I have learned to be constantly observant and aware of my surroundings. If it’s too quiet, for example, I had better pay attention, because something could be wrong. Any difference in the norm is cause for attention; no matter how small a change may be, you kind of perk up a little bit and watch to see what is going on. One morning, as early as 7:15 A.M., I had just thought, “Gee, it sure is unusually quiet. They’re all studying nicely, but it almost makes me nervous.” Within seconds, I heard a loud banging sound. I looked up to see one guy standing over another, pounding the stuffing out of him. I phoned for assistance; the “cavalry” showed up, threw on the cuffs and dragged the two guys out by their feet. The damage was minimal. I cleaned up the blood (using universal precautions, of course), and the guys simply went back to work. But the incident woke me up that morning, to say the least!
They are never all terrible, but there are usually several in a class that will try to pull something. Mr. Pierce* was always coming in 10 to 15 minutes for the afternoon sessions. I had been teasing him about always being late and wondering why this kept happening. I was suspicious he was up to “no good” but I didn’t mention it to him. Mr. Pierce was always saying he had to clean his room, and I was responding, “That doesn’t make sense, because everybody else is showing up on time, and they’ve cleaned their rooms.”
I eventually said, “You know, you’re kind of making me start to wonder if you’re involved in something, if you’re selling something or sneaking a cigarette somewhere.” He kind of chuckled, and I laughed. But believe me; I had my eye on ol’ Mr. Pierce.
About two days later, I got a call from a security officer who said, “Would you send Mr. Pierce up to his dorm immediately?”
I looked at the class, realized Mr. Pierce was gone and said, “The Officers are looking for Mr. Pierce. Where is he?” They said he was in the bathroom, but several were laughing. I thought it was strange they would laugh simply because he was in the bathroom.
I saw one of my other students, suddenly acting like he had to go to the bathroom. He took off and went down the hall. I speculated he was going to warn Mr. Pierce of something.
I didn’t say a word and acted very calm. I picked up Mr. Pierce’s books and said to the students, “I’m going to take his books down to him. That way, if he doesn’t make it back to class this afternoon, he will still have his books for studying in the dorm over the weekend.” They chuckled again, so then I knew something was up.
I stood outside of the bathroom, and I waited and I waited. I called to see if Mr. Pierce was in there, and he answered. Suddenly, I realized he had flushed the toilet three, four, five times. That’s when it dawned on me that he most likely had some type of contraband and was trying to flush it. At that point, I called for a couple of officers; they went in and retrieved Mr. Pierce.
After class, two officers came to my room and thanked me. Sure enough, Mr. Pierce was trying to flush a cell phone down the toilet; cell phones are a big “no-no” in prisons. I was the heroine of the day, and Mr. Pierce is no longer in our institution. He was shipped to a higher security level because of the cell phone.
Again, this illustrates how small things can matter. It’s not like I am constantly suspicious of everybody, but when you observe enough, you start to sense when an incident is about to occur.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.
Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at .