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Wisdom from Within Prison Walls

I am consistently amazed and humbled while teaching inside prison.


I am a college-educated, mid-20-something who’s never known want or hunger. I graduated in the top ten percent of my high school and colleges, received accolades in school, and worked as a teaching assistant in grad school. I’ve read hundreds of books, subscribe to the print edition of the New York Times, have a working iPhone with instant access to loads of information, yet still, I often find that my students in prison are vastly wiser than me.


Recently, I brought a printout of an Atlanta Journal Constitution article to class. A group of anonymous inmates had written a letter to Governor Kemp suggesting ways to make the Georgia prison system safer and more humane. The Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Tyrone Oliver, wrote a rebuttal that was included in the same issue. I divided the students into two groups, one side was to defend Commissioner Oliver, the other the inmate authors. The winning side would receive homemade cheese Danishes from our board member and volunteer Amy Durham as their prize. May the best side win!


As you might guess, the men asked to defend Mr. Oliver were NOT happy. Nonetheless, they worked diligently to prepare their defense. The following week we met again and it was time for debate.


Their arguments left me stunned. I thought I had a good idea of how to fix this system, but truth be told, their words and arguments were so much more persuasive and intelligent than mine. So much so that I had to share them with you today.


Here's what one student said. “Mr. Oliver may make a good case for himself in providing all the numbers for how he’s raised his staff’s earnings and the 1,000+ shanks and however many kilos of whatever seized during the shakedowns at Smith [State Prison], but he continues to do just as everyone else does that’s a part of this system: missing the ability to see his “Justice Involved Individuals” as simply human, just as himself. This has become the culture in the GDC. With this mindset, only superficial issues will ever be addressed. More pay will not give wisdom, courage, or empathy to staff, nor will it take away greed, immaturity, or stupidity. Taking any number of shanks, phones, drugs, or tobacco will only lead to a momentary solution at best; they will eventually find a way back in. Treating us as property, as cattle, as “animals,” will produce like results.”


Another student explained, “If you take a dog and mistreat him, starve him, lock him in cages, refuse to train him, and tell him he’s bad, he’ll act accordingly. But if you give him hope, if you give him an education through training, he can be your best friend.”


They concluded by saying, “We are people with families, dreams, and aspirations, just as you do. Given the proper resources, many of us will prosper. Leave us to learn and fend for ourselves, with no hope, no “light at the end of the tunnel,” and many of us will fail. We are not statistics. We are humans that have made mistakes, that deserve the same shot at life given to everyone else.”

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