Inside Job

Reed student gets an education about life behind bars.

Maddy Wagar ’16 | June 1, 2015

There is barely a yard between where I was a moment ago and where I stand now, but in those short seconds I’ve crossed infinity. With a single step, I’ve entered a new and forbidding domain.

Being inside a prison is as far as you can get from being outside.

The muggy afternoon is bright; the Virginia summer sun glares blindingly off the white walls of the turquoise-roofed buildings squatting around the edges of the open courtyard. Jagged coils of razor wire glint like shards of shattered glass atop the double row of metal fencing that encloses the Lunenburg Correctional Center. The environment seems built to scrutinize, the architecture itself making shadow or concealment impossible. And yet, the outside world is almost completely oblivious to what goes on inside here. 

A harsh buzzing fills the air, broken by the loud mechanical click of the chain-link door smacking shut and autolocking behind me. 

The inmates of the all-male level-two security institution roam cement trails from barrack to barrack, all dressed in the same prison-issue jeans and button-down shirts—the only clothes they are permitted to wear.

I make tentative eye contact with some of the men. In addition to their uniforms, they all share a certain heaviness in their gaze, a kind of quiet exhaustion. But even in the subdued expressions, I catch a flicker of curiosity. Who am I? What am I doing in a men’s prison?

It’s my first day of school.

I’m here thanks to the Reed College President’s Summer Fellowship, a new grant awarded to students for a project that combines intellectual pursuit, imagination, adventure, personal transformation, and service to the greater good. I chose to participate in an outreach program run by Southside Virginia Community College known as Campus within Walls. The program provides college classes for inmates who are on track to be released; these inmates have the opportunity to earn a two-year associate’s degree. My mission is to assist teachers, attend classes, and document the students’ stories through photographs and interviews.

That first day, the narrow corridors, the fluorescent lights, the gaze of the guards, the sense of confinement—it all feels like an invisible force pressing down on me. The classroom is full when I enter. The group of around 20 men is about half Caucasian and half students of color. Their ages range from 20 to more than 60. Some of these men have been incarcerated since before they were legally adults. 

I’m introduced as “Ms. Wagar.” First names are not to be used. In prison, every relationship is on some level about the construction of power. Information can be used against you. Familiarity can be an instrument of manipulation.

I stand in the back of the classroom, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible. I’m an intruder, after all. This is their turf. I’m utterly naïve about their rules, their codes, their lives. The warning words of the program’s principal sound in my head. “There are bad men in there. You can’t trust anyone. They can be very charming, but don’t be fooled—they will take advantage of you if they can.”

Class began, and I remained standing. One of the students glanced up.

“Do you want to sit, Ms. Wagar?” He asked. 

“Oh no, I’m fine!” I assured him, blushing at the attention.

“Here, take my chair.”

I tried to protest, but he insisted, standing up and pushing his empty chair over to me.

“There’s an open chair back here you can have, Ms. Wagar!” another student offered.

I obviously didn’t belong. Yet from my first minutes in the class, amongst those who are supposed to be society’s worst, I felt welcomed. And in the weeks to come, I found I was learning alongside those who are working to be their best. 

That first day, I sat next to a young man—let’s call him MW—with a smoothly shaven scalp and tattooed arms. A pair of slim wire glasses rested between sharply narrowed eyebrows. He lounged in the back row, reclined and hard faced. Parents would stamp this guy “bad influence” on sight.

The instructor asked the students to share something about themselves that couldn’t be discovered just by looking. MW tossed up his hand.  “Alright, I’ll go. Somethin’ you couldn’t tell about me just by looking is . . . I’m white.” 

He gestured to his pale face while he waited for laughter that never came. His prickly resistance to sharing even the smallest piece of his internal self was reflexive. In prison, honesty makes you vulnerable.

Like me, MW was new to Campus Within Walls. He slouched in the back row, arms crossed, leg tapping impatiently, muttering wisecracks as other students took turns sharing their invisible fact. 

“I practice yoga.”

“I write stories, and my granddaughter illustrates them.”

“I was a dance instructor.”

“I’m a sucker for sappy movies.”

“Sissy!” MW hooted with a harsh laugh.

During the next several classes, MW seemed anxious to prove that he didn’t care about this school thing. He worked, almost desperately, to be the funny guy. The tough guy.

But by the end of my five-week stint, I noticed that a remarkable change had taken place in MW. His eyes lit up during discussions of 12 Years a Slave, and he leaned forward in his seat, eager to participate. He wrote an eloquent essay responding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He cheered on his classmates as they read their work aloud. The instructor and I would exchange awed head shakes over his written reflections, which had been turned in to us along with an apology:

“Sorry about any typos. I’m a little rusty; I haven’t touched a computer in six years.”

In class, MW spoke about the guilt he carried coming back from Iraq, where he served as a sergeant in the army, while his best friend returned in a coffin. About the pain of losing those you love most deeply, and the agony of having to go on anyway.

“You’re struggling with PTSD. Get help,” he urged his younger self in a homework assignment prompting students to write a letter to their past self at a turning point. 

MW accepted that he has a debt to pay to society. He also confided that when he is released, he wants to pursue an engineering degree. 

He told me how much he loved the challenge of school. “In here, everybody’s pushing each other to do better. You want to succeed here, you really do. You can’t help but feel successful in here. Everybody participates, everybody has a voice.”

As I walked through the halls on my last day, I thought again about the monsters the principal warned me against. If only that were the case. If only I had found monsters.

If I had spent my summer with monsters, it wouldn’t hurt to see them locked up. It wouldn’t tear at my heart to hear it had been years, decades, since they had seen anything beyond the cold cement of their barracks and the razor wire of their courtyard. If only I had listened to the stories of monsters. Then I wouldn’t have to lie awake and wonder what it feels like to watch your son grow up from afar, through glimpses during visiting hours. I wouldn’t have learned that drug dealers and embezzlers and murderers are also yogis and dancers and guys who love Jimi Hendrix.

I’m back at Reed now, and Lunenburg sometimes seem like a world away. But what I’ve learned is that despite the razor wire and the autolock doors, what separates the inside and the outside is still just a single step, and that those walls walls can be a cage—or a cocoon. 

Maddy Wagar ’16 is a psychology major.


Find out more about the President’s Summer Fellows

Find out more about Campus within Walls

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