Teaching In A Boys’ Prison

“Cover!,” the guard yelled. Everyone fell to the ground and covered his head. I thought it was some kind of drill and started to do the same but the probation officer who issued the command touched my arm and said,” not you, ma’am. So went my first week in the tank with the inmates of a boys’ prison in Southern California.

Walking through gate after gate surrounded by razor wire, I wondered how the inmates were contained. Was this a full lock-down facility or a regimented version of a camp, both places held juvenile delinquents who are referred to as ‘at-risk youth’ by educators.

The massive size of some of my students was always intimidating. A 300-lb 17-year-old male can do a lot of damage. That’s what this system is here to contain. Security is tight. Multiple officers are always within sight. The air smells of pepper spray and fragments of warrior energy left over by the boys.

When a fight breaks out, it happens lightning fast. The detainees know guards will respond quickly but a few punches are possible. Shanks add danger-these are homemade spears. Another ‘weapon’ is a sock filled with rocks. That is the atmosphere here: stay ready to fight.

I taught incarcerated high school students who had been convicted of felonies. Some saw me as an ally and tried to show me the ropes. Others tried to break me. I have never been around so many predators before. They could steal my eyelashes without me knowing it. That’s how slick they were.

Usually 20 or so young men in identical outfits and shoes filed in-head down, arms at the sides, arms-length apart. Not a word spoken except the guard calling orders. Teachers were the only staff that were not in police uniforms.

“GTA,” one of my students said. “I thought you’d be curious why such a handsome guy like me is among all these gumps.” As he was saying this, another student tried to crawl behind my desk to steal my lunch, again.

Some students fell for the ploy of running drugs across the nearby US/Mexico border. Five thousand dollars was the payoff for having drugs strapped to your body and successfully evading the border patrol. I could not find one boy who got the payoff.

It was hard to penetrate their angry barriers. Staff indicated that around 40% were on psyche medications. Quite a few told me that they heard voices telling them what to do. I shudder to think what those voices said.