My First Semester Working with Incarcerated People

The day before going into a prison for the first time, I was anxious that I would somehow break the dress code and not be allowed in, despite reading through the dress code at least five times. I really wanted to make the most of every chance I got to go inside; I was so nervous that I went shopping the night before to make sure I would be good to go.

The morning of the Think Tank, I was extremely energized, even though I only slept for about four hours. The Think Tank grew out of a WVU English course taught in fall 2019 as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange. Both inside and outside students continue to meet to work on educational projects. On the way up, everyone asked if I had any questions, but I was really just wondering what to expect.

Inside Students: Intelligent, Dedicated, Passionate

While waiting to go in, a lady walked in and had to wait with us to pick up her son, who was just getting out of prison. Suddenly all my nerves disappeared; I thought about how happy she must be to be reunited with her son, and how she would have wanted him to be treated while in prison. I realized that the work we did was to help people like her son continue their lives while in prison by helping them create programs to assist themselves and others in the prison.

After we got in, I was shocked at the friendliness and politeness of the inside students that I met; each and every one of them shook my hand and told me they were glad to have me there. During group work, I got the chance to work closely with one incarcerated person who was working to set up a symposium. He showed me the lengthy documents that he made and shared all his ideas. He would always ask me and the other outside student for criticism and our ideas, but he really had it all figured out. I was mind blown at his intelligence and dedication.

Expectations vs. Reality

Many people have asked me what I thought after my first time in a prison, and I would tell them that it wasn’t what I expected, but in a good way. I was reminded that people in prison are just PEOPLE; the conversation flowed so easily, they were brilliant and strong, and in fact, just inspirational to me.

I thought that I would be uncomfortable because of the images that I had seen in the media. It is important to remember that there are regular people in prison that are doing their best to improve themselves and get out of the system, and the media does not represent everything accurately.

Waiting for Pandemic Restrictions to Be Lifted

Now I find myself thinking of the inside students often and wondering how they are coping with the COVID-19 situation and how the changes are appearing to them. It seems like the world around us is crumbling and everything that we were used to is in question. I wonder if they feel the same way.

At the last Think Tank, I was blown away once again by their passion and hard work, and I desperately hope that this virus does not affect the possibility of future projects happening. It is obvious that our work gives them motivation and inspiration sometimes, and that is one reason why I am so concerned about what is happening right now.

At this time, all I can do is hope that this pandemic gets solved soon so we can get back to our daily functions, especially the Think Tank. I am glad that I will be able to be involved similarly next semester and hopefully get even more involved than I was this semester. It is sad that our plans had to come to a sudden stop, but the work that we all did surely made a difference.

By Mackenzie Steele, APBP Intern (Spring 2020)


  1. I’m sure your prison students are missing you now. This COVID-19 is not forever, you can still continue to teach them when this COVID go away. Thank you for sharing this! Not all heroes wear capes. Salute!

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