Every class the same. Every class different.

Photo of Pelican Bay Prison

In my weekly class at Pelican Bay State Prison, every class is the same. Yet, every class is different. 

Like the rigid nature of prison life, there is a uniformity to every class. Every Tuesday at the same time, the same students in the same attire join the same instructor in the same classroom to study the same subject. A perfect example of simplicity and regularity. 

Despite that reality, each and every class is different. Sometimes different in ways that are hardly perceptible. Sometimes different in other ways that are impossible to hide. Either way, I’m often left to wonder what transpired out on the yard or in a cell before class.

I don’t ask. And they don’t say. 

A couple weeks ago, the class felt simultaneously tense and tired, on edge and distracted. When students entered the classroom, there were fewer relaxed smiles. The typical pre-class chatter was minimal, only after being not existent. When class started, few responded to my questions about the assigned reading. Their bodies may have made it to the classroom, but their minds had not yet arrived. 

In some cases, the difference was far from a subtle vibe. It’s the guy who limped in on crutches claiming he’d had a procedure on his knee a few days ago. No one disputed the claim. But, no one commented either. It’s the guy who returned to the class from the restroom with a handful of paper towels he then stuffed into the side of his mouth for an ache and pain he couldn’t seem to describe – which made him, a notorious talker, really hard to understand. It’s the guy whose hand is so swollen up he can’t really write and then left the class for a trip to medical – the very same guy who arrived to the room the week before with a scowl on his face, took up a seat on the back row and crossed his arms, and didn’t move an inch for three hours. Mostly it’s the recurring cycle of bumps and bruises that makes me think that might be too many inconveniently placed sharp edges and steep stairs here.

It all left me to wonder. Because I didn’t ask. And they didn’t say. I simply pressed on. 

But the topic of the day didn’t make it any easier – civil liberties and civil rights. The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. The 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The laws that protect us from the government’s encroachment upon our fundamental freedoms. The laws that require and empower the government to protect us from different kinds of discrimination.

I found this to be a tough lesson to teach to a room full of men who’ve been stripped of so many rights and freedoms – in some cases, before they were incarcerated. It wasn’t easy to talk about freedoms to those who have very little now and to some who may never have them again. In fact, their direct knowledge of the American justice system caused them to focus on what they knew – the rights of the criminally accused. 

While I wanted to talk about the 1st Amendment (free of speech and religion), they wanted to talk about the 4th Amendment (protection against unreasonable search and seizure), the 5th Amendment (protection against self-incrimination and double jeopardy), the 6th Amendment (the right to effective counsel) and the 8th Amendment (protection against cruel and unusual punishment). 

But, I refused to let them stay here. It was the best for them. It was best for the class. Because it’s exactly what turned the class around. 

I began to walk through what the Court has defined as fundamental rights for Americans – the right to free speech and religion, the right to marry, the right to vote, and several others. Most of these rights are not accessible by the incarcerated. But, it didn’t seem to bother them. They just continued to dutifully take notes and nod their heads – that is until I shared that the right to travel was deemed a fundamental right by the Court. 

One student piped up, “The right to travel? Are you serious? You mean like going on vacation?”

I smiled as I answered. “Sure. But, it’s more like the right to travel to another state for work and earn a livelihood for you and your family.” 

“Well, either way, that’s ridiculous. ‘Cause we ain’t traveling anywhere! The only traveling we’re doing is from our cell to the yard to this class. And if we try to do any more traveling, the CO’s are gonna have a problem with that. It’ll probably be the last time we ever travel anywhere!” The honest delivery caused the class bust out laughing. 

Between my own out loud laughing, all I could muster was, “Fair enough.” But they were just warming up. And I braced myself for a topic I knew likely take the class to a place of teenager silliness – the Court’s approach to obscenity and pornography under the 1st Amendment. They didn’t disappoint.   

I began by attempting to walk through the three-part test the Court uses in deciding what is and isn’t protected under the 1st Amendment. I got no further than the first element and the class was buzzing with excitement. 

“It appeals to a prurient interest – meaning it encourages an interest in sexual matters,” I say. 

“Sounds okay to me!” one student practically yelled. The class laughed and the chatter started. I quickly move on.

“It is patently – or clearly – offensive.”

“It patently or clearly or whatever is not!” another student added. The class giggled like school children. I press on doing my best to hold it – and the class – together.  

“It lacks any literary, scientific, artistic or political value,” I concluded. 

“Yes, it does!” More laughter. 

One guy through his own laughter summed it up best by yelling over the noise of the classroom, “Look, we’ve been down too long. So, you might wanna to start talking about something else.”

Like a well-timed routine between two comedic improv partners, another guy on the other side of the room yelled, “Squirrel!” – a reference to the dog, Doug, in the animated Disney movie “Up” in which the dog is always distracted by any squirrel that moves into his line of sight. The class roared with laughter.

While I’d enjoyed the moment of levity, I took the not-so-subtle hint to move on, “Let’s talk about commercial speech.”  

The mood swings in the room that night reminded me the students in this particular classroom carry with them a unique set of bumps, bruises and burdens. Some visible to the naked eye. Others requiring years of work to unearth. But, like the rest of us, the physical, mental and emotional baggage these students find themselves lugging around every day is ever-present and actually hard to hide from those who are brave enough to only look. 

My job in moments like these is not to control them or their learning. There are plenty of others here to do that. I only hope to serve as one of many guides in their simple quest to be better and do better Accepting them as they are. Supporting them always. Whether they’re scowling with their arms crossed on the back row or giggling like a 11-year-old who just saw something they shouldn’t have for the first time. 

Honestly, it’s the only way we learn. All of us.