Notes on Teaching in Prison
Note: this is a post I wrote in 2018, so some of the numbers may be out of date. I’ve also changed my mind on lots of things since 2018, and there are many parts that I would write differently. Until now, the post was only accessible from the Wayback Machine; I’m sharing it here with some light edits because I think some LWers might find it interesting.
Edited on 4⁄20 to add two pictures.
Between September 2017 and April 2018, I worked full-time teaching in a French jail as part of my first year at École polytechnique. All of what I’ll be talking about happened in France. The jail I taught in was fairly typical of French Maisons d’arrêt, but even these vary greatly. Some of the pages I link to below are only available in French. I don’t teach in prison anymore. Since most of the differences are lost in translation anyway, I’ll use inmate, detainee, prisoner, and convict interchangeably. Same with jail and prison, as well as prison officer and prison guard.
As of December 2018, there are 188 prisons in France and about 80,000 inmates. They are handled by the Penitentiary Administration (Administration Pénitentiaire), which comprises prison guards (28,000) and wardens as well as probation officers (5,000), who are in charge of a total of 250,000 people (the remaining 170,000 are either on probation or serving other sentences, such as electronic monitoring or community service) and work with an annual budget of 2.79 billion euros. The prison I taught in was a Maison d’Arrêt. These are the most common kind of facility (there are 130 of them), in which you find detainees incarcerated for a short amount of time (in theory, less than two years) and prisoners accused of more serious offenses who are still awaiting their final verdict, at which point they will be transferred to another jail. All convicts were over 18. The jail where I taught had 1,000 inmates, 200 of whom were women. In France, only 3.8% of inmates are women. All the figures come from this page (link in French).
Maisons d’arrêt are where prison overpopulation is most serious: our prison had a density of around 140%, meaning there were 1.4 as many inmates as beds theoretically available. This is average for Maisons d’arrêt, with maximal densities reaching 200%. It’s also in Maisons d’arrêt that the detainee’s freedom is most restricted: normally, they literally stay in their cell all the time, where they can only interact with their cellmate (or by passing stuff through the window gratings, though this is theoretically forbidden), except for planned activities (school, manual labor, sports, the occasional movie screening or cultural performance), and recess.
Inmates are allowed a TV (except in disciplinary quarters), and there are extremely rarely more than 2 convicts per cell (who sleep on a bunk bed). Material conditions vary a lot between jails: mine was fairly recent, whereas a detention center I visited had alleys still dating from the 1960s. These sorts of disparities are surprising at first. Where you commit an offense has a huge impact on what your jail time (if any) will be like. Breaking the law in Paris, where prisons are flooded, or in Bordeaux, which is calmer, can lead to very different outcomes: you might get incarcerated only in the second situation. Even within a region where you offend also has an influence: you can end up in a big (say 1,000 inmates), impersonal but fairly modern jail, or in a very small (50 inmates), crummy yet familial prison. Prisons have reputations, and judges will often assign inmates accordingly. This being said, an inmate can request to be transferred to a jail that is closer to their family, although (a recurring pattern) the administrative handling of the request may take a long time.
People are either very surprised by this or find it obvious: drugs are everywhere in jail. Inmates can smoke weed literally in front of wardens and get away with it. There are many possible reasons for this: maybe the prison officer is feeling lazy, and the situation allows them to at least plausibly deny that they saw someone smoking pot; maybe they think that weed will soothe the inmate and prevent them from running amok, or maybe the atmosphere is particularly tense and denying them weed would lead to a riot. Some prisoners have told me that many wardens are corrupt: I don’t have a strong opinion on this, as I certainly didn’t ask them. It’s true that the proportion of inmates with phones or weed (both of which are banned) is huge, but I wouldn’t want to infer too much from this alone.
In general, conflicts between detainees and surveillance staff are common. One explanation is the following: there are many unofficial rules. For instance, because guards don’t have the power to enforce all the rules, many legally prohibited things are tolerated in jail, at least to some extent (phones, food from the outside, drugs); on the other hand, if an inmate misbehaves without breaking official rules (for example by being mildly disrespectful), a warden has the de facto power to mess with their life (for example by holding very stringent and humiliating searches, preventing them from getting to class, telling their colleagues to keep an eye on them). In the best cases, this leads to an equilibrium of sorts, an arrangement more realistic than a perfectly lawful situation. However, because it is illegible, it lacks robustness with regard to all sorts of perturbations. For example, in a big prison where officers change roles quite regularly, a change of the guard means that new unofficial rules will be enforced: the transition period will be full of misconceptions and antagonisms. This fits two things I observed:
Smaller prisons, where prison officers and inmates know each other pretty well, tend to be more peaceful.
One of the greatest sources of inmate anger is novice/intern surveillance staff.
Most inmates find pedophilia much, much worse than murder. Being a pedophile (un pointu) in prison is one of the worst things that could happen to you. Not only do the other inmates hate you, but so do many of the guards, and it is even more likely that they will turn a blind eye to the violence you’ll endure for sure. Pedophiles, Jews, and famous people are often put in isolation when possible, but there are often not enough cells.
I found a blog written (illegally, with his phone) by an inmate of the prison I taught in during his incarceration. I have no idea who he is, and since he stopped posting in December 2016 when I arrived in September 2017, our time here did not overlap. His description of life as a detainee corroborates my impressions as a teacher: most shocking is the pervasiveness of violence, the certainty that even staying alone and never going out can’t protect you in an environment that’s rigged against you. Of course, appealing to the rule of law is more often than not detrimental to your security: even the vague suspicion that you might be a snitch can be enough to get you beaten up during recess.
Suicide was a big deal in my jail. For a few consecutive years, it had topped the list of prisons in terms of self-murder, so the administration wasn’t taking any risks. Whenever an inmate was suspected of being suicidal, they were taken to a special cell with non-angular furniture and paper clothes that would tear so as to avoid hanging. There, an officer would check on them regularly. Many convicts found this situation even more depressing. According to this 2016 memo (link in French), suicide is most frequent for imprisoned men, inmates in disciplinary quarters or in custody, or who have committed violent or sexual crimes. The impact of overpopulation on suicide is plausible but hard to evaluate: worse living conditions make suicide more likely, but this could be compensated by the presence of a cellmate.
I also had many interesting conversations with prison guards. It’s a hard and pretty unrewarding job (link in French), a lot like taking the bad aspects of military life without the good sides (status, sports, expeditions). An overwhelming majority ended up as wardens because that’s the only job they’d found, and the suicide rate for men is 22% higher (link in French) than the rest of the population. They often resent inmates for having access to classes when they, law-abiding citizens, do not have the same educational opportunities. Both tend to come from the same disadvantaged social background, which is why many guards don’t buy social deterministic narratives. Guards are very worried about their security and angry that they don’t have the means to enforce the rules that theoretically govern life in jail. In January 2018, a German terrorist assaulted two guards with a knife, which led to strikes in all French prisons for about 2 weeks (even though guards, like soldiers, are not allowed to be on strike). Their demands? Fewer restrictions on the searches they are allowed to make, more weapons (e.g. flash-balls) and/or better training for the handling of the weapons they carry, isolating the most dangerous inmates in higher security quarters, higher salaries (current net salary is about 1500€ a month, with occasional bonuses) and more recruitment.
Recidivism is very common in France. Unsurprisingly, the most influential factors are age (younger offenders re-offend more often) and criminal record (prisoners who had already reoffended tend to reiterate more). Regarding imprisoned offenders, a study found that women were half as likely as men to re-offend in the five years following their release. Reduced sentences were associated with less recidivism, but the author points out that controls were not sufficient to account for many relevant factors, such as good behavior.
The prison is divided into an administrative part, in which you won’t encounter inmates unless there’s a serious problem, and the zone where prisoners live, study, work, play, etc. Whenever I entered this second zone, I was given an alarm in case of emergency (I never had to use it). I worked in the “Local Teaching Unit”, which had a teacher’s lounge in the administrative quarters and a building of its own with 5 small rooms where classes happened. There was only one prison officer in the whole education building.
Many convicts want to attend classes: the demand for courses far exceeds what the prison can offer. Inmates have to send a paper with the class they want to attend to the school office—which doesn’t have a secretary. We were flooded by these papers, and inmates, therefore, had to wait very long before being allowed to go to class. Because many inmates are barely able to write, these notes are often not very helpful, and every month we took a few days during which we grouped all of the students-to-be and reviewed their cases one by one to assign them to appropriate courses.
Once an inmate was following courses and we knew them a bit, it was much easier for them to talk to us in person and ask to e.g. transfer to another class. So there’s a real “getting your foot through the door” effect to all this, which is, of course, also influenced by the opinion the Penitentiary Administration has of any individual student: they can veto the attendance of anyone, officially or not (by making sure that the inmate never makes it to class).
The range of things that can be studied is actually pretty large:
There are priority profiles, as identified by the ministry: foreigners who can’t speak French, illiterate people being taught how to read, and young adults who are still studying. Unlike the others, they don’t have to wait a long time to study.
We prepare inmates for a few official diplomas: CFG—link in French, shows that you can barely read, write and count; CAP—link in French, general diploma for vocational education, includes a theoretical minimum (e.g. percentages, very basic scientific facts like speed = distance/time, ) and sector-specific specializations: we mostly offered sales (CAP Vente) and occasionally painting—and DAEU (allows you to go to university, while being less demanding than Baccalauréat/A-Levels/SATs/etc).
Spanish and English classes
Some ’soft’ classes, with few or no prerequisites: philosophy workshops, intro to the penal system, drawing, and painting.
A few private lessons for special cases (convicts in isolation, young adults preparing a specific diploma) are often handled by NGOs.
I mostly taught English, basic math, and basic science at the CAP level, both private lessons and normal classes. In addition to these, I would often teach other classes to help out, for example, when colleagues were absent.
The academic level of most inmates is very, very low. About one in ten is illiterate, another tenth doesn’t speak a word of French, and around half would struggle to write a single decent sentence. To be honest, I think many prisoners end up not learning much. The general environment makes studying very hard. Many inmates have additional issues that further complicate learning. That is not always the case, of course: for example, many illiterate inmates are screened early on and learn how to read in prison. My experience, however, suggests that these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Student-Inmates are absent a lot, often through no fault of their own. There is a “3 strikes you’re out” rule on attending, except it’s hard to know whether the prisoner decided to sleep late or wasn’t allowed out by an angry guard getting ahead of themself.
Students who prepare the CAP generally get it. This doesn’t change the fact that they’ll forget what they were taught, much of which wouldn’t have been much use anyway. In any case, a CAP Vente generally won’t get you a job. The number of inmates who later attend university is vanishingly small. I don’t know to what extent prison schooling helps prevent recidivism (and haven’t found French papers addressing the question), but I would guess very little after controlling appropriately for the properties (motivation and/or previous education, for instance) that likely lead to attendance.
What’s the point?
Mostly, many students enjoy it. It’s a change of scenery of sorts, and they get to interact with other inmates as well as people from the outside who aren’t wardens. It gives them a way of contemplating the future that is not as depressing as the rare interviews they get with probation officers.
This led me to a revaluation of which courses are/aren’t valuable: I stopped teaching beginner-level English, an obviously valuable skill to have, because inmates didn’t have the motivation/conscientiousness or were not in the mood to work regularly (I couldn’t blame them, of course) on something that starts paying off early only after a certain amount of time. I felt this was going nowhere. On the other hand, convicts greatly enjoyed the philosophy workshops, where they were free to express themselves. It’s much easier being a teacher in a prison for adults than in a juvenile detention center, as in the latter, classes are mandatory, and most inmates would rather be anywhere but a classroom.
Inmates get slightly shorter sentences if they go to school, which is a major cause of attendance. In general, I think that there is a good case for school attendance in prison as a useful signal of motivation and good intentions, both to the prison administration and to oneself. Going to school is something concrete you can commit to.
More broadly, people pushing for prison education often argue that it develops or at least maintains discipline and punctuality: for instance, according to the Wikipedia article on prison education, Zebulon Brockway argued that it would “discipline the mind and fit it to receive … the thoughts and principles that constitute their possessors good citizens”. In general, I tend to be skeptical of this line of reasoning, but then here, the alternative really is watching TV all day. My impression is that this is a valid point regarding the (not uncommon) kind of convict who already wants to turn their life around but needs a nudge from the administration to avoid falling back into toxic routines and vicious circles.
The issue with this argument is that I think it overestimates the importance of wanting to get one’s life in order relative to actually being able to change for the better. I’ve seen lots of inmates talk about their yearning to get educated in order to avoid making the mistakes that got them incarcerated: these kinds of declarations send warm fuzzies straight to a teacher’s heart. However, one could argue that the main role school plays here is as a symbol of reinsertion (the fact that teachers are actual employees of the Ministry for Education and not “just” volunteers makes this symbol all the more powerful). For instance, having inmates sign a contract in which they pledged to attend class, do their homework, behave well, etc, and making a big deal of the contract was instrumental in raising attendance for some classes.
The EU funds research or public projects. It does so partially according to the criteria: does your initiative involve educating kids from tough neighborhoods? File for an XYZ678 grant. Could it lead to the empowerment of women? Then you can find money thanks to TRF98 (I just invented these, but things like them probably exist). This incentivizes a lot of people to frame their initiative in such a way that they can apply for as many grants as possible, even when the effects on e.g. disadvantaged kids or woman empowerment are very speculative (some people are experts at just that).
To sum up: the whole experience has made me less enthusiastic about the effects of teaching in prison: I came in believing that although in many situations, education is less useful than many people are willing to acknowledge, in prison, it would be much more effective. Though I still believe that education is more useful in prisons than elsewhere and worth it, the benefits aren’t as clear as I thought, and they are both different and more sobering.
If anything, these six months have made me more uncertain as to both the harms and benefits of imprisonment itself. On the one hand, just in case I haven’t made this clear enough, prison is extremely harsh in many, many ways and will often wreak more havoc on a delinquent than the damage their offense caused. Incarceration doesn’t just remove freedom: in order to do so, it takes away so many of the things that can lend meaning to life that one is led to wonder whether or not it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” (as Peter Moskos points out in his provocatively titled In Defense of Flogging, most culprits would rather endure ten brutal lashes than five years in prison). Moreover, jails seem pretty ineffective. Short sentences are especially bad: they are not very deterrent and arguably offer the worst possible environment for young offenders. In general, high rates of recidivism tend to suggest the poor influence of a prison sentence on subsequent outcomes. One could argue that for some crimes, such as murder, incarceration at least makes sure inmates won’t re-offend during their sentence. For more minor offenses, however, this is far from true: many inmates fight or take drugs more often in prison than outside.
On the other hand, having spoken to sentence enforcement judges, probation officers, and wardens, it’s just not true that judges never consider alternative sentences. In fact, most inmates have already served an alternative sentence (e.g. electronic monitoring) and ended up in jail because they reoffended. Judges are also acutely aware that short sentences are generally counter-productive and that overpopulation levels are alarming. Scott Alexander also convincingly argues (at least for the US) against the narrative (also common in France), according to which the strong prevalence of mental illness in prisons shows that most jails should be replaced by psychiatric hospitals. The dire state of much of French psychiatry today probably also strengthens this case. A study published recently concluded that electronic monitoring was more cost-effective than short sentences but argued that these benefits might not subsist if monitoring does not go with regular supervision and accompaniment.
How much should hedonic treadmill effects be taken into account when considering inmate welfare? I feel like there is a very real sense in which convicts who did not expect to ever go to prison tend to be traumatized and extremely depressed, whereas convicts who grew up in an environment where prison was ’normal’, or at least not unheard of tend to be better equipped to deal with the situation. One of the reasons for this is the illegibility of the rules mentioned above. This could be an argument in favor of keeping higher-level courses even if the number of inmates who would attend them is pretty small. In general, detainees who know how to cope with prison are also the most troublesome: they have friends on the outside who throw weed, phones, or food in the yard for them, and know enough people have their back not to be afraid of getting into fights.
So there you have it. I’m somewhat frustrated because I couldn’t find an overarching conceptual framework to unify all of this. Still, I found these few months interesting, got to meet people whose dedication I admire and don’t regret even the hardest moments of the experience.
Many thanks to Alexey and Timothée Chauvin for getting me to write the post and for their useful advice.
Curated. Every now again we get a nicely written exploration on some aspect of human reality that most of us wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with, e.g Toni Kurz and the Insanity of Climbing Mountains, and I just feel more broadly in touch with the world outside the narrow range of topics I usually think about. Cheers!
Thank you Ruby. Two other posts I like that I think fit this category are A Brief Introduction to Container Logistics and What it’s like to dissect a cadaver.
This really surprised me while reading.
How is it logistically possible for the guards to go on strike?
Who was doing all the routine work of operating cell doors, cameras, and other security facilities?
This is a good question. In France, prison guards are not allowed to strike (like most police, military, and judges). At the time, the penitentiary administration asked for sanctions against guards who took part in the strike, but I think most were not applied because there was a shortage of guards.
In practice, guards were replaced by gendarmes, and work was reduced to the basics (e.g. security and food). In particular, classes, visits, and yard time were greatly reduced and sometimes completely cut, which heightened tensions with inmates.
Thank you for sharing this. I was a teachers aid at a Women’s Prison in AZ. I instructed Woman who tested below the 8th grade level in Reading and Language. There were other classes for getting a high school “equivalent” diploma or GED and that so called diploma will get you top pay at 30 cents per hour! *after a year. I was a prisoner and the class room had air conditioning so I walked in the classroom and said “I’ll teach anything but Math”. Every inmate is tested upon arrival at prison. If you have a high school diploma or GED you are able to make 20 cents per hour instead of 10 cents. (Ten pennys) Woman were required to spend half of their day in class until they acquired that (in my opinion) worthless GED. The real value in Education is that these were mostly semi illiterate Women who had kids. They felt really bad about not being able to teach or help with homework. I counted my blessings daily. The worst part of Prison was no Air Conditioning in the summer (in Goodyear Arizona.) Horrible healthcare that I fortunately never needed and getting stripped searched twice a day. My only mission going in was to keep my teeth so I planned to keep my mouth shut and read books. It worked. The other inmates were actually warm and welcoming, Each one had been a new inmate once upon a time. I was expecting Shawshank Redemption. There were opportunities for employment that was basically telemarketing training and those Women were also financially exploited in my opinion. I had a job outside the Prison for a few weeks detailing cars on an assembly line for the auto auction. They kept telling me to go faster. “It does not have to be perfect” did not compute. I made $3 per hour and the Prison “held”$2 in “retention”. In my case it went toward my “Gate Fee” of $100 in 2017. They don’t want to throw you out in the desert with no money. They save your money for you and keep the interest. If you have a good $4 per hour job they make you pay rent and utilities. Rent to be in Prison to live in a giant airplane hanger in the desert with 60 other Women. Work in State Prison is Mandatory. When you are a Felon you will Never get housing or employment once you serve your time. All applications are rejected by algorithms. Prison was easy compared to the private school I attended as a Teenager. You do not need your Brain in State Prison. You have absolutely no decisions to make. You are told what to do and how to do it. I was not there long enough to do what I usually do. (Advocate for Human Rights) I was able to educate a few seriously over medicated young Women into ditching their brain disabling neurotoxins before permanent damage was done. All institutions are abusive by nature and in America 200,00 Children are living in unregulated out of home placements “Congregate Care”that are absolutely unacceptable abusive Hellholes. Nail Salons have more regulations. These Children turn 18 and are thrown away like garbage. You can find them in Prison or on Porn Hhb.
I don’t know much of the prison system in France, but your description definitely hit the points I was familiar with: the overcrowding, the general resentment the population has for any measure of dignity the system can give to inmates, the endemic lack of budget, and the magistrates trying to make the system work despite a severe lack of good options.
That’s a great perspective. Do you think there’s some potential for applying the skills, logic, and values of the rationalist community to issues surrounding prison reform and helping predict better outcomes? While data analysis is currently applied to predicting recidivism, could models be further calibrated or improved using data-driven approaches often employed by rationalist and AI communities? The idea is to incorporate ideas like trust-building, safe transition, and prosociality.
Ha! Of course not.
Well, no, the honest answer would be “I don’t know, I don’t have any personal experience in that domain”. But the problems I have cited (lack of budget, the general population actively wanting conditions not to improve) can’t be fixed with better data analysis.
From anecdotes I’ve had from civil servants, directors love new data analysis tools, because they promise to improve outcomes without a budget raise. Staff hates new data analysis tools because they represent more work for them without a budget raise, and they desperately want the budget raise.
I mean, yeah, rationality and thinking hard about things always helps on the margin, but it doesn’t compensate for a lack of budget or political goodwill. The secret ingredients to make a reform work are money and time.
Thank you for this; I am grateful your article showed up in my inbox.
I really enjoyed reading your write-up of your experience. Thanks so much for taking the time and being so thoughtful about it. I’m curious what you think of this article about gradual re-entry of inmates back into civil society. Do you think the system described would be better, both for inmates and also for public safety generally? https://www.vox.com/2015/3/18/8226957/prison-reform-graduated-reentry
Very interesting read, thank you!
How did you end up doing this work? Did you deliberately seek it out? What are teachers, probation officers and so on (everyone who is not a guard) like? What drives them?
I went to a French engineering school which is also a military school. During the first year (which corresponds to junior year in US undergrad), each student typically spends around six months in an armed forces regiment after basic training.
Students get some amount of choice of where to spend these six months among a list of options, and there are also some opportunities outside of the military: these include working as a teaching assistant in some high schools, working for some charitable organizations, and working as a teacher in prison.
When the time came for me to choose, I had an injured shoulder, was generally physically weak, and did not have much of a “soldier mindset” (ha). So I chose the option that seemed most interesting among the nonmilitary ones: teaching in prison. Every year around five students in a class of about 500 do the same.
Overall, I thought the teachers were fairly similar to normal public school teachers—in fact, some of them worked part-time at a normal high school. In the prison I worked at, they seemed maybe more dedicated and open-minded than normal public school teachers, but I don’t remember them super well.
I don’t really remember my conversations with probation officers. One thing that struck me was that in my prison, maybe 90% of them were women. If I remember correctly, most were in their thirties.