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Prison Break: What NO one will tell about teaching in a prison

In March 2015,  I had what I called my ‘lucky break’. I was chosen as the substitute to teach at a male prison in Kajang, at the RPD (rawatan pemulihan dadah building). It was impromptu, because an external tutor that was assigned to teach the inmates declined the offer at the last hour. At that point of time, as a female internal staff in OUM hardly will we be chosen to teach the prisoners. Usually, it will be given to the external part timers or fulltime male staffs. I am unsure why but that’s how it was.

It was a Monday, 2015, March 23rd,  feeling excited and nervous at the same time, finally came the day for me to teach the inmates at the Kajang Prison. After having parked my car at the designated parking area, I walked up towards the gate where the wardens were situated. I was asked to register my name, put all of my belongings into a locker and was asked to go to a room for a body check. It was done by a women cell warden.  Then, I was briefed that I am not allowed to bring in anything except for the locker key since all of the gears for teaching are prepared for by the prison.

After all that, I was escorted by the warden and sent to another gate where another warden (now a male), took over and asked me to wait in the waiting room at the Ground level. I had to wait for about 20 minutes or so and that had to be the most nerve wrecking experience for me.

As loud as the thunderstorm, I heard the piercing voice of the warden yelling at the inmates to queue up for what I assumed their ‘exercise/leisure session’. The inmates were queued according to their designated colour codes in red, orange and other colours which is fuzzy in my memory. The warden was saying ‘apsal lambat, engkau ingat ini tempat apa?’ (why are you late, what do you think this place is?).  I frozed, and for a while my heart stopped beating and I kept looking at the clock , thinking when I will be called by the warden to teach.

After much anticipation, then I heard a soft spoken warden apologised for the wait and asked me to follow another warden upstairs, where the inmates also the students of OUM waited.

To my surprise, there was about 30 to 40 learners in a fully air conditioned computer lab. There were enough PC’s for each inmates and they were granted permission to access the internet for certain hours in a day, mainly to search for learning materials for their assignments.  However, out of the many only 5 students were assigned for me to teach and the rest were there to access the granted privilege.

The warden introduced the 5 learners briefly to me and I smiled while introducing myself to break the ice. It was awkward in the beginning for us since, the warden asked the inmates to sit about 5 to 6 feet’s away from me. But then, I thought to myself, this can’t be, how am I supposed to engage the learning if they are not warm towards to me.

To the warden’s horror, I asked the inmates to bring their chair closer to me.The sitting gap between them and I, is just like couples sitting in a cafe on a summer day. Hiks. Kidding. You get the idea. It’s close enough for me to see their pores and the terror that they experienced through their eyes. BTW, the warden seated next to me the whole time. ( to ensure nothing’s bad would happen)

Altogether, I was asked to conduct 3 sessions only but ended up conducting 5 sessions due to their (the inmates) request.  Each session lasted me 3 hours or more. I used the laptop provided to access the portal and use the materials which is readily online along with the aid of a whiteboard. The inmates/ learners, being adults they were expressive with their opinions and did talk a lot. But the inmates were careful enough to not be too expressive, in case it annoyed the warden.

If you are wondering how it was for me teaching the inmates, my reply would be the same as how I answered the question by the head of warden of Sri Lanka during one of his visits at the prison. His question to me was:

” So mam, how do you find teaching the inmates? Are there any differences?”

and I replied simply: ” they are no different than other students of mine. For once they are a learner, they are indifferent”.

To that reply, the warden in his gory red eyes, about 2 inches shorter than me… just smirked, nodded and walked by.

I wonder what he was thinking though…
What do you think he was thinking? Leave a comment below!


Written by: Zulaika Zakariah 14.12.18

Image: Prison cell Alcatraz  CC BY 2.0

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