Best of Times, Worst of Times: Reflections from a Prison Educator by Michelle Ribeiro (New Mexico)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Mass incarceration is a national crisis, generating—and generated by—a symbiotic tangle of cancerous social ills. The financial and human costs are staggering. Quality prison education is not “the solution” to this complex crisis, but it is certainly a wise place to dig in. Return on investment is high. Raising awareness about this fact and investing in quality education for the incarcerated is not just an issue of critical socioeconomic importance. It is, I believe, a moral imperative. 

A significant portion of my professional life has been dedicated to prison education and reform, including the seven years I taught, developed programs, and served as Education Director at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. I left this post in the spring of 2015, for reasons both professional and personal. The decision to leave was ultimately mine; the process of making it was not unlike asking a devoted parent which of their children should be killed (if you refuse to choose—they will all die). I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I couldn’t stay. 

If you spend any length of time in a prison environment, you will have a tale to tell. It will not be simple, and it will not be short. My tale is a shadow I will cast over time. This shadow has a voice, and I am haunted by it. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

My experience working as a prison educator was as complex as the problem of mass incarceration itself. It fundamentally changed me. Never before had I experienced such cruelty and compassion; such hope and hopelessness; such deeply fulfilling personal rewards and grueling, unrelenting punishments. Never before had I experienced such flagrant apathy and destructive behavior coexisting—however uncomfortably—with genuine caring and productive passion. Simple notions like “good guys” and “bad guys” do not apply in prison, despite what many would have us believe. 

People live and work in prison. 

I think it is relatively easy to imagine experiences that might fall within “the worst of times” in a prison environment, even if you’ve never actually been inside one. If you have lived or worked in prison, unfortunately you do not have to imagine. You know. Prison is a dark, dark place. It is a sucking black hole of violence, hatred, corruption, fear, boredom, despair, and need. That is a truth. Thankfully, it is not the only truth. 

After all: Human beings live and work in prison.

Working in the prison dark with individual human beings toward a common goal—learning and positive personal growth—created a million points of light that collectively contributed to my “best of times” at the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM). Never in my teaching career was work with students more wanted or needed, and given the setting, never was it more challenging to actually accomplish. As a result, teaching was never more rewarding. For me, teaching at PNM was like coming home. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Creating programmatic vehicles to allow such meaningful work to happen contributed substantially to my best of times at PNM, and in this respect no light shines brighter than the creation and launch of the Pen Project in collaboration with Arizona State University (ASU). If teaching at PNM was like coming home, launching the Pen Project was like being given a golden key to a castle in the clouds, along with a potentially endless supply of keys I could pass along to others. It was magnificent.

The Pen Project uses creative writing as a vehicle for both self expression and instruction. It honors the sheer power and awesome beauty of language, harnessing the universal appeal of story to involve, instruct, and inspire. The ability to express oneself and communicate effectively with others is not just “nice”—it is critical. This is true for all human beings, but no more urgently than for those who are systematically marginalized and disempowered.  

To date, the Pen Project has helped hundreds of incarcerated men at the Penitentiary develop their writing skills, critical thinking skills, creativity, and voice. For every piece of writing submitted to the interns and faculty that compose the English 484 internship (the ASU heart of the Pen Project), Penitentiary project participants receive pages and pages of supportive critical feedback to help them improve their writing—at no cost to them, or to the prison. Interns receive valuable training with seasoned faculty, along with an invaluable opportunity to make a real positive difference in the world; inmates receive high quality educational services and support that the Penitentiary Education Department can’t possibly provide, in large measure due to the chronic gross mismatch between resources and need. 

The Pen Project is literally a dream come true. It offers proof that vision, perseverance, and genuine caring and collaboration can make a difference—often against all odds. I am grateful that it has helped so many people hone skills, find greater purpose and meaning, and receive encouragement and support. I am equally grateful for all the valuable initiatives the Pen Project has spawned, from an ASU student organization to an annual national conference to this very publication. I am thrilled that Pen Project participants at the Penitentiary of New Mexico now have the opportunity—along with incarcerated persons around the country—to submit work for publication in Iron City Magazine. These voices need to be heard, and they deserve to be. 

At this point I ask for a little indulgence from the reader: I am utterly compelled to pause here and offer deepest thanks to Dr. Joe Lockard, Dr. Sherry Rankins-Robertson, and Dr. Corri Wells for their original vision and supreme dedication to launch, develop, and sustain the Pen Project. I will never be able to thank you enough. Equally I want to thank all ASU Pen Project interns and PEAC (Prison Education Awareness Club) officers, past and present, for your tireless efforts and belief in the value of this project. Thank you ASU English Department for your backbone support, and on the New Mexico side of the Pen Project, I owe an original debt of gratitude to Johannes Hedrich, Bernie Lieving, and John Solomon. Thank you.

And finally, to all Pen Project participants at the Penitentiary of New Mexico: Thank you for having the courage to speak and share your stories. Your bravery, your struggles, your leaps of faith, and your humanity were never lost on us. To those of you who may read this with whom I have actually worked in the past: I have not forgotten. Keep writing and following the Yellow Brick Road. And if you are published in this or future editions of Iron City, CONGRATULATIONS!      

It is an honor to have worked with all of you, and it is an honor to contribute to the inaugural edition of Iron City Magazine.