College Classes for Prisoners: an Inclusive Approach

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Seth Kershner
Spare Change News

Whether he’s teaching prison inmates or college students, Lloyd Sheldon Johnson — a professor of behavioral science at Bunker Hill Community College — shows the same mix of care and concern that has been a mainstay of his teaching style for over 25 years. Having just finished writing an essay on prison libraries myself, I was especially interested in hearing about his experience teaching inmates of the Suffolk County House of Correction. To find out more, I reached Professor Johnson, a night owl, by phone minutes before the clock struck 12 on a school night in June.

“My day starts at noon,” he told me. “I don’t get animated until around 11 or 12 o’clock.” It is the best schedule for an incredibly busy man. When he’s not teaching, Professor Johnson is studying toward a doctorate at UMASS-Boston, writing and acting professionally, and privately practicing a form of therapy known as Intuitive Counseling. As a therapist, he blends his skills as a Reiki master with healing practices borrowed from West Africa and the Caribbean.

College in prison?

Like many other Boston-area colleges, Bunker Hill has been contracted to offer credit-bearing courses to those who are serving time in jail. At “the Condos,” Johnson teaches the same psychology courses he offers at the main campus. “Nothing is diluted,” he says. “I am a very demanding professor who tries to create students and citizens who will be critical thinkers.”

Still, there are intriguing differences that distinguish the on-campus student from the imprisoned student. “When you pass an exam back to an average college student,” he says, “they look at the grade and that’s all they care about. But when I’m dealing with my students in jail, they will look at the exam and then they will want to review with me what questions or problems they had wrong.”

National studies have consistently confirmed that the more education a prisoner receives while serving a sentence, the less likely he or she will be to re-offend upon release. Johnson, a past recipient of the College Board’s prestigious Hallmark Award for Excellence in Education, has seen many of his students move from the prison classroom to the college classroom after their sentence is up. He even recently had the pleasure of entering some of his students’ essays into a national contest sponsored by the University of Texas.

For some of the incarcerated students, learning comes easy. Some of those who enroll in Professor Johnson’s classes have already had college experience; others are approaching their release date and therefore are eager to pick up marketable skills in the time they have left.

Still, for a great many prisoners the challenges can be enormous. Ever since Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners in 1995, it has been hard for those who are incarcerated to fund their education. I asked Professor Johnson about the proportion of inmates who end up behind bars due to financial and housing insecurity in the first place.

“A lot of the men who are incarcerated at Suffolk County House of Correction have had some kind of experience with homelessness. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are no support systems for many of them. For example, many have been rejected by their birth families. All this is compounded by the fact that many cannot find any stable employment that can ground them in some way.” Not to mention the issues that many prisoners have with drugs, alcohol or mental illness.

“A lot of times, people will do things to break the law in order to have some kind of housing and protection.”
But isn’t prison education a positive force in the rehabilitation of ex-offenders?

“Bunker Hill’s connection to the prison really helps to create a bridge of opportunity for these students, so that once they leave jail, they will have a place to go. Because of my openness and concern, a lot of them have gotten in contact with me once they’re on the outside. I’ve really been trying to mentor them in such a way as to empower them once they’re released.”

Professor Johnson sees empowerment as one of the key goals of his teaching. Students who attend his classes not only learn about the theory and practice of psychology, they receive encouragement in their efforts to effect real change – both in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.

“Two things are very important for me: caring and trust. Because my students – whether they’re black, white, straight, gay, physically challenged or whatever – because they get that I care about them, they trust me. I try to keep it free of judgment and I try to create a community in the classroom where everyone will be heard and everyone will be validated. In the classroom, there is no hierarchical structure that would marginalize or exclude anyone.”

Students bring a lot of baggage with them. Some have had very negative prior experiences with schooling and may have been written off at one time or another as “slow learners.” For them, just stepping into Professor Johnson’s classroom can be a transformative experience.

“Once the students grasp my approach to teaching – regardless of whether they’re incarcerated or on the main campus – then it changes the way they approach their learning, their commitment to their education and their career.”

In this line of work, it’s more important to meet people where they are than to insist on rigidly observing the niceties of academic culture.

“When I go into the prisons in a suit and tie I look at all the guys in the room and say, ‘Let me tell you something before we begin. There is one thing that separates us: a circumstance. But for a circumstance you could be standing in front of this class and teaching it just as I am now. So let’s start from there. People make bad choices, uninformed choices. Some people make a lot of bad, uninformed choices. So we start there.’”

Seth Kershner is a freelance writer.

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