by Marianna Carlucci, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology
I’ve been teaching for over a decade. I have taught undergraduate students, graduate students, and even high school students. I have taught lower-level introductory courses, upper-level seminars, required courses, and elective courses. I have taught face-to-face courses and online courses. You name it, I’ve taught it, but nothing quite prepared me for the Introduction to Psychology course I taught in the summer of 2017. The preparation for teaching the course started the same way I had started every other course in my time as an educator. I thought about the learning objectives for the course, what I wanted my students to leave the class with, how to lay out each lesson, and what assignments I would use to enhance learning. On the first day of class I showed up with 25 freshly printed syllabi, the textbook, and excitement to get to know a new group of students. I confidently marched in to the building only to be told by the officer at the gate that I was “not clear” for entering the facility. You see, this was a typical Introductory Psychology course, but I was teaching it somewhere I’d never taught before: in prison.
Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum security all-male prison, participates in the Second Chance College Program through the University of Baltimore, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and is housed in over 65 colleges and universities across the nation. The objective of the program is to provide post-secondary education to incarcerated individuals. The idea is that providing incarcerated students with quality education before their release will decrease recidivism (i.e., repeat offending) by increasing educational achievement and employment opportunities during re-entry. I got involved in the program when the Prison Education Initiative at Loyola sent out a call looking for Prison Education Fellows. Thanks to support from the then Dean of Arts and Sciences, Amanda Thomas, I was one of two fellows chosen to teach at Jessup Correctional that summer.
With unbridled excitement I texted my friends and family members to let them know I had been selected to teach a class at Jessup Correctional! I was surprised, however, that many of them did not share my excitement. In fact, many of them were scared and worried for me. Some even thought it was a waste of time. After I fielded dozens of questions like “Aren’t you worried something will happen to you?” and “What’s the point of even educating these people when they are just going to end up in prison again?” I began to get some buy-in from my friends and family and they eventually got on board. However, I still received text messages from many of them before every class session, “Be careful! Text me when you’re out.”
Teaching at a prison is a unique experience in some ways and a typical experience in other ways. Before each class I went through a thorough security check. After a process of trial and error I discovered which items in my closet would sound off the metal detector, which would ultimately keep me from reaching my students that day. Once I did clear security I had to wait for an officer who was “going my way” to escort me to the building where I taught as I could not, for security reasons, simply walk around the prison complex by myself. There was a seemingly never-ending corridor of heavy, thick, motor-operated doors that eventually deposited me at my destination. Before the semester even started the administration office looked at all of my PowerPoint slides and asked me to remove some that were deemed “too inflammatory” (basically, the entire Sex and Gender chapter). We were always under threat of a lockdown. On several occasions my students were anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour late because there was a crisis in their cellblock. Even though none of them were involved, they had to wait for lockdown to end to make it to class. The prison library, where I taught my class, was incredibly hot and the only fans in the room were so loud that students could not hear me if they were on. So, on the first day of class my students and I agreed that we’d get through the balmy, Baltimore summer together. One of the students took it upon himself to keep me hydrated and would bring me cup after cup after cup of water while I lectured, sweat pouring out of each person in that room. In other ways teaching at Jessup was very similar to teaching at Loyola. My students at Jessup asked similar questions, struggled with similar concepts (e.g., “what’s the conditioned stimulus again!?”), and wrote about similar experiences in reflection papers (e.g., changing unwanted behavior through operant conditioning is hard, but possible).
The truth is I never felt any fear while I taught at Jessup. My students were intelligent, respectful, engaged, and eager to learn. We had deep conversations and they created an environment of intellectual curiosity. They were prepared for every class. But that’s the thing. My students at Jessup weren’t just good students “for prisoners.” They were fantastic students. Period. The scribbled notes in the margins of their textbooks told me so. At times, the information challenged their world views, but they came to class open-minded because they “wanted people to be open minded about them, too.” They thanked me at the end of every lecture for coming in and they often asked me to “keep teaching, Dr. C” beyond our allotted time. I always said yes. They worked hard for me, so I worked hard for them.
A lot of people ask me what the difference is between teaching at Loyola and at Jessup. The most important difference between my students at Loyola and my students at Jessup, and a realization that took an unexpected emotional toll on me, was how society saw each of these groups of students. Many of my students at Loyola have been given every opportunity and endless encouragement to better themselves and to dream as big as they can. My students at Jessup are constantly told they will never amount to anything and that their studies won’t change who they are at the core. For example, on the first day of class I asked my students at Jessup what their future goals were (I ask this question of all my students in all of my classes). Many of them talked about engaging in community-engaged outreach. Some talked about innovative business ideas. However, many of my students at Jessup expressed concern about never being seen as anything other than an “ex-con.” Their comments brought back memories of how people reacted when I first told them I had been chosen to teach at Jessup. The truth is that there are people who will always see returning citizens as “ex-cons.” As fundamentally broken people who have no place in our communities. My students at Jessup are a perfect illustration of how this could not be further from the truth. They taught me that when given similar opportunities, those with a desire to grow and learn, can and will. They taught me that labels are powerful, but that the human heart coupled with intellect can break those labels and write new ones (e.g., “entrepreneur” and “activist”). They taught me that education is the way out. I can’t wait to see my Jessup students on the other side of the security line. With their college degrees in hand they are going to change the world, one goal at a time.