June 27, 2011

Going to prison and talking to criminals

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 
Nelson Mandela


I went on an excursion with my year 11 legal studies class to HM Barwon Prison.  It’s Victoria’s highest security prison. 


We arrived by school bus and before we got into the entrance, the corrections officer barked, “Right!  When you get in, you are not to say ONE word or you’ll be back on the school bus.  Not ONE WORD.”  I hate being told what to do now that I’m a teacher, and it just made me want to yell out for the sake of it.  We were ushered inside and underwent a security check.  The kid were crazy scared.  “Miss, will my braces set off the alarm?”  “Miss, is there a bathroom?  I need to pee.”  We went through the detector one by one and had to go through three doors before we reached the prison grounds.  “Miss, I can’t cough!”  “Why?”  “I need to pee!”


Most of what I remember is the helplessness.  We talked to murderers.  Drug traffickers.  Violent criminals.  They work on a different moral code.  Some of them admitted being institutionalised.  “Prison’s easy.  It’s being away from your loved one’s that’s the most difficult.”  A guy who had been in for 10 years serving his life sentence for murder (multiple?) showed us photos of the teddy bears he made for his grandchildren.  Some of the guys were my age.  They’d been in and out of prison for 10 years.  It was what they knew.  “I’d never call the police.  Even if it was my own best friend who wanted to kill me, I wouldn’t call the police ‘cos then I’d be a dog.”


They were in their cells for 16 hours each day.  One had already been in there for 10 years.  God, it just made me think – this is what our society does to criminals.  There’s no better way is there?  And to think Victoria is known for its more progressive rehabilitation policies compared with other Australian states.  Compared to jails overseas, this prison was paradise. 


The experience was incredibly eye-opening for everyone.  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet gotten to debrief with my kids because I’ve been so sick.  This term I’ve been sick for over a month and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.




After another horrendous Year 10 humanities class, I went to return the laptops.  I started talking to the teachers who comes in to take the Early Childcare classes.  We spent about 40 minutes talking about the kids at our school and the state of their behaviour.  Back chatting,  defiance, and general lack of respect for teachers seems to be the norm.  Well, that’s definitely the case with my year 10’s.  Nothing seems to motivate them to do work.  A whole bunch of them sit in the classroom doing nothing except throwing glue sticks at each other and flirting.  I feel like I’m often just babysitting them.  I hate reprimanding them because they’ve heard the same thing over and over, but today I ended up having them stay back and doing the whole, “blah blah respect – valuing learning” spiel and having the worst ones clean the room and take everything back to my office. 


I am clinging desperately onto my amazing year 11/12 classes to keep me afloat for the next four days before term finishes.


Am feeling heart-wrenchingly lonely down here.  My housemate is away on holidays, I’ve been house-bound for the past week because I’ve been so sick, and I still haven’t made friends with anyone in this town.  I feel desperation for human company seeping through my pores, and there’s only so much social life one can conduct over the phone or online.  I ended up ringing a friend at 7am last Friday in tears feeling so guilty that I was too sick to teach.  I suppose it wasn’t really that – I know that it’s silly to teach if I’m too sick to even talk properly – but it was important to have someone there to listen. 


Why am I admitting this online?  Well, why is there such a social stigma with admitting one desires the company of others?  Maybe it’s similar to an intelligent person feeling comfortable with appearing stupid because they’re secure with their intellect.  Or having a beautiful woman dress “daggy” because she’s at ease with herself.  I have caring and generous friends and I’ll be seeing them soon so I know this is only a temporary feeling.  Everyone gets lonely sometimes and I’d much rather be single than in a relationship only for the sake of having someone there.  Feeling secure with my own choices and actions/unaffected by others’ opinions can only be a good thing.  I’ve had too many people tell me I’m crazy to let it get to me now – although ironically, despite the career change, I feel like I’m still not straying too far from the middle-class educated “Stuff White People Like” stereotype.


Sure I may live in a small country town and teach at a disadvantaged school, but I still have the same friends (most of whom are lawyers, public servants, bankers, or academics), we talk about wanky champagne socialist topics, go to nice restaurants when I go up to Melbourne, I plan ambitious goals for my future, buy organic chocolate (Green & Blacks is truly divine), bitch about grad school assessment, engage in fairly hippy but “acceptable” activities such as yoga and meditation, and read the New Yorker.  Am I really the best teacher for these kids?  Hmmmm…  Is it any wonder I experienced serious, serious culture shock when I first went into the classroom?  


- Q 

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