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Prison Stories

Some retired educators are taking their teaching skills to those who need them the most.

by Ankita Rao

Rose Robacker has two big notebooks as proof.

There are memories sketched on toilet paper, painted on envelopes, or scribbled on whatever was available. There is art, poetry, essays, and quotes. These are the stories of Wayne County Prison.

Thousands of students have passed through Robacker’s hands during her 47 years of teaching. But the most recent were in need of a second chance as much as more education: They were inmates.

Robacker is one of several NEA-Retired educators who are supporting efforts to rehabilitate inmates through education and self-expression.

As part of the Wayne Pike Adult Literacy Program in Pennsylvania, she has logged over ten thousand hours individually tutoring men and women to receive their GED—the equivalent of a high school diploma.

A former Franciscan nun and dean of Oberlin College, Robacker has master’s degrees from Columbia University, Notre Dame, and Marquette University. She says she fell into teaching by chance when she moved to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, after losing her husband. Upon retiring, her next calling was to help those behind bars. “I find it rewarding, I really do,” she says.

Like Robacker, Connecticut-based Careen Jennings’ classrooms look a little different these days.

Instead of desks full of teen-agers, the former high school English teacher of 37 years now teaches writing to about 30 female inmates.

Jennings was looking to make her retirement meaningful, when, in the spring of 2005, she called her former colleague and best-selling author Wally Lamb about a writing workshop he was leading at York Correctional Institution.

“Journal writing is terrific, but that’s not the focus of what we do. We want to help them develop a skill,” Jennings says.

The workshop is designed to help women heal, express, and learn through writing.

Jennings, Lamb, and one other volunteer conduct two, two-and-a-half-hour classes each week. A typical session is like a work­shop: The women read what they have written as instructors offer advice, critiques, and positive reinforcement.

“I don’t deal with the crimes, I deal with the women. They’ve been judged, they’ve been sentenced. I have no part of that,” she says.

While the program at York Correctional Facility was geared toward women, David Bishop has helped male inmates learn the skills necessary to receive their GED since 1992.

Bishop was a high school English teacher for 37 years when he was referred by his principal to teach at the Illinois River Correctional Facility.

He says his initial hesitations about teaching in a prison didn’t last long.

“After the first hour I decided, ‘You know, these kids are just students. They want to learn,’” Bishop says.

“Once I started, it got into my system, and it was great. It was probably the best teaching experience I ever had,” he says.

Each of these volunteer educators shares a commitment to helping their new students create a better future for themselves.

“These people are human beings and have stories that transcend their crimes,” says Jennings. “It’s important that they be humanized. The majority will walk among us again someday, and the more capable they are of making good decisions, the better off all of us will be.”

—Erica Addison contributed to this report.