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Complexities, rules, and the power of self-discovery

Nigel Poor, a co-producer of Ear Hustle. Photo: Eddie Herena

Even before I started covering college programs in prisons, one of my favorite podcasts was Ear Hustle, which focuses on life inside San Quentin State Prison in the Bay Area. When I found out that Nigel Poor, one of the co-producers of Ear Hustle first got involved with San Quentin as a volunteer professor, I reached out to talk about her experience teaching in prison. 

In addition to her work with Ear Hustle, Poor is a visual artist and photography professor at California State University-Sacramento. She started teaching a history of photography class with the Prison University Project, now known as Mount Tamalpais College, at San Quentin in 2011.

Poor says that the stories she heard from the men inside San Quentin inspired her to think about how to do artistic projects inside and she began to volunteer with the prison’s media lab. All of that eventually led to her collaboration on Ear Hustle. She co-hosts the podcast with Earlonne Woods and Rahsaan “New York” Thomas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. You mentioned that your conversation with the Prison University Project director Jody Lewin helped you feel prepared to teach in prison. What do you think are some of the misconceptions that people might have about prison education?

A. I think people have misconceptions, first of all, that they’re going to go into this really angry space where people aren’t educated. And that you’re going to be a remedial teacher getting people up to speed because they don’t know how to read and they don’t have basic math skills. And at least at San Quentin, that was not the case. I went into a classroom that was full of people that were really excited to learn and eager to learn. I had students that had master’s degrees. And I had students that had gotten GEDs and had very little formal education but were really prepared to dig in and work hard. I had to be careful to not go back to my students at Sac State and say, ‘My students in prison work so much harder than you.’ I never get an excuse about why they couldn’t do something. I found very hard-working, rigorous students. 

I think that there’s more nuanced things like people going into prison thinking they’re going to save people. There are complex relationships, and you’re going in as a professional to do a job, which is to teach. You’re not going in as a therapist or savior. You bring that respect and expectation to the classroom that you would bring to any other classroom.

Q. Were there any rules about what class material you could or couldn’t use? We have this idea of academic freedom on college campuses, but I would imagine that there might be some different rules that you as a faculty member have to follow when teaching in prison. 

A. This is what I would tell people: You can have the most radical ideas you want. And you can think that you need to tear prisons down. But when you go into work in a prison, you have to respect the rules that are there. Because you can have all the passion to politically change things, but you always walk out the gate. You can leave behind a shitstorm and cause a lot of problems. You have to figure out for yourself how to work within a system that you may not respect or respond to, but you have to remember that you always walk out the gate. And I think some people can go on without really thinking about how much trouble you can get other people in if you don’t think through your passions and your ideas.

That being said, I went in pretty naive. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just going to teach the class I teach at Sac State, I’m going to bring in my PowerPoints on my computer. And I’m going to show all the work that I show.’ And then first thing, Jody was like, ‘No, of course not, you’re not bringing a computer in. You’re going to be using a television to show your PowerPoints.’ And then [I was told by] the prison that I couldn’t show any nudes, no pictures of children, no pictures of violence, drug use or emotionally complex imagery. And I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to teach?’ That is what photography is, it’s about looking at complex issues. The only thing that would be left would be landscape imagery.

But then Jody set up an opportunity for me to meet with the assistant warden to show them what I was going to teach. And so we met and had like a three hour meeting. And I went through a lot of the images that I was going to show and we had a great conversation. And they gave me permission to bring in most of the images, except some images of children. 

What that taught me was the really deep importance of conversation and understanding the world that you’re walking into. And that even if you disagree with people, they’re not the enemy. You can have conversations, and you can come to an understanding. The administration at the prison needed to understand what I was going to show and they needed to feel that they had some control over it. At first, I was upset, but I realized having this conversation opened it up.

The other thing I would tell people going into prison to teach is that you’ve got to be good with the workaround and having things out of your control. When I realized I wasn’t gonna bring a laptop in, I was going to have to redo all of these presentations. I had to think about the ways I was going to talk about work. You’ve got to be flexible.

Q. Did you ever have a lecture or assignment that didn’t land well?

A. I was so excited to share the work that had been done in prisons with the class. I couldn’t wait to get to that lecture, I talked about it in my university class [at Sac State]. And when I showed the work that was done by three different artists that have done work in prison, it was the least well received lecture ever that I taught in there. And I talked to the students about it and it was because they felt like the people that had done the work didn’t really know anything about prison because they had never done time. And so we had a really interesting conversation about why that work didn’t hit well for them. 

And that was another thing I learned. I have to think about what my expectations are and how work will be received a little bit differently by students inside because they had the experience that the artists who did the work just didn’t have. So that was really cool for me to have a wake up moment. And it’s made me more sensitive all the time now when I’m teaching to think more clearly about how this is going to be received by students without pandering to them. I still think you have to push students.

Q. Was there anything surprising about teaching in prison?

A. I had never taught all men before my experience at San Quentin. And that was something interesting because it didn’t even occur to me. I do remember very distinctly, on the first day of class, when the students started walking in, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is all men, I’m not sure I’m gonna like this.’ I always liked having mixes of gender in a class because I felt like it brought different perspectives. And so it actually made me assess my views of men in a kinder way. I got to see them as more vulnerable, and not just full of bravado. But that’s something to think of if you’re not used to teaching to predominantly one sex, if you’re teaching a women’s prisons or men’s prison, that’s something to get used to. So that took a beat. 

Q. I wanted to ask you about the episode where you visited the paroled firefighters at the Ventura Training Center in southern California. That’s a good example of education and training post incarceration. What was it like to do that show or that episode? And why did you decide to feature that particular program?

A. We’ve been wanting to do that episode for a long time. Obviously in California, we’re all very aware of fires and there’s a lot of conversation about incarcerated firefighters and is it fair and are they taken advantage of. And that wasn’t really what the story was about. So going to the training center and seeing what all the men were going through and how proud they were of what they were doing and how friggin’ hard they were working was really impressive. But it was also so real because there were clearly people who are not going to cut it. And then there were people that were just gung ho and so excited to be there and push themselves.

And so you saw the full spectrum just like you would anywhere else. And I always want to go back to any prison experience, the spectrum of people is the same as it would be on the outside. I would always remind people that people in prison are not one way.

I couldn’t believe how difficult it was, but this isn’t even closest to the hardest thing these guys are going to do when they actually are fighting fires. And it was really interesting to sit in the classroom with them to see what they were learning and also hear people that were formerly incarcerated come in and talk to them about their experience of being firefighters and what it was like. So I think those programs are really amazing.

Q. Education is a theme that comes up tangentially in many Ear Hustle episodes. I was recently listening to Catch a Kite 6. When you asked about their proudest moments, Sam Lewis talked about earning his degree and Reggie Thorpe shared how he felt when he found out he was the only African American at San Quentin who had taken Calculus II. Why was that such a big deal for them?

A. I think because it’s about self-discovery and realizing your own talents and your own power. For people inside or outside prison, when you realize you can do something that you thought you couldn’t do, it is such a great feeling. It’s exhilarating. And like Reggie talking about doing calculus, that sounds so frightening to me. And I can imagine when he realized he was good at it and he could help other people, it was like he could all of a sudden see himself in a different way as a leader and someone who could teach, not as someone who’s been incarcerated for a long time. I’m sure he’s gone through a lot of periods where he felt unseen and unworthy. And so I think education tells you are worthy of something. And that’s just an essential human need. I think that just shows you your own self-worth when you can help bring other people along.

For more coverage about the future of postsecondary education in prison, sign up here for College Inside, a free Open Campus newsletter written by Charlotte West.