Raising the Bars: Professor recounts teaching inside the prison system

Most professors don’t aspire to work in a maximum security prison. Most secondary teachers don’t either. Admittedly, it was a little weird, but the prospect held a certain unique appeal.

Years after, when I would lecture on the subject of conduct disorders as part of my Abnormal Psychology course, the response from the undergraduate population was inspirational. Granted, they made it clear it had less to do with the academic subject matter and more about the stories I would share from my years spent with inmates and guards that dovetailed with the text. The enthusiasm they would show each year planted a seed.

Then, as chance would have it, I ended up sharing a hospital room with a gentleman (I use that term loosely) who I was convinced had done time. He had. And the combination of those two diametrically opposed audiences provided the inspiration behind the writing of Teaching Behind Bars.

The book begins with a series of vignettes about the first-hand experiences I had with the inmates. We were locked in a room, together for four hours a day. I had a phone to summon the guards when we needed to get out. Without a doubt, the five years were educational, but likely more for me than them. It may come as a surprise that for the most part, I really enjoyed myself.

My students were aged 16-18. They were car jackers, drug peddlers, assaulters, home invaders, rapists, murderers and yet we got along, most of the time. They spared no opportunity in the early days to show me the various ways that they could end me if they wanted to. These examples were not intended as threats – more of a sharing of facts between colleagues from different schools of thought.

Perhaps even more surprising was I established several positive relationships with the students I worked with, despite their history, and their histories could fill sizable texts. But I wanted to write a book that wasn’t a traditional text. Not something students would turn to when they’ve consumed too many lattes and find themselves looking for advice on a sleep aid, only to be handed a textbook that’s sure to do the trick.

And so it was the stories I wanted to be the primary focus.

Following numerous anecdotes spanning a range of emotions, I included, with their permission, many of the students’ own writings that fell into a number of categories and themes: the effects of incarceration; their perception of life in general; their concept of freedom; their use of drugs and alcohol; their families; their friends; racism. The latter chapters are reserved for the more pedantic elements of writing, but again, I tried to avoid duplicating an interest level being on a par with watching paint dry, and adopt a more informal approach to covering a number of more cerebral points to ponder.

Beyond the reader gaining access to a world that few would ever have the opportunity to experience (or want to), is their exposure to the research showing a direct link between early development and an array of behavioural and emotional pathology within the adolescent and adult years. Far from these students deviant patterns being the result of innate neurological, biological or chemical deficits, a compelling case is built for how our behaviour, thinking, and choice of affiliations evolve from our primary relationships, literally within uterine.

Scott Weir is a Psychology professor at Western as well as a teacher in the Thames Valley District School Board.