For Bakersfield College English professors Jennifer Craig and Sara Wallace, teaching in the prison system is not a sacrifice, it’s a privilege. Craig and Wallace are instructors for BC’s Inmate Scholars Program, and the experience has exceeded their expectations.
“I had this belief that they are human beings, they want to change, and I’m on board … It surprised me; I can’t even imagine how some of them got there. They’re so articulate, so calm, and well read,” Craig said.
Professor Wallace explained that many other professors questioned her safety when she first started, but for her that is of zero concern. Craig added, “They are more protective than anything else. They’re looking out for us.” Both professors sometimes have to remind themselves that they are in a prison.
Even though they go into the prison with a nice, warm learning environment, they face still some difficulties. “The biggest difficulties we face is more logistical,” Craig said. They both noted that getting their technology approved, which is rare, is one of the difficulties they have.
“The needs of the prison completely supersede the needs of us,” Craig said. If the prison is on lock down for any reason, they have to cancel class, they added that they never know why they are on lockdown or how long the lockdown lasts.
Sometimes something as little as fog can cause the cancellation of class. Professor Craig explained, “At the end of the last semester, during finals, they cancelled my class seven minutes into the final, due to fog.” No matter how organized they are, their plans always seem to change. Professor Craig laughed, “By the end of last semester I was like on syllabus version 7.”
The troubles and difficulties of scheduling and rescheduling and the processing don’t phase them, however. They both admitted that they are not the types to roll with the punches, but they enjoy what they do.
Professor Wallace said, “I’m having a good time and I’m enjoying it. People come up to me and tell me ‘That’s so amazing, and it’s such a sacrifice,’ and I’m just like, … ‘It’s the best classes I’ve ever had’.”
They both agreed that the students that they have are some of the best students they’ve ever had. It is a rewarding feeling for them. They added that the students are engaged and in the class that they show their gratitude at the end of every class with a thank you, which is something that they really enjoy hearing. That is one of their rewards.
BC’s Inmate Scholars Program started in 2015, when BC partnered with Kern Valley State Prison. The program only offered one course in one prison when it first started. Now the program has extended to more than 10 prisons and offer more than 20 transferable courses and Basic Skills courses.
In August 2019, BC witnessed their first graduating class of the Inmate Scholar Program with 17 graduates.