail?

Find out what school system is running your county jail education system and obtain information from that school system. One possible way of getting both information and experience would be as a substitute teacher, where you could decide whether your style is even remotely appropriate for that environment.

What kind of person is successful in that line of work?

Everybody's different; there's no monolith there. In general, they tend to be compassionate free spirits. They tend to be liberal, and they tend not to like to have regular workplace habits and oversight.

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