Everything I bring in or take out of the Enfield Correctional Institution must be cleared. I was told not to use staples or bring in coffee cups. I was told not to start a business with anyone and not to give my full name. And, if I feel myself becoming involved with an inmate, I should quit my teaching assignment.
I was also warned never to take anything from an inmate. So when William Thomas said, "We have something for you," during the last class of spring semester, I was hesitant.
"I'm not allowed to accept anything," I said.
"I know," he said. "But you can accept this." Thomas opened his notebook and pulled out a card. He is a gifted artist. On the front he had sketched himself and three of the guys. He made sure I understood he could not fit everyone.
He captured them perfectly — Michael St. Pierre's jaunty hat and mannerisms, Baral Gilchrist's sad, lamenting eyes and Keith Cofield's poetic flare. Thomas drew himself in the middle, his hand extended, holding a red rose. Inside were sentiments of thanks from the inmates in my English class in Building M, Room 5.
I had never considered what it was like inside a prison, until I started teaching in one. I could not resist the temptation to inquire. The students were more than happy to debunk myths and to describe their existence.
"Did you ever watch '[Groundhog Day'?"St. Pierre asked. "Well, that's what we live every single day," There were chuckles throughout the room as they described the routine of cellblock living.
I teach in the Second Chance Pell program, which allows inmates to earn college credits. The goals are preventive and rehabilitative, to ensure inmates get out quicker and don't return.
The inmates are more than an assigned number. They are human first. Their futures hang, possibly, on what I say or instill, on the readings I choose. Which inmates are discharged into our community might hinge on what I'm doing. I could not dispel these thoughts.
As a Pell instructor, I was charged with a task unique in my experience — a humbling one. I looked beyond their garb, the tan jumpsuits with numbers on the back. We read everything from editorials to Edgar Allan Poe to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Our talking points were war, peace, imprisonment — mental and physical. I was not just their teacher, I was a link to the outside. After reading David Foster Wallace's "Everything is Green," Robert Sullivan said, "I don't know what the green means."
"It is a symbol of fecundity, a fresh start," I explained, "Mayfly's desire to get Mitch to see beyond her betrayal."
I, as the teacher, was Mayfly, in a sense, pointing out the green — a potential for rebirth, a new perspective — beyond the locked facility, beyond the razor wire fencing, one that is viable, attainable. The students are motivated, eager, they want to be ready for life outside.
The high recidivism rate is our failure to rehabilitate. Offenders are not born that way. Close to half of the inmates have either a high school or a GED diploma, but no post-secondary education. Most (if not all) of my students experienced negative school experiences.
George Torres said his childhood days were mischievous and sneaky like Curious George. Cofield read his poetry and Timothy Turman referred to it as "raw," his eyes blazing and impassioned. "I want to hike the Appalachian Trail," St. Pierre said — he wrote about the consequences of overgrown trails. Andre Atkins wrote about taking freedom for granted. Asked to write about what they might take if forced to flee from home, Sullivan wrote, "I would grab my children ... one under each arm."
There are gifted writers such as Juan Otero, who wrote a poignant essay about the ravages of heroin addiction. Patrick Lexis strung words together seamlessly and spoke of its healing power. And athletes, like Cofield, who missed out on a football scholarship. Somewhere along the way, education failed these prisoners. They know they are marginalized. They know the program could be cut at any time.
Critics complain that prisoners have it too easy with three squares, television and, now, free college. But 95 percent of them are released, eventually, only to face poverty, joblessness and the temptation to return to drugs and crime. They want a chance at a real career so they can support, not only themselves, but their families. They are realists, know the obstacles, the discrimination they will have to circumvent.
The second to last class, Kryon Wright offered to bring in cell-made peanut brittle. I told him no, he could get into trouble. "I'm already in trouble," he said. They laughed.
The Second Chance Pell is a lifeline. It gives hope to the contrite — the invisible seeking a chance to contribute, to live a moral and productive life, maybe even change another's life — for the better.
Elizabeth Brown lives in West Hartford.