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By Mindie Dieu
What on God’s green earth would possess a woman to take a teaching job in a men’s correctional facility? That’s what they asked me at the interview.
I was desperate. I am from Washington State, where my entire family lives and where I grew up. I was living a quiet life in Oklahoma, teaching and working at a local community college and working out my frustrations by teaching yoga and martial arts classes on the side. I had a master’s degree in English Education and some skill with curriculum design. I was single, happy and I owned my own home. Not bad, right?
But my grandparents, whom I love, were getting on in years. Like 90s old. Old enough that my grandma said, “We just don’t have more than a year or two left in us,” and I took it to heart.
So I accepted a job teaching GED, Adult Basic Education and ESL courses at a correctional facility in Washington state -- 60 miles from my grandparent’s farm.
I rented out my house in Oklahoma and drove a tiny trailer attached my Ford ZX2 from Oklahoma to Washington in January. I would work during the week and visit with and care for my grandparents on the weekend. My grandpa’s siblings lived in the same town, so I would get to see Uncle Vernon and Aunt Sarah, too.
I was a little freaked out at the idea of working in a men’s prison. Society doesn’t send men to prison for coloring outside of the lines or throwing sand in people’s faces. I would be teaching in the minimum security part, however, and thought perhaps this meant only non-violent offenders. At least there would be guards.
The first thing you notice about a correctional facility is the location. They keep correctional facilities in the desert or the middle of ass-backwards nowhere.
My place of employment was in the high desert of Southeast Washington. The “town” had 350 people in it and only the bar was open past 9pm. Sometimes it closed early too. It was 32 miles to the nearest Starbucks, which became my oasis. I made a weekly grocery run on Mondays to buy whatever I needed to make it through the week. I prepared all of my own meals, since there were no real restaurants. Dating was next to impossible.
You’d think it would be awful and depressing to go to work in a prison every day. You would be right.
I remember my first day, pulling up to the gates with barbed wire, tall fences and guards and rough, scruffy-looking men who would undoubtedly test my ability to keep my shit together.
I would only work 35 hours a week and only teach for five and a half hours a day. Piece of cake. Just teach the non-violent guys how to read and write and pass their general education tests. Hey, I was a third degree black belt in Kempo karate and in excellent physical shape. It would be OK. I just wouldn’t touch anything for fear of MRSA or TB or other prison-man germs.
Still, a voice in my head said, This will break your heart and damage you. I would need to put away my softer side if I could.
There are things you do to prepare for work in a prison. I didn’t want anyone looking at me like a piece of meat. I was single and not unattractive, so I kept my long red hair in a permanent bun with a sharp pencil stuck in the side. I never wore makeup and purchased a realistic wedding ring.
I didn’t bring a single thing into that prison that would give clues to my normal life. No photos, no personal effects, not even a good book. I wore large sweater jackets and the same ugly black shoes every day. I went for boring, frumpy and uninteresting.
I learned to bend from the knee, to not leave my coffee cup unattended and to never, ever let my keys leave my hand. I learned to hide my smile.
My efforts to blend in didn’t do any good. In fact, it may have had an opposite effect. In a prison every day with 600 incarcerated men, I was always keenly aware of the way others perceived me. My boss turned out to be inept and jealous, more interested in power than education. She had gotten her degree from a diploma mill. She gave me permission to start a writing class, but then denied me time and resources.
Oh, and my students were not just non-violent men. Minimum security meant that they had some good behavior. I pushed that out of my mind -- it’s just too much to think of someone’s crime while effectively teaching them to read.
And there’s that part where my dad was killed by a drunk driver when my mom was pregnant with me.
So, yeah, no, it was not fucking OK.
There was no security camera in the classroom. I had no panic button, no weapons, no phone except for the one in my locked office, and no security guard except for whomever was on duty making rounds that evening. My security lay in the two other evening teachers who taught two and three doors down from me. I didn’t particularly trust either of them.
One of them narced me out to our boss for allowing a student to print a 10-page story he had written. It was against the rules for inmates to print anything over two pages.
The curriculum was a joke and mostly ineffective. My teaching assistant took bribes and coordinated passing grades for tests with the outside tester.
The men were all right, for the most part. People screw up and sometimes get a big-boy time out. The people who walked into my classroom were mostly the ones who couldn’t afford a good lawyer. My ESL students were the most respectful; even before they realized that I speak Spanish and could understand the things they said. I decided to believe that each person was in not for manslaughter, but just for dealing drugs or swiping credit cards.
Each person, incarcerated or free, is a person. I can’t be a good teacher while I’m judging someone.
Rumors flew about me and various inmates or correctional officers. Rumor is stronger than fact, and the fact is that I spent my free time with my grandparents for the most part, and went to work and went home. But people -- particularly my superiors -- believe rumors over reality.
I jogged in the desert every day, up to a cemetery overlooking the prison. I worked out hard. I became obsessed with raw food and dropped from my regular size eight to a 4. I drank too much; the bones in my chest stuck out. I was lonely as fuck but nobody could get near me.
After eight months, my grandmother and I sat on the brown flower print divan in the living room of the house they owned for 60 years. She put her hand on mine and told me to go home to Oklahoma where people loved me.
So I did. I packed up my meager apartment, loaded another tiny trailer, and headed out for Oklahoma and a doctoral program. I recovered, physically. It took a while to come to terms with my experience. I wrote a stunning and overlooked dissertation on oppression and racism and in the interim, my Uncle Vernon, Grandpa and Grandma all died.
If I had to do it all over again, I would still do it. It was the stupidest and most hardheaded thing I have ever done. My husband knew from the outset of our dating that it’s not a good idea to sneak up on me from behind, lest I start reflexively throwing rear elbows.
My teaching assistant got out a few years ago, and we were friends on a social media outlet for a while. I eventually lucked into a great job at a university a few hundred miles from the prison, next to a big city with lots and lots of vegetarian restaurants.
My spirit was damaged, it’s true. I lost a piece of myself, my last remaining innocence perhaps, the day I first walked through the prison doors. But I gained some, too. I learned compassion, wariness, how to make pruno and even how to use the motor of an electric pencil sharpener to make a tattoo gun. I still often stick a pencil in my hair.
I may have even taught a few of those guys how to multiply fractions and how to write a five-paragraph essay and a bit of respect for women. But you still couldn’t pay me enough to go back.