All the Things I Learned in Prison

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It was a somber sky on that Friday morning, I was told I could wear anything professional, as long as it wasn’t navy blue. I knew I was going to be in jail that day, I couldn’t decide which tie to wear, whats in vogue when in jail? Which knot would give me the most visual “street-cred” behind double rowed electrified barred wired fences I wondered. I tied a full-windsor knot. I rechecked my pockets before leaving the house, I knew I was going through a series of metal detectors and security checks, and I didn’t really want to have an awkward intimate pat down. I grabbed my keys, attached to it a curvaceous quaint black whistle, like the ones we played with obnoxiously as kids. I received the whistle several weeks prior during the crash course on prison safety and ways to not get stabbed, hustled, or black mailed while associating with the inmates. I keenly read the contract, and we were requested to denote from a list which classes we could teach. Apparently, there wasn’t a big demand for bio/chem tutors, so I had no idea how to pigeon hole myself into a slot. I had told the warden and program coordinator that I wasn’t sure if I’d be helpful, but I was a tutor, they told me run 1.5 HR workshops about academic advising and college. Around this time we all received our whistles, a novel way to alert the guards about all that stabbing they had warned us about — we wont go into the ridiculousness of this whistle. But, I had been reminded the morning of when looking at this whistle that I’d best reciprocate respect for my new students by going with a half-windsor knot.

I arrived early, it was mandatory, if you didn’t make it in time for the security check the gates wouldn’t open again for you. If you had been checked in, and you had worn navy blue, in case of a “lock-down” you may be shot on sight for not lying down on command because you’re confused for an inmate. As you may of imagined, I went with the standard black and white slacks dress shirt to avoid being shot or arrested while in inside the big house. I had brought a stack of print outs about “college stuff” to distribute, the guards told us we couldn’t bring it in, as it may be contraband, so we tossed it in the trash before entering the double gates of no return. The prison grounds were actually quite beautiful, the main compound consists of a thick stucco walled Spanish style series of buildings. I was told by one of the guards on the golf cart ride up to one of the cell blocks that it used to be a famous hotel back in the Gone with the Wind Clark Gable days. It struggled with the economy many decades prior, and was acquired by the military during World War II. During World War II many bungalows were built to house troops, these quarters now house inmates. The main beautiful structure is left empty, inaccessible, and now relic of a more extravagant past.

It was rough start, but after a couple of months teaching classes with these individuals, I had developed some type of prisoner repoire. These men, regardless of their past transgressions weren’t too different from my students I tutored in college — save having made opposite decision to the occasional similar circumstance. I worked with all works of life, from reformed violent offenders, even with sexual offenders who were quarantined from the rest of the population. Working with the sex offenders was particular personal challenge, but I learned to dispense my charity equitably. I told them I would treat them fairly, so I driven  to pull that off. I always waited to have the philosophical debate regarding my own feelings about them personally until I was on my way home.

The next session I was transferred to a unit with more “serious” crimes, some from racial gangs not on friendly terms with my own in prison. In fact, there was a stabbing between gangs in another part of the jail while we were there. So, it’s only natural eventually I was asked me why was I there each week, taking this measured risk. Most others in the program was of the criminal justice cut, or some type of social work, they wondered why a premed was there. It was asked not in an accusatory or malicious manner, but rather because they felt it odd. I chuckled, and responded back “Why not?”. I could now think of a thousand cool replies, at the time that was the best I could do. Weeks turned into months, I had help lead discussions regarding job skills, college majors, how to get financial aid etc. One day we were discussing interview etiquette, only to find out likely 4/5 of the room had never had a job interview. So, we made up some workshops on the fly. We assigned them homework, write up a resume as we had taught them, and bring it with them the following week for their mock interviews. We dressed the part. The confident inmates cognizant of the rules of prison were suddenly bashful and giggling with excitement about their pending interview. I did my best to rehash common interview questions I’ve heard throughout the years, as a native Californian I tried to put some oomph into my portrayal — really getting to know them during their interview. After the event was over, a stout diminutive man came over to me, and with tearful eyes told me “That’s the first time I’ve ever had a job interview”. I think it’s at that moment where I finally got why the man before had asked me about why I had come — it was perhaps one of the first time they had someone have consistent faith in them.

I certainly learned a lot of things while doing my medical volunteering: having a catheter placed twice in the same week sucks (try to avoid having to re-admit someone), it’s difficult to watch people suffer (good motivation to help them), people lie (there’s drug abusers who frequent ERs), but you should have faith in people (see the last clause for the eternal battle). But, perhaps in prison I learned the most valuable lesson of all: people are people and deserved to be treated as such.

Don’t limit your experiences to just the hospital premed, you’re going to serve the world, so see the world.

Thanks for having me!


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