Depression, Encouragement, Good News, Mental Health

My Days in the Georgia Department of Corrections

A friend had posted a video this morning of the abandoned Rivers State Prison in Milledgeville. Seeing the video brought back many sweet memories of my time spent with the Georgia Department of Corrections Educational Department.

Ahh, so many memories. My first experience with GDC was teaching a class for GMC at Rivers on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I remember those long, dark, dingy halls that were shown in the video.  I remember the clanking of the metal doors as I went from one area to another.  I remember the students who worked hard and who appreciated the opportunity to continue their education.  A couple of years later, I learned of a job opening for a full-time teacher with the GDC and applied.  I became a full-time teacher for GDC for 5 years, teaching at Hancock State Prison, Davisboro Women’s Prison, Frank Scott State Prison, and Bostick State Prison.  I remember those days well.

I was teaching at Bostick when Gov. Zell Miller decided that inmates no longer needed to be educated and fired all teachers in the Georgia Department of Education on Dec. 30, 1997. During the month between the announcement of our firings and the time we left, Human Resources so graciously met with all teachers to give us information on how to find a new job and how to apply for welfare and food stamps. Mighty kind of them, huh? I remember that during that month, I had sent hundreds of letters and faxes to newspapers, tv stations, and to every governmental official in Atlanta. I remember being called into my Deputy Warden’s office to be told that I was not to speak to another tv reporter about our “situation”.  When I asked what would happen if I did, I was told that a decision had not been made yet, but that I probably wouldn’t like the results.  Hmmmm…… I was on Channel 13 news that night explaining why we needed teachers in the prison system.  I got several dirty looks the next day at work from the administration, but nothing happened.  At least not that day, anyway.  I also remember a group of us going to Atlanta to meet with the legislators and then trying to see the Governor. His aide told us no, that the Governor was too busy to meet with “you people”.  One of the group told the aide that we had some really important information that we’d like to say to the Governor. The aide then looked at the gentleman and said, “Sir, do you happen to know a Betty O’Steen?” Gulp, I was standing right there. I must admit that at that moment I wasn’t sure that all those letters and faxes had been a smart thing.  Our spokesman said, “Yes, sir, I certainly do know her.” The aide then said, “Well, sir, if you know her, you must also know that there is nothing that any of you can say to the Governor that Ms. O’Steen has not already said.” At that point, he turned around and walked off, leaving us standing there and leaving me extremely happy that my letters had indeed evidently reached the Governor’s desk. But, we still got fired.  Oh, yeah,  I found out what the Deputy Warden had been talking about if I spoke to any more reporters.  As I was leaving work on the very last day, I was stopped at the gate and was surrounded by several correctional officers and the administrative staff.  My belongings were searched and I was accused of stealing state property.  Little stacks of items were placed to the side as the search continued.  I was accused of stealing things like eight paper clips (that happened to be in a personally owned container that still had the Walmart sticker on it), paper that had been used to make worksheets for my students (all in my own handwriting, but yes, the paper had belonged to the state), and several other items.  After being held outside for about 45 minutes, the DW who had warned me not to talk to anyone and who was leading the search, looked at me and said, “See?  I told you.  But, we’re going to let you go and you can take all your goodies with you.”  He then walked off and told them to open the gate for me.  And people think that the inmates are the bad ones in the prison system?  I beg to differ.

I must say that my absolute best memories of all my years of teaching were of my students in the Georgia Prison System. I have memories of Mr. George who will always be with me, with an inmate who spent two solid months learning the letters of the alphabet and how to write his first and last name so that the letters were in the proper places, the 76-year old female who, for the life of her, could not master my last name, no matter how hard she tried and how many times I said it to her, it always came out as Ms. Oppersteen. Memories of two students, one at Frank Scott and one in Davisboro, who I had originally taught at Coffee High School in Douglas, GA, only to run back into them again while incarcerated. Memories of the day that I fell on those highly-waxed floors at Hancock SP and the educational aide rushed over to help me to my feet, only to be yelled at by the CO and my falling again when he let go of my arm.  Dang, those floors were slick as glass.

My one and only really scary moment was the day that a student walked up to my desk and towered above me (he was about 6’6″ and weighed a ton) and asked me what I’d do if he reached down and slapped the s*it out of me.  He  was upset because as I had walked by his desk, I had reached over and had taken a picture he was drawing when he was supposed to have been working.  Of course, when he asked me that,  I froze and had to do some quick thinking. I had noticed that a couple of students had turned to look at us, so I loudly said to the student standing in front of me, “Excuse me, what did you just say to me?” That got all of my students’ attention and they were all watching us at that point. The upset student stood there, quite mad and repeated his original question, “What would you do if I reached down and slapped the s*it out of you?” At that point, every single student sitting at their desks, rose and came toward my desk. The all got between me and the upset inmate. One student left the classroom to go get the guard and they did not let the student get close to me. After he had been taken out, I thanked them for helping and one of them said, “Ms. O, there’s no way we were going to let him do that to you. We need you here for us.” My heart filled with thankfulness at that moment for those inmates, who society had thrown away, but who had just taught me once again that there was good in their hearts.

Then, more memories of being called into the Warden’s office at one of the prisons because an inmate had written a complaint saying that I had “never written up a white guy in any of my classes”.  The Warden asked if that was true and I had to admit that it was most definitely true; I had not written a Disciplinary Report for any white students. After being yelled at and being told that I was a racist by the Warden, my Ed Supervisor pulled out my class rolls to show the warden that although it was true that I had never written up a white guy in my classes, it was also true that there were absolutely NO WHITE GUYS IN ANY OF MY CLASSES. — I was the only white person in there.  I still chuckle over that one.

And my best memories were those times when I could actually “SEE that light bulb go off” over my students’ heads when they finally understood fractions or some other concept. Oh, the joy that we both felt when that happened! Remember Mr. George I mentioned? Well, I will never forget the day that he brought me a letter he had received from his wife in which she said how proud of him she was because she had just received the first letter in 17 years that he had actually written to her in his own handwriting (he normally had others in the dorms write his letters home for him because he didn’t know how to write). She told him that after she had taken his letter to church to show off, she had had it framed and had it hanging on her living room wall.

Folks, that’s what teaching is all about and I’ll always treasure my moments in those dark and dingy halls inside the Georgia Department of Corrections Educational Departments.