Writing in notebook

The First Day in a Prison Classroom

My first day as a teaching assistant for an Inside-Out class was the first day I walked inside a prison. I had no idea what to expect and did not know what questions to ask. When we arrived at the prison in Pennsylvania and headed toward the classroom, I avoided eye contact with every person we walked past. I was unsure of what was normal or customary behavior for a visitor inside a prison. I pulled at my sleeves, buttoned my shirt to the highest possible button, and compulsively checked my empty pocket for my phone, which was not there.

Before entering the classroom, I worried the inside students would be restrained or separated from us in some way. I worried about what to say and whether to avoid asking “how are you?” when greeting inside students. I worried that I would not be a sufficient mentor for the outside students, since this was all new to me as well. I worried that my inadequacies or privilege would inhibit me from assisting the class to its full potential.

But when we walked inside the classroom and the inside students flooded us with applause and warm handshakes, I felt immediately at ease. They created a safe and welcoming environment for us to learn from one another and raised the level of intellectual and creative discourse, inspiring us all to do our best work. Although I still worried about saying the wrong thing or being insufficient or letting my privilege blind me, I felt more comfortable navigating these insecurities each time I entered the classroom with them. The class taught me that I will not be perfect, but I can listen and contribute with an open heart.

There were many extraordinary moments in that class, but looking back, I think my favorite times were the casual conversation and interactions. It’s a reminder that we’re all just humans trying to be better. I finally decided to let go of my fear about asking “how are you” to inside students. One day, when I asked a student named Jon “how are you,” he smiled and said, “I am. But that’s good enough for me.”

By Ellen Skirvin


  1. Great to hear this. I also visited jail way back when I was in college and I feel the same. But when we enter the jail, you will meet different people and you never expect how kind they are. They also deserve this kind of treatment because we are all human.

  2. I’m working as a part time teacher in prison, and I remember I was working with a student years back a young man prisoner, and he was exceptionally good with math, but had a terrible time with reading. We were working together at my desk, and at one point, and I meant this sincerely, I said, “You’re very smart.” He looked at me and said that no one had ever told him that before. I feel so sad when he said that. I miss teaching in prison. This lockdowns really stop jails and prison accepting visitors and classes.

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