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Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Recently a guard at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) burst into a prison classroom and yelled at a young prisoner, “Pull your mask up!” The student explained his mask was fogging up his large glasses, making the board impossible to see. 

When the student got frustrated and refused to be silenced, he was taken to solitary confinement. Yes, masks must cover one’s nose, but solitary confinement is a harsh punishment for a minor infraction, especially when you consider that many people on the outside refuse to wear masks at all, and the guard in question is often seen with her own mask below her nose.

In normal times, educational programs and classrooms have been a place for prisoners to escape the harsh realities of prison life. These programs allow for growth and self-improvement, and during COVID-19 the sacred spaces of the classrooms are more treasured than ever. 

But the toxic culture of the prison guards, damaging enough in “normal times,” has become even more detrimental under the COVID-19 restrictions. It seems the regulations meant to slow the spread of the virus are actually being used to further hamper the spirit of prisoners like me. 

Teachers in prison educational programs spend much of their time earning trust from their students, who are not used to trusting authority figures. But now, teachers are being encouraged by guards to police students which forces the teachers to choose between their relationships with those they teach and those who control the prison. This toxic environment has led not only to prisoners feeling bullied, but teachers as well. 

By providing guards with the ability to enforce both vague and specific policies with unlimited discretion, the Washington State Department of Correction (DOC) is recreating a version of “broken windows policing” that over-emphasizes small violations with the false understanding that this will eradicate larger issues. This perpetuates the process of racialized policing that has devastated the very communities that most prisoners come from. 

Felix Sitthivong, a teacher’s assistant in the MCC education building said, “It feels like even when we want to do better, we get more of the same. Eventually you stop trying to do better.”

Within the classroom, teachers can do little but stand aside and watch as their classes have become targeted areas for guards to bully prisoners. 

Recently, a teacher was leading a lesson plan in social studies and a guard overheard her discussing areas of political topics. He burst into the classroom, unannounced, and accused her of breaking prison policy by discussing politics. 

The lesson in question was no different than one any social studies teacher would  engage in with her students. The teacher, embarrassed and intimated, was at an impasse. Scared to challenge the bully by putting herself in a dangerous predicament, she could do nothing but put her head down and conform to the demands of her oppressor. 

With situations like this, teachers have little room to do their jobs and have become powerless in challenging what they know to be wrong. Instead, they become more focused on trying to avoid negative encounters with rogue guards.

Outside of censoring the teachers’ lessons, which is extremely problematic on its own, guards have also started to tell teachers how to do their jobs by pushing them to write their students up for simple infractions like not showing up to class on time, or for not having their masks on properly. These are important, but teachers are educators, not enforcers.

“People don’t like having their behavior micro-managed, especially in prison” the teacher’s assistant Sitthivong said, “When teachers are expected to punish students, it neutralizes all their efforts to promote a safe and effective learning environment.”

When teachers enter the arena of policing, students feel as if they are not in class to learn, but to have their behavior managed. Once the teacher crosses this boundary, they are viewed through the same lens the prisoners view the guards, less a partner in education and more a taskmaster. This is problematic especially when your students have probably already suffered a similar experience while attending a public school in their community. Gaining their trust is already difficult.

DOC continually claims that it is important to them to keep communities safe, yet all their actions seem to be in contradiction to that. 

Blocking prisoners from education — where they learn to become critical and free thinkers — while bullying them for minor infractions does the opposite of protecting our communities. We need prisoners to educate themselves, learn new skills, and become more than who or what they were when they entered the prison system. 

If the DOC isn’t releasing a prisoner better off than when they entered the system, then the system is failing. It’s time that the leadership within the structure of our prisons step up and put an end to things like toxic staff culture and invest in the development of the individuals who will eventually be released into free society to rejoin and better their home communities.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Blackwell is a journalist incarcerated in Washington state and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, as well as contributing editor at PJP. He is the co-founder of Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass evidence-based criminal justice reform that leads with racial justice. Blackwell has been published in many outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.