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Monday, May 23, 2016

Life beyond the bubble.

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live
What follows is a selection from my talk at the annual LAND Conference this past February in Grand Rapids. It is the genesis of my new book, "Life beyond the Bubble" a collection of stories from my years teaching at the prison. 

The college where I teach, Jackson College, has a long and storied history with prison education. The stories from the academic campfire tell of buses full of dogs and guards showing up at 1 am to secure the buildings for the classes. The faculty were brought in shortly thereafter and secured in their classrooms at that ungodly hour of the morning.
For me, my CPAP and I are singing the songs of my people at 1:30 a.m., but these hardcore faculty apparently main-lined Red Bull and were ready to greet the buses full of prison students lining up along the college each morning.

Flash forward several decades, and we are once again back in the business of teaching the incarcerated. It was a big decision for me to do this. My husband I have two young kids and I have seen Oz on HBO. (fun fact: I dated the brother of the show’s creator in college). I also have two strikes against me, I’m gay and a teacher. Things didn’t work out so well for either of those demographics on the show if you recall. But seeing that I had been judged pretty much all my life as a gay man, I talked with my spouse, double-checked my life insurance and threw my hat into the ring to teach art history.

Due to the nature of the corrections environment, very little personal information is shared, in the classroom, or even with the Correction Officers (COs) and staff. A designation of “over-familiarity” can end up with the prisoner being transferred out of the facility. So in my prison classes, my sexuality is off the table, whereas on main campus, I am out and proud and don’t hide who I am. Each week when I enter “the Bubble” that space between freedom and incarceration, I also step back into the closet and hide who I am as a gay man. With that in mind, I had to ask myself why I wanted to teach at the prison. Why would I risk my life and well-being to teach those that might not ever step foot outside the perimeter of the prison again? They find solace in the artwork and the stories of its creation and creators. One gentleman remarked that he’ll never leave the facility as a free man, but through my classes, he traveled the world and saw things he could never imagine.



Last winter here in Michigan was one of the coldest on record with many days in single digit and below zero readings thanks to the Polar Vortex. As I walked with my CO escort to my classroom inside the prison to teach my art history class one day last winter, I remarked how quiet the prison yard was, even with the wind howling in our ears. The yard is typically filled with prisoners and guards, walking, lifting weights, playing soccer or just sitting, but today, with the temps in the single digits, it was a barren tundra. The garden that I watched grow and bloom the previous summer was mowed down flat, buried in a snowy blanket of white.

“Yeah, said the guard, we have to keep the inmates in when it’s this cold. These fucking animals don’t know when to come in out of the cold.”

I was stunned by his description of the prisoners but held my tongue. We continued across the yard and arrived at the modular classroom set up next to the soccer field. As he fumbled for the key to unlock the classroom he muttered under his breath, “I don’t know why you’re teaching these assholes. They don’t learn, they don’t listen, they’re just fucking animals, plain and simple. They need to be in cages, not classrooms.”

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live

I have learned that you only engage in pleasantries while in the prison, anything deeper than “nice day, eh?” can lead to much more than you’ll ever want to hear (from both sides of the prison wall). I thanked the CO and began to set up my classroom as I do each session. The students are excited and motivated to learn, even if it’s something they know nothing about or will probably never use while incarcerated. I have had many “lifers” as students, men who will never see the outside of the prison due to their crimes. I was initially worried about reaching this group as I wondered what was left for them.

Why learn?

Why care?

Why do anything if you know it’s hopeless.

But it’s not hopeless and the lifers are prime examples of this.

One of the men remarked that he couldn’t wait for his release as he wanted to go back to Art Prize (in Grand Rapids, MI) and finally be able to talk about the art and not feel stupid. One of the men, a gifted artist, eagerly shared with me his work and humbly asked for my opinion as to what pieces he should consider submitting for the annual University of Michigan Prisoner Art Show. His artwork was exquisite and showed maturity and mastery and I was thrilled to offer him my critique.

So why do I teach these fucking animals each week? It’s easy, they’re not animals, they’re humans and they’ve made bad choices in life, we all have. They’re doing their penance, and they’re making better choices than what landed them behind bars.

It’s not easy work, teaching never is, but its rewards are often more than you can ever imagine.