Orange in the new 'Blackboard Jungle'

Lessons from the prison classroom

In 1954, Evan Hunter wrote "The Blackboard Jungle," which was made into a movie the following year. The author, who later went on to enjoy decades of fame as the creator of the 87th Precinct series under his pen name, Ed McBain, was in his starving-writer phase when he took a job teaching at a boys’ vocational high school in his native New York City. At that time, students with disciplinary problems, low IQs and what later came to be known as learning disabilities were dumped into vocational schools. Many of them graduated into the penitentiaries.

Fast-forward to the era of whiteboards and "Orange Is the New Black." The school-to-prison pipeline has ensured that the same kids who would have been relegated to vo-tech in the ’50s remain, in the new millennium, in failing schools that deliver them to the penitentiaries with many of the same issues as their Blackboard Jungle counterparts.

Their behavioral issues do not evaporate upon donning the orange jumpsuit. Nor are they magically relieved of their learning disabilities or the less-than-stellar educations that have left many of them functionally illiterate.

While 15 percent of the general U.S. population has a learning disability, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that over half, and as many as three-quarters, of inmates are learning disabled. Many inmates arrive with a history of poor self-control and poor choices, in addition to other issues. Prison structure does help a few inmates; however, many deteriorate mentally and cause problems inside the walls. Corrections staff and administration struggle with bored and disaffected inmates who have nothing but time to think up ways to get into trouble.

Benefits of prison education

Programming for inmates helps alleviate some of the issues that lead to discipline problems inside. In addition to substance abuse help, religious programs and vocational training, academic as well as non-credit education is a useful tool to keep inmates engaged and focused on something positive. Education also provides benefits to the inmates as well as to society upon their release.

Estimates of reduced recidivism rates among inmates who participate in educational programs while incarcerated range from 29 percent to over 90 percent, depending on the program.

The certificate of completion is a flimsy piece of paper that whispers that inmates have accomplished something worthwhile, even if it doesn’t lead to a degree.

The benefits of inmates enrolled in prison education begin before they leave the facility, however; they commit fewer infractions while serving time and have fewer disciplinary write-ups — including lifers.

Of course, prison education is not all peaches and cream. On a purely practical level, every teacher who enters the facility, whether paid staff or volunteer, just like every other volunteer or staff member who comes into the prison, poses a security risk. Any outsider could bring contraband inside, and teachers need to be scrutinized like everyone else. Corrections staff are needed to check them in and supervise them. And when in-person education is provided for college credit, there are costs involved, even when teachers are volunteers.

The teaching experience

I have spent the past three decades working and volunteering in correctional facilities in different capacities. Currently, I am pursuing a doctorate at a state university that provides opportunities for graduate students to teach non-credit classes in state prisons. All the volunteer teachers love going inside to teach inmates.

First of all, we get to choose our own topics, so we can teach subjects that we are interested in, and not just prescribed education, as in a credit-bearing program. Secondly, the inmates are self-selected. They want to be in our classes. Okay, maybe some of them want to be out of their cells more than they want to be in the classroom, but that’s fine. Once they are our “captive” audience, we have the opportunity to introduce them to a topic that they may discover a previously unknown interest in. In any event, they want the opportunity to keep getting out of the cells badly enough to behave appropriately in class.

Not all of them are stellar students, but enough of them are engaged—asking questions, taking notes —to make me feel as though I am teaching. Delivering content to college students in traditional classrooms, on the other hand, often means competing against cell phones, tablets and other distractions for the attention of students who want just enough course credits to punch the ticket necessary to obtain a good job.

Self-selected inmates are interested in the material. They eagerly prepare for class, devouring the text and agonizing over the perfect phrasing for their homework. With few choices allowed them, they enthusiastically embrace education, even non-credit classes taught by a volunteer.

The certificate of completion is a flimsy piece of paper that whispers that inmates have accomplished something worthwhile, even if it doesn’t lead to a degree. It contributes to their microscopic store of self-esteem in a place where they often experience only degradation and demoralization.

In prison, students are always under surveillance, and they are presented hourly with temptations: drugs, homemade weapons, contraband, fights. But their shoulders straighten when they are addressed politely as “Mr. ____” instead of the anonymizing “Inmate #12345.”

One inmate confessed sotto voce, in what passes for privacy in prison, “Really, I’m trying. I just don’t understand much. You see, I never went to school.”

They are not all eager to embrace their teachers. They spend some time trying to figure us out. Why would we teach for free—in a prison? What do we want? What kind of game are we running? Used to operating in a quid pro quo society, it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around something-for-nothing.

So they test us. One inmate wanted to pick a fight with me on the first day. He was rebelling against the labeling of inmates, the assumption that they were bad people, etc. I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t argue because I agreed with him. It took him a couple of weeks to figure out that I wasn’t playing him. Then he began to regale me with his opinions on a variety of subjects. He really just wanted someone to listen and to take him seriously.


Inmates watch everything you do. They’re always on the lookout for insincerity or opportunity. I’m a lousy liar, so I am honest. While I don’t give out personal information, I will talk about my experiences. They can relate to these. I’m also honest that I don’t know everything. I may have to look something up. Or they may have to. My role is as a facilitator in their learning, not a sage on the stage, imparting wisdom to the unlearned.

I assigned a short story that I had found to be a bit weird and something I thought might appeal to them. I was ready for them to give their opinions, then move on. But one student began expounding on the imagery and the dual messages in the story. I was fascinated. I had not considered the story from those perspectives until he brought them up.

A member of the class told me, “I was watching you. Your whole body language changed when you were listening to him.”

I was honest with them about my appreciation for the different perspectives. “You’re teaching me,” I told them.

The inmate who had brought up the new viewpoint puffed out his chest. “I’m gonna get a big head now,” he said.

Everyone wants to feel valued. The fact that a professor from a university was impressed with his thinking probably benefited this inmate more than any of our chats about literature. And the fact that the whole class witnessed my willingness to be taught showed them something, too.

There was a part of me that wanted to say, “Really, don’t be impressed with me. I got into grad school because I’m a good test-taker and I can string a few words together. It doesn’t mean I know anything.”

My interactions with them allow them to see me as a human being who is invested in them.

They need someone to tell them that, yes, they can do better in the future than they have in the past.

They even felt comfortable enough within a couple of weeks to tease me. I stepped backward and hit my foot on the portable whiteboard wheel. They made some cheering noises. “Just call me Grace,” I quipped back. They liked that. They felt that they were being treated as equals. For that moment, we were all equal. I was just a klutz who trips over her own feet, and they were the witnesses to my clumsiness. They laughed. I laughed. It didn’t matter who was wearing prison orange and who wasn’t.

Desperate for approval

The class I teach covers multicultural fiction and literature. Through stories that take place in different cultures and at different time periods, the elements of the human experience can be explored. A student can keep an open mind because it is less threatening to discuss slaves in ancient Rome than slavery in the Americas, for example. But we can arrive at the same conclusions.

It is no shock that the inmates hunger to immerse themselves in other times and places. For me as a teacher, the ultimate joy is the spark of recognition on a confined student’s face as he connects the dots, recognizing the commonalities of the human experience among 13th-century Chinese soldiers, a disabled child in contemporary Mexico, and modern-day New York City police officers. As they examine life through the lens of different cultures, the inmates impart powerful lessons to me about handling the circumstances of their confinement with dignity and grace.

And they are desperate to find the spark of humanity in me that connects with their own.

One inmate confessed sotto voce, in what passes for privacy in prison, “Really, I’m trying. I just don’t understand much. You see, I never went to school.”

This inmate is a gangbanger with tattoos covering every inch of visible real estate. I don’t know what crimes he committed to get himself locked up. Don’t-ask-don’t-tell is my policy. I don’t want my interactions with them to be clouded by my judgment of a crime whose circumstances I will never know. What I do see is a man who presents a tough-guy persona but who is desperate for any tiny shred of approval, even from a volunteer teacher of a non-credit class.

Education fundamentally changes a person. Once that person’s eyes have been opened, there is no un-seeing.

I can’t give them much, but I can provide hope and encouragement. I told him not to worry about his comprehension, that he should read the stories as best he could, then listen to the class discussions and go back and read them again. The more he practices, the better he will get. But students who lack foundational education don’t know this. They need someone to tell them that, yes, they can do better in the future than they have in the past.

Almost all inmates—north of 95 percent—will be released at some point. While incarcerated, they have choices: They can fight every day to improve themselves and have a shot on the outside, or they can remain static, cycling through the revolving door of the correctional system, in and out, in and out.

Why volunteer in prison?

My mother, like most people, had never devoted much thought to inmates. One day, we were discussing my volunteer work. “Why do you want to help those people?” she asked, mystified.

I get similar reactions from other people. In the waiting room at my chiropractor’s office, I was chatting with the receptionist, whom I see frequently, and she asked me what I was doing. I told her about teaching in prison. She unleashed a diatribe about how all inmates should be locked up for the rest of their lives. I tried to explain that that isn’t reality, but she would have none of it. “Leave them there forever,” she said.

Teachers who have been in higher education for any length of time have already had gang members and former inmates in their classes, whether they know it or not.

These reactions are not outliers. People simply are not informed and don’t even think about becoming better educated regarding the invisible population inside the walls. Out of sight….

But not only do “those people” get out at some point, they are human beings while they are incarcerated. Humans need cerebral challenges and stimulation to thrive. Education is never wasted, even on those who will die inside the walls. For those who will be released, the benefits to them and to society are unknowable, although they are quantifiable.

Education fundamentally changes a person. Once that person’s eyes have been opened, there is no un-seeing.

Inmates who access education inside have greater chances to live fulfilling, law-abiding lives outside. Education is responsible for a tremendous reduction in recidivism and increase in post-release employment.

So it’s in everyone’s best interest to help inmates become the best they can be.

Prison teaching is not for everyone. After all, there are many convincing reasons not to do it: the guards, the security searches, the lockdowns, the clanging doors, the caged humanity, the cacophony, the smell.

But I want to contribute to the betterment of future society, a society I will live in, too. Inmates are human beings who deserve opportunities to expand their minds and improve themselves.

Teachers who have been in higher education for any length of time have already had gang members and former inmates in their classes, whether they know it or not.

The main difference is that the students who are inside are better behaved than students on the outside.

One inmate student in my class observed me closely. He challenged me on the first day, asking me outright why I was there. I thought about it for a moment, then gave the only answer I could: “I hope you get something out of the class.”

“A real professor! From a university! Wants to teach us!” he marveled.

Yeah. I do.

Elizabeth "Bootsie" Martinez

Image 1: Benefits of prison education include fewer infractions and disciplinary write-ups, as well as reduced recidivism after release. Photo Source: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons

Image 2: Courtesy photo of Bootsie Martinez. Read more about Martinez and her research interests in ASU Now.

Editors' note: This piece was originally published on Martinez's Medium channel. It was also reprinted in ASU Prison Education News (Summer 2020) [PDF]. Used with permission.