English professor Kenneth E. Johnson teaches courses to South Florida inmates as part of a local writing program. He is one of several FIU faculty who make the trek to either Dade Correctional Institution or Everglades Correctional Institution to offer weekly instruction. Here he shares a glimpse into his interaction with incarcerated men looking to better themselves.
Teaching in the prisons, under the visionary leadership and administration of Exchange for Change and with the support of FIU’s Continuing Education program and the Department of English, has been personally profound. After 40 years of research and teaching, a whole new world has opened up.
Arriving at the prison on my teaching day, I sign in, surrender my driver’s license, submit to a security screening (both electronic and personal pat-down) and receive a visitor’s badge and “panic button.” Then I walk across the compound to the education building where I have to sign in again. As I cannot bring in my cell phone, I literally have no connection with the outside world. It’s sobering every time.
For two hours a week, I get a little taste of what true incarceration must feel like. If each of my student's “callout” (a formal authorization to attend class) has been successful, I enter a classroom and am met by about a dozen students. They come from all walks of life, their diversity only muted by the blue uniformity of their prison attire. Blue is the only color I am not allowed to wear to prison—the guards warned all of us instructors against it. The welcoming hospitality and the informal, good-natured greetings that I receive are a stunning relief from my earlier reception at the prison entrance.
Class begins and suddenly I’m in a familiar role, with attentive students eager to learn and willingly participate in our shared experience. The classroom becomes an oasis. I don’t experience “hardened criminals.” There are no guards in the classroom, except when they show up to count heads. I forget that I have a panic button; I’m not worried about my safety, as my students actually watch out for me—they are very protective of their instructors.
Their hospitality is genuine. For two hours, I am their guest. I am welcomed to the class, because it is truly their class in their world. They survive incarceration every day, and my hope is that they are able to transcend their situation, through these classes, if only for two hours. This is particularly important for those serving life sentences, whose existential condition requires that they find some transcendence within permanent incarceration. For those who will return to society, I hope that the responsibility that they take for their education will follow them. I recognize in their writing and in their discussions so much potential that could benefit society.
Other than occasional weekend family visitors, I may be the only other person who has nothing to do with their incarceration. Unless they share the information, I don’t know why they are in prison and, frankly, I don’t need to know. I’m not so naïve as to not recognize that they are there because they transgressed and are serving sentences for something that the justice system deemed significant enough to remove them from society. I’m also sure that in most of their stories there are victims. All I experience is their eagerness to do the right thing by allowing me to teach them. In their hospitality, I find a kernel of goodness, which so dramatically contrasts with the hell that is their home.
My students often express puzzlement that I volunteer to educate them, that I’m not paid to do it. I have spent a significant portion of my professional life researching and teaching about literary representations of evil. So, I guess it’s appropriate that, for two hours a week, I go to hell and find so much goodness that I am puzzled myself.