Teaching English in Prison

(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the students.)

The first day I walked the yard at Kirkland Penitentiary, I was jittery. Going through security, being questioned as to where I was headed, being buzzed through multiple heavy metal doors, and walking the prison yard avoiding eye contact with crowds of tan-clad inmates made my palms sweat and my heart beat faster. Prison scenes in movies flashed through my mind, and I was relieved to make it to the library where I would be teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Meeting the men I would teach was a surprising experience. Where were the hardened criminals I had been anticipating? The students were calm, respectful, grateful, even cheerful. Though shy at first, they greeted me in broken English and thanked me when I left.

The ice was broken when we did our first skit. Somehow, standing up and acting opened the floodgates of hilarity and brought gales of laughter and a permanent sense of friendship and warmth to the group. After that week, stories began to flow in the in-between times — each student shared openly in a blend of Spanish and English about their former lives and about how God had radically changed them. Drugs, alcohol addiction, sexual crimes, burglary, kidnapping, and even murder are no match for the precious cleansing blood of Christ!

When Pedro, a former drug-lord, was arrested, he heard God speaking to him: “Look up!” As they put the handcuffs on his wrists, he looked up and knew that God was there and was calling him to a different life. He began reading his Bible and now is a regular preacher in the Hispanic dorms on weekends. He actively disciples younger Latino inmates like Javier, who goes along with him during his preaching to serve as his assistant — a Paul and Timothy set-up.

Javier was a self-admitted terror when he was first incarcerated. He was angry and frequently got involved in fights. As a punishment, he was moved to a dorm where he was the only Latino man, which was intensely difficult because he spoke very little English. He was completely isolated, and the only Spanish he had access to was a Spanish Bible someone had given him. He started reading, and it changed his life.

“I started praying,” he says. “I told God, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore. I don’t know how to change. Will you change me? I want to live a new life.” Providentially, he was transferred to another prison almost immediately after his conversion, where he met Pedro, his mentor and father in the faith.

The men share earnestly that being arrested, being in this prison, has literally saved them from themselves. “Before I was arrested, I drank, I smoked, I did drugs, I partied,” one says. “I didn’t eat well, I didn’t sleep well. Now, in prison, I don’t do any of those things but I eat well and I sleep well. I learn things. I work. It is good for me.”

Activity of any kind is a blessed relief. Each student has a job somewhere in the prison – in the commissary, in the cafeteria, in the laundry room, in the infirmary. One has lost 140 pounds by working out diligently doing “esquats.” Another copies down entries from the English dictionary and breaks out his notebook whenever he can to ask me analytical questions regarding word usage. Two others are chess buddies.

“Thinking too much is not good,” they agree. “Thinking about your family, about the past — it’s too stressful and it doesn’t do any good. It’s better to work and to learn. It makes the time go by.” Hearing this helps me to understand why the students enjoy English class so much, even though I nitpick their pronunciation — “school, not eschool” — and make them do brain-cramping conjugations that make them sigh “Ay ay ay.” Learning something new means forgetting what lies behind — if only for a moment.

And learn they have. Mario, now an advanced English student with a natural ease of expression, proudly shared with me, “Before I was arrested, I knew no English. All the English I have learned has been in prison.”

This same story is repeated in several conversations I have after class in the moments before the guards clear the men to return to their dorms. Many lived and worked in 100% Hispanic communities, having no contact with English speakers and no opportunity to learn.

Prison has opened doors of communication for them, and several now interact confidently with Americans. Others are still struggling through irregular verb conjugations and the twists and turns of umpteen synonyms all saying the very same thing — but they are on their way.

Yes, they are on their way. These men represent to me the very best of what can happen in a prison. They are changed, reformed — no, transformed. And yet it has not primarily been through a program or a service offered by the prison. It has been the Word of God alive and active in the prison, just as it is everywhere.

More than modifying their behavior of these former criminals, the Spirit of God has changed these men from the inside out. Their faces now radiate the joy and peace that can only come from Him.

“Physically, I am chained,” says Pedro, “But in my heart I am free. That is true freedom.”

Amen. “…If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

What’s your story of welcoming immigrants? I can’t wait to read what you share. Contact me at lovingthestranger [at] gmail [dot] com.

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