Lu: Of prisons and papers

Often, when I approach the New Haven Correctional Center, I think that its building is one of the most depressing I have ever seen. Trash litters the curb and pairs of shoes dangle on telephone lines; the houses across the street look shuttered; the parking lot in the CVS next door is sometimes littered with broken glass. The entrance is sunken, overshadowed by a monolithic parking structure and the windowless north wall of the prison. Its glass doors open from the side and not the front, as if to dissuade visitors from coming in. The 803 inmates are five checkpoints away: a metal detector, an ID verification booth, two cast-iron sliding doors, and a bored security guard make sure I can’t enter unless I have clearance, which I have as a tutor for Yale’s Prison Education Project. The official visitor badge is a piece of laminated plastic, tattered at the edges. It feels gummy, like thousands of fingers have previously touched it. Inside the hallways that lead to the prison’s school, the air smells of boiled cabbage and sweat.

When I open the dirty green door that separates prison from teaching facility, a cursory glance is enough to see that nothing has changed. Inside the classroom where I usually tutor, there are nine desks, a few stacks of elementary school reading packets, ragged written-and-erased math booklets, and a sparse shelf of used paperbacks. There is a globe sitting on the teacher’s desk, and a poster of famous African Americans (Obama, Tiger Woods, Oprah) on the left wall. It is Friday at 1 p.m., and Jose is coming down from his cell block to meet me. He is Hispanic, looks about 20 years old, and wears a pair of black high-top sneakers. I usually come in wearing my black-and-yellow Nikes, and during the first week, we had a conversation about shoes. Jose is at school because he likes talking to people; because he can’t stand staying in his cell; and because, presumably, he wants to get a General Equivalency Degree. We have been working on math for the last month, and while most prison inmates are hard to teach—they display an unnerving degree of intransigence to adopting a new way of thinking—I have connected well with Jose, and he’s attempted the strategies I’ve taught him: cancelling zeros, cross-multiplication, taking the reciprocal.

At the end of our two hour session, I tell him that he can go once he finishes his page of mixed fractions. The two full-time teachers are in their cramped offices, leaving Jose and I alone in the main classroom. When he finishes his packet, he hesitates, then asks if he can take the copy of The New Haven Register sitting on the teacher’s desk. It might not seem like a big request, but in prison, carrying a newspaper around is a big deal: word on the (cell) block is that they are currency, and can be traded for small favors down the line. Having one — or knowing someone who can get you one — is a sign of status. Only the teachers have the power to give them out. There’s an implicit assumption that I have no power to do so.

I look up, and my eye catches a sign plastered to the classroom door. “Do not ask for a newspaper. You are out of place.” I hesitate. Then I tell Jose I can’t let him have it. He gives me a look of disappointment and scorn, and on the way out the door, he takes the newspaper anyway.

The next week, I am assigned a new tutee. Jose, I’m told, has just received his full sentencing and has been transported to Bridgeport. I’m disappointed, but also silently relieved. I understand the implications of acquiescing to an inmate’s request: it changes the power dynamic, creates dangerous reward patterns, and singles me out as an inside man. Yet, a part of me thinks the newspaper rule is arcane and bureaucratic: the teachers probably throw out the paper at the end of the day, and Jose might even have wanted to read it. The benefits of positive reinforcement seemed to outweigh undercutting authority. But I’m not sure I could break the rules, even if I tried.

The session with my new tutee goes smoothly. We solve two pages of multiplication problems before spending the last hour working through a Sudoku puzzle together (level: easy). As 3 p.m. approaches, my anxiety level starts to shoot up. There’s a copy of the Register sitting on the teacher’s desk. As he gets up to leave, I almost expect the question. He doesn’t ask. Since then, nobody has.

Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College.

Comments

  • justayalemom

    Mr. Lu, you are doing a great thing! Thank you.