The Safest Place to Teach in America is a Prison

Every Wednesday, another professor and I take 16 traditional college students inside a maximum security correctional facility to have class with 16 incarcerated classmates. Part of the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program, the class focusses on philosophical and literary interpretations of freedom. The students read Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin Luther King, Plato, and others and argue about limits to freedom, how race and class constrain freedom, and when a law is just and unjust.

To enter the prison, we instruct our “outside” students in the rules: no blue or white t-shirts, no sweat pants or shorts, no drugs (prescription or street), no cell phones. We are processed in through a metal detector, patted down, and escorted through sally ports by the corrections officers who facilitate our program.

The COs who escort us typically carry pepper spray and handcuffs, but because they are working in close proximity with inmates, they do not carry guns.

Some of our incarcerated (or “inside”) classmates are awaiting trial, some are sentenced, and I know that some of their crimes involved guns.

Like some of the men inside, I am familiar with guns. I grew up in a rural area where everyone in my seventh-grade class — whether we planned on hunting or not — took a Hunter Safety class and learned the rules: always treat a gun as though it’s loaded, never point at anything unless you intend to shoot it, unload a gun before climbing through a fence. My father kept a rifle by the front door for woodchucks. Having seen the entry and exit wounds on dead deer, I know something about what a gun can do.

The rules the incarcerated men had for their guns were different. They were part of what Coates calls “the culture of the streets”: don’t rob a working man, don’t rob a woman, steal from other dealers, but don’t sell to kids.

The most common reasons I hear for carrying are protection and survival. If you aren’t carrying, someone will kill you or your family. Many of these men’s lives were changed because of an event when they were 15, 16, 17, or 18 years old. If the crime involved a gun, their sentences were increased or they were tried as an adult.

When we have class inside, there is no guard in our classroom. There is no need. The men know that it is a privilege to have access to education, and any infraction — keeping a pencil that we let them use for class, flirtatious behavior with an outside classmate — can result in their removal from class or, depending on its severity, disciplinary segregation or solitary confinement. While COs have access to guns in case of riots or unrest, even in prison, there are no guns in our classroom.

When I teach in the university, I have little recourse to remove someone from a classroom. I can suggest that a troubled student seek counseling, but I cannot require it. Prior to the Virginia Tech massacre, at least two of Seung-Hui Cho’s English professors suggested that he seek counseling and sought help from university officials. One tutored him in her office rather than have him in a large lecture hall, but this did not prevent his legal purchase of guns.

In the chaos of a gunman’s attack, even trained professionals sometimes freeze. The presence of another person with a weapon does not change the unpredictability and visceral reaction of terror. Introducing another weapon wielded by a person with limited training in close quarters would not increase anyone’s odds of survival or prevent a tragedy like Parkland from happening.

As someone who grew up with guns, who knows what a gun can do, the last thing I want in my classroom is a gun.

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