Teacher at Jail Works to Free Minds
Instructor says inmates’ intelligence is impressive
By Laura Rosser
For Peninsula Woman
In a way it’s like teaching in a one-room schoolhouse back in the old days when grades one through eight learned together.
The difference is that Rebecca Redshaw of Port Angeles isn’t teaching children.
And the children aren’t going out for recess or going home to their families at the end of the day.
Rebecca is the teacher for the literacy program at the Clallam County jail, a program Peninsula College coordinates with the staff at the jail.
Rebecca’s own background is in teaching, writing and the film industry.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., she moved to Los Angeles where she worked full-time as a writer and in film restoration and preservation for many years.
Before moving to Port Angeles a year ago, she was a technical adviser in film restoration for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
But, Rebecca found that working in Los Angeles didn’t afford her the time she wanted to write for herself. She has been a freelance writer for a number of publications and had several plays produced.
Now she wanted peace and quiet.
When she came to Port Angeles in April 2002, Rebecca started working full-time at the college recruiting adult literacy volunteers. She said that work was a great way to meet people and get to know her new community.
“I believe in literacy,” she says.
“I do think education is the one thing people can’t take away from you.”
She heard about the program at the jail and became a teacher in it last January.
The inmate program, Rebecca says, is “brass tacks.” Inmates are offered the chance to advance their studies through the program for eight hours a week — three hours a week for men, three for women and two hours set aside for equivalency diploma, or GED, testing.
Since January, Rebecca said, five inmates have received their GED certificates.
“I’ve been really impressed with the level of intelligence of the students,” Rebecca said.
The range of education levels among the inmates is far-reaching.
She finds it interesting and challenging to deal with a class in which one person may be illiterate, another whose secondary language is English, another with an eighth-grade education and another at college level.
Rebecca has to find materials to assist at all those levels in just an hour’s time.
“Everybody deserves your attention,” Rebecca added.
On top of all that, the class never contains all the same people.
The maximum sentence at the county jail is one year.
Most of the inmates are not in the lockup that long, so Rebecca may see inmates for six or seven sessions and then they are gone.
Rebecca said her primary focus is on getting the inmates who come to her sessions, offered three times a week for one hour, interested in learning again.
She said it is exciting for those who participate to discover that they can still learn, and that they usually know a lot more than they realized.
The best part of the job is that the people who come to Rebecca’s sessions want to learn.
“There is no incentive for them to come to class,” Rebecca said. “They don’t get time off for coming.”
Inmates obviously give up freedom when they are incarcerated, but through learning, their minds are free.
Rebecca teaches literacy through writing and asks inmates to write essays.
But, she doesn’t tell them what they must write.
She takes a copy of The New York Times to class with a number of articles circled, and lets class members choose one to write about.
Then, they discuss the essay and the issue.
During one of the sessions with the women inmates, the discussion turned to the class itself.
The issue was whether students in school should be offered money as an incentive to complete their work.
The inmates, Rebecca said, said no.
They added that they shouldn’t be offered time off their sentences for studying, either. They should come to class because they want to, they concluded.
“It’s not playtime. I do make them work,” Rebecca said. “They ask for homework.”
Inmates can request books to borrow from the Port Angeles Library, and Rebecca has managed to get a set of old encyclopedias and two laptop computers — but no Internet access — for the inmates to use.
Rebecca said she has goals and dreams for her students. She wants them to feel confident in themselves and find the opportunities that come from learning.
“I want to see them hit the ground running when they get out,” she said. “A lot of it is positive self-image.”
First lesson: respect
The first lesson with every class is in respect.
Rebecca said she tells each new class member that she will treat them with respect, and she expects to be treated with respect back.
“I’ve never had a problem I couldn’t handle,” she noted.
She also stresses that she is a teacher and they are students.
She doesn’t know their crimes and doesn’t want to know.
“I am not their judge. I see them only as students,” she said.
She wants her students to see beyond the walls of the jail that holds them.
She touches on everything covered on the GED test to give them a solid base of knowledge, then expands their horizons with current events.
On the 50th anniversary of the first climbing of Mount Everest, the class discussed a newspaper article about a blind man who made the climb this past year.
The same class learned geology and math by comparing the height of Mount Everest to the height of the Olympics, then drawing a graph using meters and feet.
The study became more personalized when one of the students reported he had climbed in the Olympics.
Class members have put up maps and tracked the war in Iraq and situations in the Middle East.
“I want them to see beyond Port Angeles and the Peninsula,” Rebecca said, noting most of her class members have never been beyond Puget Sound.
While expanding their knowledge, the inmates are expanding their own potentials.
“If I didn’t think there would be a positive outcome and potential, I wouldn’t do it,” Rebecca declared.
For as empowered as the classes make the inmates feel, Rebecca said the classes are a boost for her as well.
“I probably get more out of class than they do,” she laughed, “because it feels good to give somebody a hand.
“You never know what influence you have on someone.”
Perhaps her best influence is just in encouragement.
Rebecca said she had one student who barely spoke English when she first met him.
He was determined, however, to improve his language skills and read two modern novels while taking Rebecca’s class.
“I’m proud of him, but I don’t take credit for his hard work,” she said.
She offers the process, but it is the inmates themselves who make themselves succeed. Rebecca said she also admires the jail staff.
“Without their cooperation, it wouldn’t happen,” she said. “They make me feel comfortable and are very supportive of my efforts.”
She said she’d like to see the students more often than eight hours total each week, but acknowledged that it takes a lot of work for the staff each time she does.
Staffers have to clear the area, visit each inmate to see who wishes to attend class, and then bring in the inmates and Rebecca, lock the room and repeat the security process once Rebecca leaves.
On to college?
Rebecca said she has no way of knowing whether the students she sees do well after they are released.
But she feels encouraged that they at least have been given the chance.
Some have said they want to take Rebecca’s courses at Peninsula College — where she teaches a film course and adult writing — when they are released.
“I would be thrilled to have that happen,” she said.
When it comes to her inmate charges settling back into society when they leave the jail, Rebecca offers some planning steps.
She helps them work up their resumes and offers one piece of advice — they don’t need to list on their resumes that they’ve been in jail.
But when it comes time for the interview, she advises, they should be honest and tell a potential employer they have a criminal record. Then tell the prospective employer how they have changed and their plans for the future.
“We can’t give up on people,” she declared.
“I could teach at an elite academy, but those students have all the opportunities in the world,” she said.
“I want to teach those who didn’t have everything. Thomas Jefferson was wrong. Not all men were created equal.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca has settled into Port Angeles quite happily.
She finds time to write in the mornings, spend afternoons at the jail and teach at the college in the evenings.
Ironically, she wanted to get away from the fast pace and constant work of the big city.
“I work harder now than I ever did,” she says.
But she is finding fulfillment.