Concerning discipline and keeping the classroom safe, I find it important to stay as calm as possible. It seems some students feel it is their job to stress out the teacher. That’s how they “win” for the day. This was very apparent when I taught in the juvenile facility. I was called more names in the first ten minutes on my first day than I have been called in all my years teaching the adult inmates.  The juveniles were also expert at leaving little drawings on my desk.  These usually involved cartoons of me and one of the inmates.  I won’t go into detail, except to say they were shockingly pornographic and insulting to me.  One day, a similar drawing was drawn with pencil, three feet high, on the back wall of the classroom. After the classes were dismissed, I simply handed the drawings to the officer on duty, and cleaned the wall myself. Because I didn’t go berserk or scream or cry, the juveniles didn’t know what to do. Eventually, the name calling and shenanigans slowed down. I’d be lying if I said they totally stopped. But they never saw me get upset over it. I was only “on loan” at that location for a little under a year.  If I had continued there, I believe the classroom environment would have improved even more.

Some students like to steal things, so you have to be careful. They want the littlest things you wouldn’t even think people would want. I basically have to guard everything.

They will try to take transparent tape by wrapping a bunch around their pencil. They love to take paper, especially colored paper. I think they like to make cards to send home, but they still can’t be allowed to steal things. Paper clips are a hot item; they can be used as a variety of little tools or even in making weapons. They love markers and colored pens. The ink is used for tattooing, so it’s kind of a big deal if they obtain those.

An electric pencil sharpener will be stolen for its motor. They will take any kind of plugs and motors, and use them to make tattoo guns. The men are absolutely ingenious as to what they can build. Things that you would never even think of as being a valuable item, they’ll steal. You can’t let them take anything, because it could be a security issue later on in the dorm. Any piece of metal can be turned into a weapon. Since the men don’t have much, while in prison they’ll pay for anything imaginable. If a guy can steal wanted items, he can make a small fortune.

They might steal in order to sell things to other inmates, even though selling any item is against the rules. Possessing anything of value can lead to fights, blackmail, and all kinds of other issues. You have to watch every man and every item, just to maintain your small amount of supplies.

It is prudent to trust the students as much as possible, but it is also prudent not to trust any of them, even if they appear perfectly well-behaved. There have been many incidents, where the ones that were very quiet and I thought were the “perfect” students, were the ones actually stealing. Their plan is to build up my trust.  Once they think I’m not suspicious of them, they think it is “safe” to take advantage of the situation and slide out a set of headphones, a couple calculators, or a box of pencils.  Oh, and I can’t forget about batteries.  Remote controls are easy prey for a couple AA batteries.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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