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I walked into a prison expecting to meet criminals. Instead, I found a community of men.

How I learned more about the criminal justice system in one day than I did reading 100 books.

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Open Society Foundations
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It's my first day as a creative writing teacher at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

I'm waiting for the men who will soon fill the circle of brown, wooden desks around me. The sound of the air conditioner buzzes from a vent in the far corner of the room.

As a graduate student, I study the intersection of education and incarceration. But I believe that my work can't be limited to the confines of academic journals and archives, which is why I decided to volunteer at the Bay State Correctional Center.


On my first day, I tried to enter this prison without expectations about what the experience might look like, who the men might be, or what they might have done to end up here. But if I'm honest, I know I've been socialized to believe that to be “criminal" is to somehow be less deserving of humanity.

Without trying, I inevitably carry that bias into the classroom on my first day of teaching.

That's why I'm so startled when Daryl enters the classroom that first morning. He walks up to me, smiles so as to reveal a small gap between his teeth, and shakes my hand with the sort of firmness my grandfather had always demanded of me.

“I'm looking forward to learning from you," he says.

“The feeling is mutual," I respond, my eyes wandering to the books he holds securely on his hip.

Daryl holds a notepad consumed by a sea of ink, two pens, and several books, their spines worn from use. He sets his belongings down on the desk next to me to reveal a collection of texts ranging from 18th century poetry to contemporary political philosophy.

Over the course of the next few minutes, this ritual repeats itself.

Each man enters the room, shakes my hand, and drops a stack of impressive books on his desk.

Before class even begins, they chat eagerly with one another about what they've been reading.

They discuss the nuances of liberation theology, the value of feminist work, and whether a particular poem one of them was working on would be better as a sonnet or sestina.

The room is filled with the sort of intellectual curiosity a teacher dreams of.

Our society constructs ideas about what it means to be a prisoner.

Those ideas, in turn, teach us how to evaluate a prisoner's worth as a human being.

I've started to see it all around us: America's highly racialized "tough on crime" rhetoric suggests that the incarcerated inherently deserve to be treated with minimal respect. Television and film often depict prisoners as barbaric and subhuman people who need to be both physically and emotionally removed from our consciousness.

The proliferation of private prisons, in which companies generate a profit from housing as many people as possible, for as cheaply as possible, for as long as possible, indicates that we have prioritized financial capital over humanity.

Quite naturally, we internalize these images and ideas, and they soon become a part of our societal lexicon. Subsequently, the men and women in our prisons become caricatures.

But while teaching in this prison, I've found no such caricatures.

I don't know what they did to end up here. But I do know I've found friends like Leo, whose poems speak to the nostalgia of watching his daughter play in the backyard as a child, and Chad, who has an unapologetic love for both classic automobiles and geography, and can effortlessly name and pinpoint countries and capitals around the globe.

Together, we use literature to explore, question, and critique the world around us.

These men, most of whom have been incarcerated for decades, and few of whom ever received high school degrees, have pushed me to decouple what it means to be well-educated as compared to well-schooled.

I've learned more from them than I have in any class.

They've taught me that sometimes life is as much about what you unlearn as it is about what you learn.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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