Rochester, New York, USA
August 06
Genesee Community College
I moved from Boston to Rochester, NY in 2004. I teach composition at a local community college. More at: www.rmgosselin.wordpress.com www.oneoclocktable.com


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APRIL 5, 2011 6:52PM

Maximum Security English: Opening Night

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The Educational Program Director of the prison phoned me on Wednesday morning—the first day of class—to say that she was at a training session somewhere else, and was unable to “get back in,” but good luck, and tell the officer that the textbooks are locked up in a cabinet near Room 14, but that my class is to be put next door, in Room 12.

Not a problem. I’ve taught for many years, under many different circumstances, and I don’t do well in “traditional” environments, anyway. Plus, my colleague and I had been given an orientation the week before. I knew what the place looked like, and how to physically get from the entrance to the “Academic School” building. I’d also met the students (a little more personally than expected, since we’d been asked to give a completely off-the-cuff presentation that had to go for an hour, as they were not being returned to their cells until almost 9:00, and we couldn’t just, you know, dismiss them). So, as Dickens said of Ebenezer Scrooge,

I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

I also knew, however, that I was running smack up against The System. It had been impressed on both of us during orientation that The System is the ultimate power. We had been escorted by the Director of Volunteer Services and the Director of the School Programs, both of whom had that kind of rapport with The System that comes from years of exposure, but it was obvious that every officer in the place was, if not 'He Who Must Not Be Named,' at least 'He Who Must Not Be Contradicted.' And, even though each employee we met was no more unreasonable or surly than most people are at work, and many were quite friendly, it was implicitly yet forcefully made clear who was in charge.

So, before getting into my car for the snowy drive south, I knew that:

  1. The System is scary and inscrutable, so…
  2. there was no guarantee I’d be able to bring in any of my materials, and besides…
  3. I was going in without my colleague, since his class is on Thursdays, but that was OK because there would be someone else there to help me, plus…
  4. the textbooks were in a locked cabinet, somewhere in the vicinity of the classroom, and the books were crucial, because…
  5. I had to teach for 3 hours with only pen and paper, minus the 20 minutes or so it would take for the students to be “called out” of their cells and get to their desks, and the rather fuzzy amount of time at the and before the bell rang, when the class would end like a blown light bulb while we all immediately rushed out into the hall, but it shouldn’t matter since…
  6. the students themselves are incredibly intelligent, prepared, and motivated, and as hungry as I am for whatever it is that this program will eventually serve up.

What I didn't know about the place was that, while everything is mandatory, nothing is certain.


I pulled into the parking lot a bit early, after a drive through a wintry landscape of fields, woods, and solitary farmhouse porch lights—Washington Irving meets Stephen King—so I spent a few minutes sitting in my car, within the gaze of the great white wall, drinking cold coffee and clearing my pockets of everything except my driver’s license. Once through the front gate, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t alone: a small group of men who led a Bible study was also going in that night, so I was in good company while navigating security.

All my things went onto the counter—keys, belt, boots, glasses, textbook, notebook, dry erase markers, bottled water. A little bit of joking from the other volunteers, a few terse remarks from the officers (the water was denied), and our little group stepped out into the frozen yard beyond the wall. There were no other people to be seen.

The week before, during orientation, I had been awed by this quiet strip of No Man’s Land, and had caught myself peering, like a junior naturalist, at a dark cluster of employees passing by in the gloom, wondering where all the inmates were. Here there be monsters, but where?

About 30 yards in front of us was the main building. It’s designed, like the rest of the place, in a style that could be called Greek Revival Industrial. I’ve seen it along the waterfronts of cities like Boston, Lowell, and Rochester: piles of red brick, 3 or 4 stories high, with tall, arched windows, severely gabled ends, pilasters and quoins and all the other trappings of a structure designed to warehouse items while giving to the streets a whiff of civic virtue. The whole place looks like a shuttered textile mill, or a college campus during Spring break, except for the rolls of barbed wire on top of everything.

And it is with a shock that I read, just this morning, this passage from Foucault:

Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

A few details that had escaped me during the haze of orientation caught my attention as we entered the main building. First came the smell, a musty, eternal human presence, that reminded me a little bit of a subway station, or the streets of a very old city. This smell, though, was made worse by the meaning of the place, and by the heat coming from an endless line of radiators curled up along the tiled walls, like pythons in a tropical rain forest. It was so hot, in fact, that all of the windows were cracked open to let in occasional draughts of biting air. When we reached 'Times Square'—the intersection of the four corridors which cut the internal courtyard into quarters—the gate that opened to allow us to pass had a Gothic, serifed look to it, and I realized it was festooned with rows of empty Dixie cups.

The Bible study volunteers eventually veered off toward the chapel, and I was alone with the officer at the entrance to the school area. He didn’t know a thing about the books, or any storage cabinet in Room 14, and as I followed him down the hall he said something about his tax dollars being wasted. There was no real emotion in the statement, and it wasn’t said to my face. It was more of a necessary comment, flattened out after much use into stale outrage mumbled toward the darkness. I wanted to reply that turning down the heat would do more in that regard than offering a couple of community college classes, but, hey, would you have said it?

We looked in some classrooms, and some closets, and found a large storage cabinet off Room 14, but none of the officer’s keys seemed to work on it. He tried several, and then gave up. Before leaving for his station down the hall, he said, “You’ll be in this room.” I sheepishly reminded him that I was supposed to be in Room 12.

“Well,” he said, “we’re putting you in here.”

We? It meant that the discussion was over. He turned and went back to his desk, and I was alone in Room 14 with no textbooks.


Why anyone would put a 1940’s third grade schoolroom in a maximum security prison is beyond me, but that’s exactly what Room 14 looked like. It had a long, low blackboard, several pieces of torpedo-sized blue and pink chalk, an old wooden desk with a swivel chair, and a motivational poster showing children with wings.

Everywhere you look here you can see these odd little touches of humanity. In the Processing Room, for example, where we went to get photographed and fingerprinted, there is a wall hanging in the shape of a lady’s fan, with an illustration that could only have come from one of Norman Rockwell’s Victorian relatives, and while the guard, almost intimately, guided my fingers back and forth between the ink pad and the cards, over and over again, a portable radio played a song by ZZ Top. And in classroom #12, where we had first met the students, 2 of the walls are covered by crude, colorful murals, showing a bucolic scene of a mountain range, a meadow, and a deer leaping a brook, while on a third wall, next to a barred window, there’s a 5 foot trophy portrait of a deer’s head.

All of these things live alone, striking in their concentrated individuality, yet absorbed by the general miasma of the prison. They’re like the spirits that Odysseus encountered in the Underworld, or, again, like Scrooge’s small house in A Christmas Carol, lost among the fog and the city, “where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide and seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.” Who put these things here, and when, and why? No matter. They have become processed. They are Rilke’s dead—outside of all relation, and fluttering in space like an empty sleeve.

I was now in The Red Zone, that concentrated chunk of space and time that precedes any class. In this case, there was about a 20 minute wait before all the cell blocks got called out. I started moving the desks so that they’d face front without crowding together, a more difficult job than it sounds in a tiny room soon to be occupied by men with mysterious personal space bubbles. Ten minutes went by. I crossed the hall to peer through the window in the library door. It was dark in there, but it looked pretty well stocked, not the motley collection of used paperbacks that I had imagined.

I went back to Room 14, poked around a bit on the shelves, and found a stack of middle school social studies textbooks. I opened one up to a chapter on the influence that natural environments have had on developing societies. It reminded me that, during orientation, one of the students had started talking about Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, a 450-page book which revolves around a single question Jared once received from a New Guinea politician:

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

I set the book aside in case I needed a “teaching moment.”

At 20 minutes past the hour, 5 students came through the door, and a few extended their hands. We had been warned not to shake hands here. Why? Well, my colleague and I have discussed this at some length, and it’s a puzzler. My guess is that, in this place, some gestures of closeness are saved for the vulnerable, and that bleeding hearts can be smelled from a mile away. There are stories of volunteers becoming romantically involved with inmates, carrying things for them, and eventually getting caught “in a closet,” or even trying to smuggle drugs.

Are the stories apocryphal? Probably not. During orientation, one of the students had come right up to ask me if I would write a letter to “somebody” in the DOCS, explaining how important it was for him to stay in the class, and how worried he was about getting transferred to another facility before the semester was over. He felt—and with reason—that this could be his only hope for success after prison. I declined, and told him to direct his request to the Program Director. That refusal flashed in my mind like a talisman as I grasped someone's hand. Certainly, I’m not going to end up in a closet with anyone, but I don’t have a bleeding heart tattooed on my arm for nothing.

I sat down behind the teacher’s desk and tried to look professorial, mindful of the need to keep up physical and emotional barriers. But the pose felt clichéd, teacherly, authoritative. So I got up and perched on the front of the desk, which put me within arm’s reach of the students. Perfect.

It took almost 45 minutes for all of them to arrive. They ranged in age from the mid 20's to men as nearly as old as me. Each wore muted green, with a few variations in sweatshirts and other accessories, which they get from family members. Some of them even own typewriters. There is a material hierarchy, even here, and, just like in the Public School System—that other, supposedly equalizing, institution—those whose families bring sweatshirts and encouragement may find it a little bit easier to succeed on the outside. And the rest, the ones wearing pure, government-issued green? God only knows.

I had on a blue shirt and matching tie that I wore for the occasion. I was the only White person in the room, which, from what I’ve seen so far, is also true for everybody in the entire facility who isn’t actually incarcerated.

All the students carried notebooks and pens, bought with money earned through various jobs. The books (whenever they get them) will be used until the end of the semester, and then they’ll be given to the library. There were no phones, no laptops, no computer monitors, none of the walls that other college students tend to build around themselves. There was, though, in the absence of CO’s or other handlers—both theirs and mine—a feeling of privacy and freedom that I hadn’t experienced since pulling my car into the shadow of the guard towers earlier that night.

The prison’s list of contraband is long, and includes all the things you’d expect. On my way in, the officer had riffled through my textbook and supplemental articles, and had even stuck his hand into the pockets of my folder, feeling for anything that might make it into the Display of Shanks that graces the wall just inside the main building. What he did not do was ask about the reading material. In fact, nobody but the students has ever expressed an interest in what we’re teaching. Granted, a creative writing instructor there once had a CO take special interest in a story called, “The Art of Aggression,” but that’s about it. It seems that, as long as the touch of a staple generates more concern than a sharply worded essay, the classroom will continue to exist outside the regulating, panoptic gaze of The System. Ideas, apparently, are not contraband, not yet.

I called attendance and handed out the syllabus. It was the same one that I give to all the EN101 classes, minus a lot of my contact information and the part about the use of personal technology, but we discussed it for almost half an hour. It was, after all, the first piece of writing they’d been handed, and interest was intense. When we reached the part about plagiarism, a standard bit of boilerplate that makes even my eyes glaze over, some of the students laughed. One man said,

In here, we call it “biting.”

It never ceases to amaze me what I don’t know. But, let’s face it, it’s a much better word.

I asked the students if they had any questions so far about the course, and they mostly asked about me. Why had I majored in English? Why did I become a professor? Why was I teaching in a prison? (That last one was a better question than they realized, since it’s one I’d been asking myself for weeks.) I glossed over personal issues, but spent more time explaining how I preferred teaching in various venues, and then talked about why I felt so strongly about the prison education program. When I mentioned the pushback I was getting from some people on the “outside,” it sparked a discussion about the advantages of such programs in terms of money and the social good. Then a student brought up an angle I hadn’t thought of before:

"Aren’t they afraid of someone like me walking the streets, without the chance for a life?"
It wasn’t a threat. He looked stunned, actually, and the class came back to the subject a few times during the evening, trying to understand it. In fact, later, while I was explaining how to document sources, I asked for an example of “common knowledge,” and somebody in the back said,
"We’re in jail!"

It was a funny and awkward moment. They all knew where they were, and why. They knew they had separated themselves from the world. They had signed up for this class because of that awareness, had, in fact, worked harder to get there than almost any community college student in the entire country has ever had to do. And the realization that some people didn’t want them to succeed—despite their best efforts, and despite whatever message they believed they were sending—came as a bit of a shock.

We went over as much ENG101 as I usually cover in a week: rhetoric, traditional essay structure, Writing Across the Curriculum, introductions, body sections, conclusions. In between, we discussed things like the violence in Tucson, the new edition of Huck Finn (and, yes, the n-word), the failures of Reconstruction, and that episode of The Walking Dead where a few hospital janitors use scary, pachuco posturing to protect abandoned patients from the zombies.

The inmates have access to newspapers and books, and they watch lots of movies and television. Certainly, they have time on their hands, and they aren’t distracted by the Internet, and the movies are probably used to keep them all entertained and out of trouble. But that’s what TV and movies do outside the walls, as well, and we all have access to news material just waiting to be pored over. These students absorbed everything, they remembered it, they connected it. In that regard, they were no different from the adult students I have in my other classes. But, while most returning students are nervous, these were confident, daring, almost ferocious.

Jefferson Cowie of Cornell University has described a similar experience in his article, “On Lecturing in a Prison, Where Minds Are Free”:

They were on fire. They sat attentively without PowerPoint photos to keep them entertained, autumn walks through the gorges to look forward to, or fancy careers to anticipate. They occasionally tossed questions to me during my talk, testing my mettle. Then, when I finished, their hands shot up. For the next hour, I got a vigorous intellectual workout—an exhausting barrage of questions any teacher would relish.

During the discussion, I was corrected 2 times: once when I goofed up on George Bush’s alma mater, and again when I managed to say that Barack Obama was from Kenya.

Right around 8:00, I decided to start going over one of the essays in the text, The Legacy of Generation Ñ, by Christy Haubegger, which first appeared over ten years ago. I didn’t want to read the entire thing myself, so it seemed best to have the students take turns reading paragraphs out loud. I have often used this technique when teaching classes in the city, with great success, and that night was no exception. Not once did I have to call on someone or wait during a painful silence. As the only copy of the book was passed around, each student reached for it like he was suffocating and the thing was a tank of air. They got all the allusions, including a Ricky Martin reference, a joke about a “taco-shilling Chihuahua,” and the echoes of Langston Hughes in the sentence, “What happens to a decade deferred?” There was only one sticking point: the word senescence.


Before the semester began, the creative writing teacher at the prison—who is also the driving force behind the new college program—had sent my colleague and me an email which read, in part,

You’ll learn quickly how much the men appreciate your efforts. There are sure to be bumps along the way–the inapt statement, in the conditions, etc.–but these are inevitable, and you have enormous credit with these students. My experience is that you can make mistakes and they will continue to be grateful. They’ll watch you getting more and more savvy about the facility at the same time that they become better versed in your fields. It’s quite an exchange for everyone involved.
And, sure enough, right at 8:35 they started to warn me about the bell. I knew the protocol: the students leave the room, while the teacher turns off the lights and exits the prison with the other volunteers. When the bell rang, the class got up and headed out. But I wasn’t ready, thinking that I could exchange comments and pack up my stuff just like I always do after a class. I barely had time to put my sweater on before an officer was eyeing me from the doorway, saying,
Hurry up. Everyone’s waiting for you.
By the time I turned out the lights in Room 14, the students had joined other groups of men that seemed to come from nowhere, and who were lined up along both walls. After the previous 3 hours of being in class together, they were blending back into the muted green of the general population, and I was just another outsider, passing between them to join up with the rest of the free men and women. I heard a voice say,
“Have a great week, Mr. G., and drive safe.”

I couldn’t make out who it was.

As we retraced our steps down the long hallways, flashing our ID cards at the various guard posts, I glanced out the open windows into a courtyard. The middle of the yard was brightly lit, and empty. Off to the side was a set of weights, half buried under the snow. Then I spotted several dark, hooded shapes—like Milton’s “darkness visible”—huddled up against the walls, and gathering in corners.

Even though I knew that my students were on their way back to the cell blocks, I got the feeling that they must hang out in the yards at times, too, when it’s not a Wednesday or Thursday night, just like all the other inmates who were not motivated enough, not good enough, or not redeemable enough to be in an education program. I wondered about the people who are opposed to such programs, who are not willing to spend a few hundred tax dollars for community college classes to help a handful of people get an education, but think nothing of spending 50 times that much so that they can stand around in cold, dimly lit courtyards. And I realized that it’s not really about the money, at all. As the author of the blog A public defender wrote, in a post called Life Without Possibility of Redemption,

I do not believe that there is anyone who will not change, who will not repent or grow out of their childish bravado. Yet we send scores upon scores of our fellow human beings to these warehouses with no meaningful review of their development and growth for decades and decades.
We cannot be wrong. We are never wrong. We are not them.
Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. They cannot change because we don’t let them. Because if we did give them the tools to “better” themselves and they did, our draconian system of punishment would seem barbaric.


It was snowing heavily as I left the prison and climbed, coatless and shivering, into my car. Behind the blank white wall, the whole place—buildings, yards, gates, people—seemed to blend together into an abstraction. I wondered where the students were at that moment, and imagined them trying to read and write, while somewhere a guard was saying to someone, “Well, we’re putting you in here,” with a mechanical shrug. It’s just rhetorical, of course, like the prison itself. Everyone and everything in there exists within The System, moving with the same mechanical shrug—or is it absolution?—through a space more conceptual than physical.

As I drove home through the Stephen King landscape, I remembered a ghost story I once heard, about a shadowy figure that emerges from the walls of a newly constructed house in Maine, and passes through the rooms at odd angles, mindlessly wandering hallways that used to be there, and down which it once walked with real purpose, when it was human.


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interesting and well-written
Thoughtful piece, kept me riveted. Well deserved EP.
This is total greatness, very well written. You make a lot of points my Bonnie and Clyde posting did.

I remember once a co-worker who was dismayed upon learning that a prisoner had earned a degree while in prison. I very mockingly "agreed" with her how horrible it was he'd become a productive citizen. She said she was never going to speak to me again, she so treasured her own little piece of righteous anger.

Rare is the soul that has the self-respect to humanize prisoners, for I do believe it is true man "only made copies of his heart" when we made prisons.
Very interesting, and good on you. One of these days I'll write a bit about my 14 years as a religious (not Christian) volunteer in the various prisons here (which, this being Canada, I think are probably not as grim as in the U.S. and have a more representative ethnic demographic).
I wonder what the religious volunteers talked about all that time. So many prisoners know that if they can get "saved" it looks good at parole time. You get a gold star for this article and for your service. Thank you!
Excellent, thought-provoking piece. As a post-secondary teacher I would kill to have students as motivated as these you describe here. One thing I have noticed about many people who believe prisoners should not have any opportunities to get out of their crime cycle is that they are often ill-educated and resentful. "Their" tax dollars are a joke. They spent vastly more on imprisoning people -- many for non-violent crimes -- than they ever would on educating them. For a lot of people in prison being there is the first time they've ever had a chance to examine their lives. The prisoner was right: why would any thinking person want hopeless people with nothing to lose walking the streets? Then again, thinking, critical thinking, is the clue.
Write a book about this, I would buy it. Lovely work. r
I had a one-time foray into a state prison leading a pack of softballers. I went in with heavy trepidation and a firm grip on my aluminum bat. I left humbled having experienced the appreciation of outsiders that you have drawn so well.
Compelling topic and very well written.
This is an amazing story. I especially liked the "Aren’t they afraid of someone like me walking the streets, without the chance for a life?" that was fresh perspective.
Btw, have you ever read "Derailed" by James Siegel? The protagonist teaches Creative Writing at a prison. Your real life experience was chillingly familiar. R
Incredible story, superbly written. How long will you be teaching there?
Beautiful essay. Thank you.