Sex Offenders Are My Best Students

An American prison classroom. Illinois, 2012.

Some of my best students are sex offenders.  These are the untouchable lepers of US prison systems. 

Arizona segregates them into ‘SO yards’ for their safety.  Were they in the general prison population, sex offenders would be especially vulnerable to assault and harm.  SO yards receive the minimum of required services.  If there is education programming beyond mandatory literacy and GED preparation, then it may get pulled and sent to another unit.  Death row is the only unit with fewer services: in Arizona, condemned prisoners are not eligible for education. 

Nearly every Friday morning during the academic year I climb into my trusted Toyota Corolla sedan and begin the 45-mile commute to an Arizona state prison deep in the Sonoran desert.  The sex offender unit where I have taught these past three years contains just over 900 men.  There is no being late.  Not only may admission be refused, but a classroom of students is waiting and this is the highlight of their week, without exaggeration.  Over the years many students have told me they wait all week for this class.

I teach a poetry workshop.  Since much of the rest of my university teaching occurs online, this is often the only in-class teaching work I do in a semester.  Prison is the single place I teach creative writing.  I tell students up front that I am not a published poet and, ironically, my university probably would not allow me to teach a creative writing class. 

My entire academic training in creative writing comes from one undergraduate seminar with Native American writer Gerald Vizenor.  Often I work together with graduate student co-teachers who have far more creative writing education and bring ideas from which I learn.  Sometimes when a creative writing faculty member joins us for a day, I mentally compare the smoothness and experience of their responses to my own and fault myself. 

I have taught in different units at the prison for nearly a decade.  When I arrived about three years ago it was the first time I had taught in an SO unit.  When organising our prison education program in its early years, I had encountered a graduate student or two who stated they did not want to work with sex offenders.  My attitude was and remains that teachers go where they are needed, not where they are most comfortable.  We would not accept a medical professional who refused to treat AIDS patients; we should not accept would-be prison teachers who refuse to teach sex offenders. 

Over these past three years this class and I have become close friends, as close as an institutional teacher-student relationship admits and much closer than any university class or seminar that I have taught.  When the time comes to separate, as it inevitably must, it will be much regretted.  Sex criminals are some of my best students.    

Colleagues and acquaintances occasionally ask me about teaching in prison: “How can you teach sex offenders?  What are they like?”  I answer that most are better than university undergraduates.  They want to be in class and keep clean disciplinary records to ensure that they can continue.  At the personal level, they are as normal as you or me on the outside.  That speaks to the scariness of what we deem ‘normal’. 

This does not mean forgetting the crimes for which they were incarcerated.  In this unit that means rape, sexual assault against juveniles, and child pornography.  They are the sort of crimes that will condemn them to lengthy sentences, lifetime probation if released, residence in ‘SO ghettoes’, and even more difficulty in finding employment than other released felons experience. 

There are theories of literature that call upon critical readers to ignore all information outside the framework of the text.  Both post-war New Criticism and later deconstruction propounded such text-centred approaches.  For one, I was never able to ignore the historical and biographical information associated with a text. 

Similarly, in prisons and prison education it requires a certain anti-rationalism to ignore the crimes that bring people to sit in classes.  These crimes do not define the classroom situation, but function emphatically as contributory origins and often as continuing preoccupation among students. Avoidance of the topic requires a voluntary blindness.

The nature of crimes committed condition reception of prisoner writing and art.  Watching a drama performance organized by a teaching colleague several years ago, for example, I found my perceptions jaundiced by an awareness that its persuasive blond lifer in a lead role had raped and murdered his 17-year-old girlfriend when she wanted to break up with him.  Or, that another tall, quiet actor in the drama was spending the rest of his life incarcerated after pleading guilty to seven child rape charges.  If Kevin Spacey’s far lesser offences have ruined his career by shading his public reception, how much more so with actors responsible for such hideous acts? 

Yet these remain reception issues, not teaching issues.  Criminal histories are irrelevant to the work of prison teaching, other than to the extent they are relevant to the subject at hand and a student chooses to inject them into discussion.  Teachers have no business using their classes to pursue past criminal activities.  Courts have done this work and reached judgment. 

Teachers are not judges and no one is interested in listening to their redundant judgment, especially not prisoners.  In this sense past offenses are irrelevant and offensive to raise.  The work of teachers is to teach: the work demands sufficient discretion for teachers to keep their private opinions to themselves.

My co-teacher and I meet with the current class of 15-16 students for two hours on Friday mornings.  Sex offenders generally have better education and this class manifests the difference.  Education levels range from GED completion in prison to graduate degrees and a doctorate.  A few wrote poetry before joining the class; most did not.  Part of the work lies in overcoming stereotypes from the Hallmark Card School of Sentimental Poetry.  Poetry demands a mental flexibility that some students, accustomed to rigid formats and ‘correct’ answers, find difficult to achieve.  Our goal is to write publishable material: sometimes we succeed when a journal publishes our work.

Sitting in an oblong circle we first read and discuss new poetry that students have written over the past week.  Then we give a second reading to last week’s poetry, this time from a typed handout students receive at the beginning of each class.  The class comments as a whole, not only instructors. 

As poets rise, read their work, and receive supportive comments, I am reminded that poetry is a communal activity.  The men here mostly know each other well.  Friendly banter lends the class its solidarity.  The community focuses on the present and creating a better poem.  What you did is less important than what you are doing now. 

Critique comes from within the group and for the duration of the class period teachers are inside the group.  Kindness and mutual support are group values that have emerged with familiarity.  Braggadocio, superiority, and condescension largely remain absent: these are deadly sins.  We know our flaws and do not need reminding.

Most of the men have heavy sentences: 15-20 years is common.  One of the better, most experienced poets in this class has been here since the early 1970s.  The state has denied his dozens of parole applications in summary hearings (Arizona no longer has parole, only seldom-granted executive clemency – he falls under the old rules).  Another poet is serving a sentence of several hundred years although he touched no one.  An Arizona community held the judicial equivalent of a modern witch-burning to remove a ‘pervert’ from their midst rather than treat a psychological illness and restore a human being to dignity and usefulness.    

Nearby buildings house an in-prison old age home whose grey residents sit outside in wheelchairs.  Nearly all will die here and fellow prisoners will bury them on an adjacent hill.  For some writers, poetry becomes a means of grappling with the knowledge that their lives will end here in this compound or a prison hospital, removed from family – if any are still speaking with them – and friends from their former lives.    

I have joked for years about having professional expertise in bad poetry.  I have written on antebellum US antislavery poetry, which was filled with angry writing, questionable tropes, and leaden stanzas.  Only a few specimens of this canon of poetry survive in popular memory, such as the song ‘John Brown’s Body.’  Overall, antislavery poetry represents the antagonistic response of people who had an immediate expressive need and wanted to share their passionate rejection of slavery.  Nearly all the writers were amateurs at the craft and wrote ‘bad’ poetry, both by prevailing and contemporary aesthetic standards.  That does not matter: what matters is that these writers spoke their conscience.

In prison, there is no bad poetry.  There is poetry that can say more, that can be improved, that can use fresh words, and that can stand up straighter.  Often imprisoned sex offenders write because they want someone to remember them for more than their past acts, they want to write words that make their destroyed lives meaningful.  Poems that denominate their individual existences are good by definition.  A poetic voice enables prisoners to withstand and even rise above an enforced collectivity. 

Looking around the room filled with imprisoned men waiting to read their latest writing, I am at home with my SO yard leper friends.  Now we begin to read aloud. 

Photograph courtesy of WBEZ. Published under a Creative Commons license.