The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

NW teacher takes lessons to prison

By Leah Bosworth/ne news editor

Illustration Keisha McDuffie/The Collegian

Business instructor Sharon Irish must walk through an X-ray body scanner before heading to her class to teach on Mondays and Wednesdays. Once through the scanner, she is escorted through several large, metal doors that slide open for her and then shut behind her, clanking and creaking beneath their daunting size and weight.

She is in prison two nights a week.

She is not a prisoner, however. She is a TCC instructor who teaches communications and business law classes to prisoners.

Irish participates in a cooperative program between NW Campus and the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth that offers inmates the classes necessary to receive a business certificate of completion.

The voluntary program has operated for 10 years and was organized after NW Campus President Elva LeBlanc was approached by a Carswell education officer requesting business classes and instructors for its all-female inmates.

NW economics and business professor and program coordinator Thomas Kemp described the program in straightforward terms.

“We’re just providing a service,” he said. “Our focus is to provide the education for the business certificate to a population that was not being served.”

This was Irish’s second semester to teach at the prison. She describes her teaching time there as “meaningful and rewarding.”

“I feel like I’m contributing here on campus, and I feel the same way teaching in the prison system,” she said. “I feel like I’m making a difference.”

However, Irish said getting to this point did not occur overnight. She first had to go through an acclimation process.

FMC Carswell is a federal prison. Therefore, its faculty, inmates and volunteers must adhere to the safety and behavior standards of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The teaching program requires commitment and a throng of extra work from the instructors because of these standards and the prison’s classroom policies.

Numerous attempts to contact the Federal Bureau of Prisons were unsuccessful.

The minimalistic classrooms require instructors to utilize antiquated teaching methods.

There is no Internet access or computer access. The only teaching aids available are a blackboard or whiteboard and an overhead projector.

“It increases the workload for the class greatly,” Irish said. “I have to convert Power-Point presentations to overhead transparencies.”

Kemp taught at Carswell for about five years. He also experienced this adjustment in teaching practices.

“You have to shift gears and start doing it the old-fashioned way. It required extra time,” he said. “That’s how we started years ago.”

Each class taught at the prison is a week’s worth of lessons combined into one three-hour class.

“You take a class you need on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and I have to fit it all in one night,” Irish said.

The absence of computers and Internet also limits the instructors’ communication with the students.

Irish said she can’t send the inmates e-mails with updates or changes in assignments. This also means inmates cannot contact her with questions about assignments or the material being covered.

“All the contact is in the classroom,” she said.

Along with altered teaching methods, another major adjustment for instructors is the high-security environment.

Qualifying to teach at Carswell involves a detailed background check, Kemp said. Once qualified, all instructors are required to attend an orientation program to teach them the “dos and dont’s” of the prison, he said.

Irish compared entering Carswell to entering an airport.

She said everything is X-ray scanned: bags, jewelry, shoes, books and body.

Once through the scanning process, she is never alone.

“You’re escorted from the front door all the way to the classroom,” she said.

The prison’s classrooms are also highly secure environments. Each of the three classrooms is laid out differently, but the rooms are also alike since at least one wall is made up entirely of windows for continual observation of the inmates and the instructor, Irish said.

“You must be able to teach in a glass house,” Kemp said.

Despite being taught inside what feels like a “glass house,” the inmates are similar to TCC students in their class requirements, behaviors and goals.

“We didn’t change the content,” Kemp said about the material covered for each class. “The media and delivery are just different.”

The Carswell students pay the same price for tuition and books as on-campus students at TCC, and many receive financial aid from

family members, Kemp said. The inmates also have their own jobs inside the prison and must learn to balance their schedule so class time does not interfere with work hours.

Irish described the inmates in her classes as being a broad range of ages, cultures, races and backgrounds.

“They are in here for all different reasons, and as an instructor, you don’t know and you’re not allowed to ask,” she said.

Irish had been teaching at NW Campus for about three years when Kemp asked her if she would be interested in teaching a class at the prison.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she said.

Driving up to the prison for the first time was unsettling for Irish.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into,’” she said.

After the first few classes though, her nerves and anxieties had settled.

“The women there made me feel welcome,” Irish said. “I didn’t know how accepting they were going to be and how cooperative they were going to be.”

NW business assistant professor Jaye Simpson, felt the same unease and reluctance at the beginning of her teaching experience at Carswell.

“I was terrified the first time I went,” she said. “It’s in a prison, and that was scary for me.”

Simpson has taught three semesters at the prison and has been impressed by the attitudes and dedication of the students.

“They’re my best students. They very much want to be there [in class],” she said.

Irish also admires the attentiveness and vigor of the inmates. She said their grades are usually very good. They study hard, do all their assignments and keep up with all the reading from the books.

“They’re not going to abuse this privilege because they’ve worked hard to get it,” she said. “I think it’s because they invest so much of themselves into this — it’s very precious to them.”

Irish said this experience has affected part of her attitude toward her “regular” classes on campus by opening her eyes to the choices and variety traditional students have at their fingertips.

Campus students have more freedom and access to resources, but she still sees equal potential between TCC students and inmate students.

“I might be stricter now,” she said. “I’m seeing the alternative.”

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