Sentenced to a second chance

Interview with UB’s very own Rafe Posey on teaching in a correctional facility.

By Olivia Dudley

Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves an education. This is why one of the University of Baltimore’s very own, Rafe Posey, is teaching at Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) this semester via UB’s participation in the national “Second Chance” program for incarcerated students. The Second Chance program allows inmates to redeem themselves and turn their lives around for when they are inevitably released from prison. This program not only allows inmates a chance to thrive within the prison walls, but to identify that there is hope for a better future. Here’s what Rafe Posey had to say:

 What made you want to teach in a prison? Did something motivate you to do so?

I’ve always believed that incarceration, or the choices that might have led to it, should not be the whole definition of someone’s history, especially given all the structural flaws in the whole process and system of justice. So from time to time I’ve pondered teaching in that setting, but I hadn’t found an opportunity that made sense. When John Chapin, who runs UB’s writing program, approached me about teaching writing in the “Second Chance” program, I was incredibly excited. And then when I talked to Dr. Cantora and Dr. Miller about what it would be like… That was deeply motivating – I felt like I would be doing something really important, but I also was thrilled to be doing something new with everything I’ve learned in more than a decade of classroom teaching. I am unbelievably grateful for the chance to work with incarcerated students, and for the backing of the University, Dr. Cantora and Dr. Miller, and the Writing Program.

Generally, what is it like teaching in a prison?

So far, it’s awesome. My students are motivated and highly focused, and most of them are already leaders in communities both inside and outside JCI. In some ways [JCI is], not that different from being in a classroom anywhere else – they’re writing or discussing our topics, I’m talking about writing, we’re doing the work together – but then the level of intention these men bring to the work reminds me that it’s different. I mean, of course there are some logistics things about being inside the facility, but… It’s me and my classroom and my students for several hours a week. So in most ways it’s just teaching.

 Do you believe your students at the institution appreciate education more than an average college student? If so, why?

My observation so far is that these men are incredibly intentional about their educations, and seem to take this opportunity very personally and very seriously. They are very purposeful

and driven in their work, and every student has, so far, gone above and beyond my usual WRIT 101 or WRIT 100 classroom expectations in both contributions to classroom discussions and their written work. They are working unbelievably hard, as individuals and as a group, to make this experience a success.

How many students do you have? Do any of them stand out more than others? Are any of them problematic?

These men are the least problematic group of students I’ve ever had. In a traditional classroom there’s always someone who takes on the class clown role, or plays devil’s advocate, or makes a point of pushing back to see how flexible my policies actually are. Now, three weeks into the semester, I have almost thirty students who are all focused and present. They’re not making excuses or turning in work that doesn’t meet the requirements. They work hard. Sometimes they tell jokes, and now and again someone will ask me a difficult question about why I do something a particular way, but then they listen carefully to the answer. Those are all really good things. That means the classroom dynamic is working.

As for standing out…They all do. Each man contributes something unique and valuable to the class, every time we meet. These students are all working hard to have a positive impact on the world, whether that’s the world of JCI or the world outside, or, more often, both. They have an enormous range of interests and backgrounds, but they’re all in this class on purpose. Working with them is making me into a better teacher, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

What changes do you expect to see in this particular set of students at the end of their semester?

Many of them are already very powerful writers. Because they’re adults, and not more traditionally aged freshman students, I think they have a stronger sense of themselves than younger students might. So I guess what I would like to see is first, for the students who aren’t as confident or as comfortable with writing, a development of that confidence and a more effective set of skills. And second, for the students who are already really good writers to get stronger, or be able to write more different kinds of things more comfortably. Mostly, I just expect that my students will do their best work for me, and so far, that expectation has been more than met.

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