Behind prison walls

By:
11/29/2001

Two evenings a week, groups of Georgetown students leave the campus in vans like many other volunteers from the University. However, these vans make a shorter trip than most. After crossing the Key Bridge, it is a mere five-minute trip down Wilson Boulevard to their destination. The occupants of these vans are off to serve a community that most would not ordinarily view as in need of help.

The vans stop at the Arlington County Detention Facility. The students are part of Georgetown University Prison Outreach.

This has not always been these students’ destination, however. For 17 years, Georgetown students and professors taught college-level classes at the District of Columbia’s prison complex at Lorton, Va. However, the recent closing of Lorton Prison left the program without a home. It could very well have meant the end of Georgetown’s presence in area prisons.

The dedication fostered in the 17-year presence at Lorton would not diminish with the prison’s closing. The program has retooled and refocused on a new set of challenges?challenges more important now than ever.

“Without a glitch”

In 1983, Elvin Johnson sent letters to area universities, asking them to fill what he saw as a grave need. As an inmate in Lorton’s Maximum Security facility, Johnson was not offered any opportunities to further his education beyond the high school level. In the larger, medium security Central Facility, inmates were able to take classes and earn a degree from the University of the District of Columbia. Maximum Security inmates had no such opportunity.

Johnson’s letter reached a group of philosophy graduate students at Georgetown, who first navigated the Lorton bureaucracy to start a reading class. They soon turned to Patricia O’Connor, who was completing her Master’s Degree in the English department. O’Connor, now associate professor of English, offered the first college-level class sponsored by Georgetown, a writing workshop, in January of 1984.

The program, dubbed “Friends of Lorton,” blossomed. For the next 13 years, Georgetown professors taught classes at Lorton’s Maximum Security facility not only in literature and writing, but history, philosophy and government.

Student participation was always key to the program’s success. “From the beginning, we always had students involved. Every year, we had lots of students operating as tutors and as TA’s,” O’Connor said.

In the mid-1990s, the program was changed by what O’Connor characterized a “big disturbance.” A scandal involving a visiting church group made the situation at the Maximum Security facility uncomfortable. At the same time, UDC was undergoing a period of financial difficulty, leading the university to slowly withdraw its programs from Central Facility. The participants in Friends of Lorton responded to the new circumstances, moving their efforts from Maximum Security into Central Facility.

At the same time, government professor Tom Banchoff saw a new need the program could fill: The GED program at Central Facility was not living up to its full potential. “There were not enough tutors, and test preparation was erratic. Those who had achieved high school equivalency did their best to help those who did not yet have it, but the going was tough,” said Banchoff.

For the first time, the program’s focus extended outside college-level education. This also provided an opportunity to get more Georgetown students involved.

At Central Facility, the college classes continued as before. The education facility that had been used by the UDC programs provided actual classrooms with desks and blackboards. At Maximum, the program had done without such basic necessities, instead meeting in a cramped cell.

Another positive change for inmates came with the move. Unlike UDC, Georgetown never charged tuition for its programs. The classes still carried full credit, though inmates were not enrolled in a degree program.

While the Friends of Lorton program was thriving, by the late 1990s the prison itself was not. A combination of bad publicity and mismanagement left the prison in a downward spiral. In 1998, the decision was made to gradually close the sprawling complex.

By January of this year, not enough inmates were left at Lorton to sustain classes for the spring semester. On Nov. 16, the last few inmates remaining at Lorton were taken to the D.C. jail to await transfer to another facility. Their departure marked the end of Lorton’s 90-year history.

O’Connor summed up the experience at Lorton. “It worked for 17 years. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always assured, but we got in, we got our tutors approved, and we managed to have our programs without a glitch.”

A different environment

The closing of Lorton prison presented a new set of challenges to the Friends of Lorton program, one of which was changing the program’s name. In the spring, Friends of Lorton was rechristened “Georgetown University Prison Outreach,” and the search began for location to continue the program.

After researching numerous options in the Washington metropolitan area, Prison Outreach decided to focus on the Arlington County Detention Facility, which is located in the Courthouse district of the city.

Program coordinator Alex Belser (CAS ‘02), who began as a TA at Lorton in his first year at Georgetown, sees much potential for success at the new location. “ACDF is an incredible facility; it does a lot of good work. It was also lacking educational programs for people who had passed their GED, and there was no higher education for inmates. We found a need, and we decided to match up needs with abilities,” he said.

ACDF is, in many ways, the antithesis of Lorton. At its peak, Lorton was a sprawling seven-facility, 11,000-inmate complex. ACDF houses approximately 600 inmates in an inconspicuous 12-story building located in one of Arlington’s busiest commercial districts. A shopping mall, movie theater and fast-food restaurants are located mere yards away.
The differences can be sensed not only in its physical presence, but also in its culture. Lorton was a prison in the classic sense, where, in many cases, offenders served sentences extending over a decade. ACDF is a county jail, which only houses inmates that will be released in two years or less.

ACDF utilizes the “direct supervision” method to manage inmates. Quite literally, inmates are directly supervised by deputies at all times. Conflict and tension are noticeably reduced compared to Lorton, which was notoriously understaffed. “[Lorton] was a very difficult place to create a positive working environment. It was a very threatening place to work and learn,” remarked Belser. “Things [at ACDF] are much calmer all around. The whole building perpetrates this idea of a calm, non-threatening existence for the incarcerated individuals.”

Though the Arlington facility is much closer to Georgetown than Lorton was, it still lies outside the boundaries of the District of Columbia proper. This raised some tough questions for the program, which had always seen its mission as working to address the needs of the city of Washington. However, attempts to bring programs to jail facilities within the city’s borders failed. Belser was frustrated by the process.

“Basically, they refused our programs. Prison Outreach had volunteers that wanted to teach and tutor inmates in D.C. jails, but our volunteers were denied the opportunity to serve,” he said. “Nobody in D.C..’s administrative hierarchy was willing to stick his or her neck out to start a new program or to welcome eager volunteers. It’s a dangerous thing to support. We’ll try again next semester and next year and however long it takes, because D.C.’s jails are full of individuals who want to read and learn.”

Belser does not see a philosophical problem with the program’s location outside the District. “I think that our sense of community extends beyond any sort of strict guidelines. If you are going to look at Washington, D.C., you need to look at the greater Washington area. The social problems and issues in Washington proper extend throughout its suburbs,” he said.

O’Connor also pointed out the fact that many of those incarcerated at ACDF are D.C. residents who committed crimes in and were prosecuted in Virginia. “If our mission as a university in Georgetown is to make sure we’re working for D.C. residents, we are. We’re also working for the metropolitan area,” said O’Connor.

Belser also sees a more cooperative relationship with prison officials. He works closely with the facility’s full-time staff. “Arlington has been wonderful about letting us really create a collaborative learning environment between the students and inmates,” he said.

While at Lorton, the Georgetown programs were the backbone of the GED training there, at ACDF, tutors supplement the instruction that inmates receive from prison staff. If an inmate needs special attention in an area, the Georgetown tutors work with him or her.

ACDF also presents a much more diverse population than Lorton, where well over 90 percent of the population was black. “When we walked into Lorton, we had a class of 20 African-American males between the ages of 20 and 45. When we walk into ACDF, we’re working with a large African-American population, but we’re also working with a lot of women, a diverse Hispanic and Asian population, and a poor white population as well,” noted Belser. In response to this diversity, the program began offering tutoring in English as a Second Language this semester.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that ACDF presents is the transience of its population. As a county jail, many inmates are awaiting trial or extradition, or are serving sentences of months or weeks.

However, O’Connor is undaunted. Speaking of her class this semester, she noted, “We’ve lost half of our class, but in a continuing education course, 50 percent loss is normal. I’m not appalled.”

Another interesting consequence of the move to ACDF is that many of the inmate students will be back on the street within months, if not sooner. At Lorton, many of the prisoners who took classes were there for decades, and were unlikely to get out soon. O’Connor had initial doubts, but sees a unique opportunity.

“Part of me says, well you know, the people who have been in here for a long time have the greater need. At Lorton, we had people who had been in prison for 15 years, and now they’re taking a class. But if close, one-on-one education has a positive effect not only in having people learn more things, but also to learn more about themselves, learn to love learning, and to contemplate who they are in the world, why not do that earlier rather than later?”

A humanistic approach

The cornerstone of Georgetown’s presence at Lorton, and now ACDF, is the college-level classes. Professor O’Connor takes that role to heart, using the same readings and syllabi both on campus and inside the jail walls. “Whatever I teach on campus, I teach at the prison … I want to make the point that you can teach the same class.” In the past, she taught a literature class where her on-campus class would travel to the prison to interact directly with the prisoners. She made no distinction between students and inmates.

“Needless to say, all the A’s were not from the Georgetown students,” O’Connor said.

Since the program’s inception, the classes offered have remained largely in the humanities, rather than what some might see as more practical instruction in business or technology. Indeed, Georgetown professors see their efforts in the classroom as encouraging the students to examine themselves, rather than to simply teach a set of skills.

O’Connor sees the liberal arts focus of the program’s offerings as particularly appropriate for the setting. “[The humanities] ask people to think about who they are. They approach the big questions, the same ones college students enjoy here: Why am I here? What is good? These are important topics for people determined to be evil.”

This semester she is continuing to ask these questions of her students at ACDF, in her Literature and Writing Workshop, the same class she is teaching first years on campus.

Sean Bailey, one of O’Connor’s students at ACDF, seemed to reinforce her goals. “It gets you thinking about your life. I think about my situation more,” he said.

History professor Maurice Jackson, who taught African-American history at Lorton for several semesters, sees similar value in the humanities. “It’s important for them to understand themselves before they understand anything. If they understand their worth, their value, but most have been dehumanized, most have been told all their lives they would never be anything but criminals,” he said.

Jackson addressed these issues in his class, which he titled “Strong Black Men,” after a famous poem by Sterling Brown. “I use this poem to try and show these African-American men out in Lorton that they are strong black men who play a positive role, and that they can play that role without shooting, killing or selling dope,” he said. “I’m not so different from most of these guys, except I didn’t get in trouble.”

However, the more practical aspects of education are not completely neglected. This semester, Jeffrey Lawson, a professor of the Program on Justice and Peace, is teaching a class on Street Law, a subject the incarcerated are particularly sensitive to. In the class, Lawson focuses on the general rights of all citizens, as well as the rights of prisoners, both in and outside of the facility.

“What you don’t know will be used against you. That doesn’t matter whether you’re in a facility or on the street. It’s important to know your rights,” noted Lawson.

Thanks to the effort of Michael J. Collins, dean of the School for Summer and Continuing Education, this semester the students will receive credit, making it a true college class for the first time.

In addition to the Street Law class, the program is taking advantage of the jail’s small computer lab by offering a course in basic computer skills to inmates who have passed their GED exams. This class aims to bridge the “digital divide” by exposing inmates to technology common in today’s workplace.

“Stress management”

Through the eyes of ACDF inmates, these classes represent a real opportunity to better their lives. “I don’t want to feel like I’ve been wasting my time in jail,” said Tsegaye Mengistu, who is enrolled in the computer skills class.

However, that is not an attitude that prevails the majority of the time behind bars. Amita Jasani, who is also enrolled in the computer skills class, believes that many inmates are not willing to learn while incarcerated. “There are a lot of smart, motivated people here, but they don’t want to do anything. They’re just lazy. They think, ‘I’m in jail; I’m just going to sit here until my time is over with,’” said Jasani. “It depends on their mentality, whether the want to succeed in life or if they just want to sit around and not do anything.”

Jesus Armenta, who completed his GED while at ACDF and now plans to study Business Administration at George Mason University when he is released, believes that many people in jail are motivated and want to take advantage of education. “There’s some people in here who are really smart. They didn’t want to come to jail. They’re in here for some pretty petty things, things not really worth coming to jail for,” he said.

Classes also offer students a sort of “safe space” away from the stress of life in jail. ACDF inmate and computer skills student Freddy Calderon sees class not only as an opportunity to learn, but also as an escape from the rigors of daily life in jail. “Being in here is stressful. I take this class because it’s like stress management,” he said.

Jasani feels much the same way. “You feel like you’re out of jail; you feel like you’re in another place,” she said.

O’Connor notices a similar phenomenon in her classes, “It’s a relief [for inmates] to be able to be frank, forthcoming and honest, and to talk about things that mean something to them and to talk about ideas, without having this fa?ade of bravado to help them survive in prison,” she said.

Rebecca Bronheim (CAS ‘98) thought that the inmates that she worked with used class as a sort of catharsis.

“I think that the prisoners in the program got the chance to discuss a lot of things that were?building up?inside of them.? I feel that it was therapeutic for them to concentrate on intellectual issues; it was an escape from their harsh reality.? I?think that they genuinely had the opportunity to grow,” she said.

What most say is the most obvious reason for educating inmates, however, is its effect on their behavior after their release. Recent studies by the U.S. Department of Education that tracked recidivism rates in three states claim prisoners who participate in educational programs return to jail only 22 percent of the time, compared to 31 percent for the general population.

Lawson sees a direct effect from education. “It builds self-esteem and it makes them feel better about themselves,” he said. “These guys feel empowered, and I’m sure that a person that feels empowered is less likely to commit crime.”

Jackson is excited by the opportunity to improve his students’ lives. “The best thing for me is showing guys they can have a better life; they can get out, get a job and take care of their families. There’s nothing like putting that money in your pocket that you’ve worked for. It may not be as much as the next person, but it’s yours and you worked for it,” he said.

However, Jackson does not cut much slack toward his students if they happen to return to jail. “If you go out and get in trouble again, and come back in here, don’t come to me. I’ll have nothing to do with you,” he said. “That’s my rule.”

Jackson sees education inside prison walls as more important now than ever. He points out that 600,000 inmates will be released from prison in the next year. “How do we keep people on the street from doing the same things they did?” he asks. “Unless we do [something] the crime rate is going to shoot way up, and it’s not going to be small crimes; I’m afraid it’s going to be violent crimes. It’s not just going to affect the black community; it’s going to affect all of Washington.”

Firebrands of activism?

O’Connor sees a real need to dovetail the experiences that Georgetown students have in the Prison Outreach program with broader social concerns. “They are having experiences that are a piece of a big quilt and they don’t see the pattern. I think it would be helpful for all of us to move back and see the pattern more,” she said.

To Belser, today’s dialogue concerning prisons is often frustrating. “Most people who talk about prisons don’t really understand what they’re talking about because they’ve never experienced it in any substantial way,” he said.

Earlier this year, Belser had the opportunity to attend a seminar in New York held by the Blue Mountain Arts Group Opposed to Massive Incarceration. It was an experience that opened his eyes to the solutions available to the problems associated with America’s prisons. “Everyone there was deeply committed to these amazing alternative opportunities that really broaden and enlarge our understanding of what rehabilitation entails,” he said. “I would like to see us pursue a more integrated approach to raise our awareness of the salient political and social factors that cause individuals to enter the facility, and when they leave and reintegrate back into society, what are some of the difficulties therein. I think that it would be wonderful if we could collaborate with other on-campus groups to raise campus awareness about the problems of American prisons today: overpopulation, privatization, criminalization of America’s youth.”

However, there is concern that a heightened profile in the areas of academia and activism might inhibit the education of inmates, which is the program’s ultimate concern.

“We’re certainly not the firebrands of activism. Keeping a fairly low profile at Lorton kept us in there. We were quite pleased, to be honest, with the access at a prison not known for good PR. We became institutionalized, and inmates got a good educational product out of that,” said O’Connor. “Being small and careful, I think that we have been able to do for the inmates maybe on the one-to-one level, something very positive in their lives. Now, have we changed the whole system? No. Should we? We need to do something. We have too many people in prison in America. Prison is not the only answer.”

At the same time, greater social concerns have affected the program’s focus. Said Belser, “We need to be creative in our thinking about prisons, and about the individuals inside of them. We’ve done our best to widen what we offer. In the past, we’ve traditionally offered college-level courses, but we began GED and classes for individuals who are learning English. We’re not just using old pedagogies, we’re doing everything we can to really engage the tutee.”

O’Connor is encouraged by the post-Georgetown careers of many of her former TA’s and tutors. “There’s more that we can do, and I like the thought that graduating from this program are tutors who are choosing careers in politics, in government, in law, even in corrections perhaps. They are people who are thinking, these are human lives we are dealing with. What can we as humans do?” she said.

A cultural gulf

Undoubtedly, the fact that mostly white TA’s tutor virtually all black prisoners led to what can be described as a cultural gulf. Though the situation is less profound at ACDF, differences remain. But to O’Connor, it is the differences that make the experience so valuable for all involved.

“It enlarges the world for all of us. The students meet people who have been classified as outcasts,” she said. “The outcasts meet people who they think are extremely distanced from them. Everybody finds out that’s false stereotyping.”

Banchoff experienced the cultural gulf of a Lorton classroom in a very direct way, but used it to the advantage of his class.

“All of my students were African-American males; many came from underprivileged backgrounds. The first time I taught, one raised his hand and told me, in front of the whole class, ‘I hope you realize that a lot of us are messed up.’ I told him what I still believe, that we all hail from very different backgrounds, and that we bring those personal histories to the classroom with us. They are a starting point for a shared conversation about ideas that matter and that we can learn from another,” he said.

Jackson has had only one black TA during all the time he taught at Lorton. “Most,” he said, “were very privileged kids.” However, he discounted the notion that the racial divide between the inmates and the TA’s created tension. Jackson did say the prison experience led some to question their ideas and beliefs.

“As a young person, you can have very idealistic notions about some of the guys. Some of the guys are hardened criminals, some of these guys have done atrocious deeds, and you have to always keep that in your mind. Many are just hardened criminals that would shoot your mother if they had the chance. I don’t assume that I’m dealing with kind kids,” said Jackson. “I tell the students, ‘Don’t come in here with your little liberal notions about how society’s just beat them up.’ Many made conscious choices they shouldn’t have made. I tell them to get rid of their illusions.”

Liz Oyer (SFS ‘01) saw the culture shock at Lorton as a positive experience. “Going to Lorton was my reality check. I felt that it was very easy to lose perspective at Georgetown. When you live behind the Healy Gates, it’s pretty easy to forget there’s another world out there, and losing sight of my place in a larger world has always been one of my biggest fears. Going to Lorton, I would sit down every week with people with whom I had virtually no commonality of experience, but I think that was what made the relationships between tutors and inmates so valuable,” she said.

An inspiration to all

Each year, with virtually no publicity save word of mouth and maybe a flyer or two out in Red Square, the Prison Outreach organizational meeting attracts a large number of Georgetown students, many more than it can accommodate. This past year, the program had over 40 applications for about 20 positions as TA’s and tutors.

Lawson is encouraged by the fact that students are so eager to participate. “It’s good to see the students involved in the process because the rewards aren’t obvious. They come out here on their spare time, they’re not getting paid, and they’re not getting credit. It’s great,” he said.

To the students who participated in Friends of Lorton and Prison Outreach, past and present, value their experiences for any number of reasons. Belser shared the feelings of many volunteers, saying, “The experience isn’t just academic; it tends to encompass almost everything they learn at Georgetown in their time here.”

Ryan Hahn (SFS ‘02), who is currently a GED tutor, had considered teaching as a career before tutoring in prison. After spending several semesters a GED tutor, he believes teaching is career that suits him well.
He has encountered difficulties along the way, however. “I found out how frustrating teaching can be, especially when the conditions aren’t right. If people don’t have the right resources, or aren’t allocated enough time to study, or a million other different things, learning can’t happen,” said Hahn.

To Amy Kapoor (SFS ‘02), things really hit home the first day of class, when she learned one of the ACDF inmates in the Street Law class was a Georgetown alumnus. “He knew some of the same professors we did and lived in the same dorms we did. It teaches you a lot. It could be your next-door neighbor, it could be anyone. You shouldn’t think you’re not capable of having problems with the law.”

Jamie Jones (SFS ‘02), a TA for the Street Law class, is attracted to the unique nature of the program. “It gives us a chance to give back to a community that doesn’t usually receive a lot of volunteers … a community that isn’t usually seen as a community in need.”

The powerful effect of the prison experience is not lost on the professors either. O’Connor’s experiences at Lorton led her to pursue a doctorate degree in sociolinguistics at Georgetown. “It was a great way to go into a doctorate degree, to decide I wanted to study a field because I thought it might give me answers to questions I was having in our world,” she said.

This year, she published her first book, Speaking of Crime, which examines narratives of Lorton prisoners for linguistic clues that reveal their attitudes toward their offenses; a national speaking tour followed. “It’s made my career. I don’t know if I would be happy [at Georgetown] if I weren’t doing this work,” O’Connor said.

Belser summed up the feelings of many prison volunteers when he claimed that he had learned more from the inmates he tutored than they had ever learned from him. “The men that I’ve worked with had an incredible influence on the way I think about our society. They’ve been an inspiration to me.”

After 17 years of success, Georgetown’s presence in local corrections facilities has touched many lives, inmates, professors and Georgetown students alike. Even with the recent changes, it is a presence that will continue to challenge all involved. Perhaps in the future, Prison Outreach will be able to challenge those outside the program. After all, there is much to be learned from those inside the walls of a prison.

Said Belser, “Prisons might not be what you think they are; they may not meet your expectations, and the individuals that are locked up have a lot to say. They’re working hard and they have a voice that should be heard.”

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