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I had never been inside a prison, much less been anywhere near one. None of my family members had served time; a speeding ticket was about the worst I had experienced. I had seen San Quentin from the bridge a thousand times while traversing the bay, but that was as close as I had ever been. So when I accepted the invitation to tour the Adult Education Program at San Quentin and get a taste for prison teaching, I was definitely stepping outside of my comfort zone.

Within months I went from being a 27 year public high school teacher, a complete prison “newb” that was unaware of the politics and protocols of the incarcerated, to spending my days in a sea of blue. And on my very first day of employment with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation I was fortunate to sit with tutors from a prestigious  program and have a round table of sorts with them. They asked me questions about who I was and my approach to teaching, and I asked them about life behind the walls.  Quickly I learned the first of two important truths as I began this new journey of mine: these people are regular human beings.  

The statement sounds simple enough, as if we already knew that and treated them as such. Human Beings. But growing up in suburban America, we are taught to fear prisons, inmates, and all that comes with that lifestyle. No doubt there are people in this world to be avoided; people we need to be protected from.  But my experiences at San Quentin have shown me a different side I never knew existed.

Every day I cross the yard on my way to work and receive countless, Good Mornings, and as I leave Drive Safe Mr. King. Nearly every incarcerated person I cross paths with looks me in the eye and acknowledges me. My students thank me for helping them with their educational goals. The second important truth I have discovered is that I am no better than the men in this prison. Sometime in the past a judge outed the men in here and declared their sins to society. They wear the scarlet letter.

But I have my own warts; my own sins to be held accountable for in front of my creator. Just because I wear fancy clothes and eat home cooking doesn’t mean that I am blameless. In fact my exterior allows me to wear a veneer hiding my shortcomings. Does that make me any better? Or does it simply hide the fact that we are all deeply flawed human beings and in need of rehabilitation at some level?

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