David Chura

David Chura
Location
Northampton, Massachusetts, United States
Birthday
March 21
Bio
Teacher, youth advocate, author of "I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup" (Beacon Press).

David Chura's Links

Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
JULY 9, 2012 12:22PM

In Our Toxic Prison System, is There Room for Hope?

Rate: 6 Flag

I didn’t expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I’d done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I’d talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.

Most wanted to be police or correctional officers; a few mentioned probation. I wasn’t surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.

Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn’t deny the things that I wrote about: how “the system” is toxic both physically—the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence, and morally—the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be “tough.” Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one doing time.” What they didn’t like was that I said these things publicly:  I was the worst kind of jail scum—a rat.

However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who’s got it, who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it. It is a culture based on “us” and “them.” I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the “bad guys” were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the “good guys” were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy.  Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person—inmate and staff alike—as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.

I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as “bad,” getting what they deserved.

And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by “the system.”

“What I want to know is how you didn’t get discouraged by the whole thing and just quit?” Jake was sitting in the front row, baggy shorts, sneakers, and backwards ball cap. With his book opened, eager and interested, he’d been asking tough questions. I should’ve known that he’d get to the heart of the matter. “I mean, what with inmate recidivism and the conditions in the prison, what about hope?” 

I’m not sure the students bought the “long view” I presented. I wouldn’t have at their age. It sounded too simplistic, downright hokey. But I gave it anyway. Although I saw young kids return to jail time after time, and watched officers and inmates bowed by prison’s oppressive conditions, I never gave up hope because I had a bone-deep belief that no effort to be fair, to be respectful, to be decent in the face of all “the system’s” negativity would be wasted. Early in my jail time I made the decision not to tally my efforts with the results. I’d let others keep score. I just held fast to the belief that small change would happen sometime, somewhere, and that that’s all it takes to turn things around.

At the end of class I’m pretty sure I left the students with more questions than answers. It’s not something I like to do. Maybe it’s a teacher thing. I know Jake wasn’t satisfied. He told me so, quite respectfully, when he came up to have me sign his book.

But looking back at that morning I feel now that Jake’s “What about hope?” was a good question for the class to carry into their challenging futures as correctional professionals—and as people. Too many of us forget, in our professional and personal lives, that there will always be more questions than answers in whatever we do. Maybe the only way to keep hope alive in our jobs and our lives is to keep asking those tough questions and hope we don’t come up with answers.

Originally appeared on Beacon Broadside

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Those are good points...meet each person as an individual, no matter where they fit in the pecking order...and hold fast to the belief that small changes happen, and matter, and can turn things around. Thank you for posting!
Very interesting, thoughtgiving work, thank you for sharing!
Wonderful post! If you check out some of my pieces you will see that I also "teach" in a prison to newly incarcerated female inmates. I knew NOTHING about the prison system and I certainly knew nothing about the women I have gotten to know.

The COs there are really great people so I don't see much of the downside of their roles.

Please look at my prison posts--one was recently chosen as an Editor's Pick--and if you go back a little bit, it should be obvious as to which ones are about my experiences.

I look forward to your feedback!
Wonderful post! If you check out some of my pieces you will see that I also "teach" in a prison to newly incarcerated female inmates. I knew NOTHING about the prison system and I certainly knew nothing about the women I have gotten to know.

The COs there are really great people so I don't see much of the downside of their roles.

Please look at my prison posts--one was recently chosen as an Editor's Pick--and if you go back a little bit, it should be obvious as to which ones are about my experiences.

I look forward to your feedback!
Nice post. I think my hope usually came from knowing that there are almost always exceptions even when there are answers.
I don't suppose it would help much in the short term to say that there are a lot of related subjects that could make a big difference if they were reformed. The most important thing is preventing these people from getting in trouble in the first place; but this isn't being done because many of the causes, including early deprivation or child abuse, are routinely ignored or denied for political reasons. Also there needs to be more opportunities for them when they do get out but the system doesn't do much to provide that.

If these other issues were addressed better it would be much easier to reduce recidivism. I agree that it is hard to see how you could have much hope but at the same time I recall several examples where they ahve overcome those obstacles anyway; and I suspect and hope that more social reform will be coming so that some of the other related issues will be addressed better as well.

Although that won't provide quick solution to those already stuck in the system.
I think you're exactly right that as students those young people should be looking at their future professions with nothing but questions. We have to hope for a change in the status quo when we see a wretched situation that seems to endlessly repeat itself. If young people going into the profession can't see things with a fresh eye and with hope for change then we all have to give up.