Fidgeting uncomfortably in my black blazer and slacks, I wait in a lobby of the Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland. It is January of 2011, and I am here to meet my new student for the spring semester. As a sophomore at UC Berkeley, I was volunteering with Bears Beyond Bars, a student organization that tutors inmates in local jails in conjunction with the Alameda County Library's Reading for Life Program.
Initially I joined the club to continue participating in community service in college, and tutoring in a jail sounded exciting. Then I became increasingly invested in the social problems the campus group seeks to address, such as the lack of educational and employment opportunities for inmates and previously incarcerated people.
Tutors are required to dress somewhat formally in the jails (as if being a petite sorority girl in a facility that houses only male inmates doesn't attract enough attention!). Through the tempered glass of the room, I note the half-curious, half-admiring stares of a few men and smile to think of the strange parallel between fraternity parties and jails, both of which once intimidated me but now seem routine.
My students often feel forgotten by mainstream society. Part of being an effective tutor is letting them know that I am not there to judge them for the mistakes they have or haven't made, what they know or do not know. During our weekly sessions, making errors is not only condoned, it's necessary to learning.
I hear the door clang and turn to see a tall, middle-age man of Mexican descent being escorted to me. I'll call him "Rafael." Although he towers above me, he lowers his gaze to make eye contact and politely bows as he takes his seat. He thanks me for taking the time to help him learn English. Most people might not expect such courtesy from inmates. But I can attest, after a stint tutoring children in elementary and junior high school, that these men are the most gracious and diligent population I have ever taught.
All of my students sincerely desire to better themselves during their time behind bars. Unfortunately, this ambition is often no match for the harsh realities that await them after their release from jail.
For his first assignment, I ask Rafael to describe his ideal day, to practice proper use of the simple present tense. He wishes for a steady job with a construction company that can pay for his family to move to California, where they will be safe from the dangers they have faced in Mexico since his arrest. However, he candidly explains, this dream will never come true. No one will hire him with a criminal record. Public housing will not be an option. He will inevitably be forced to return to Mexico, where he will either fall back into a life of crime or be murdered by his enemies.
I am horrified by the lucidity with which Rafael understands his dismal situation. Fumbling to respond coherently, I remember saying something perfectly inane, like, "We'll need to work on comma usage, but the subject-verb agreement looks good." Despite my composed exterior, his words haunt me.
That spring, Rafael greets me with a smile every time I visit and asks about my day. While he takes his weekly vocabulary quiz, I edit the grammar of his touching song lyrics, which sorrowfully portray his broken life in broken English.
In detention facilities, I have met brilliant engineers who devised tattooing equipment out of a pen, a guitar string, and two double-A batteries; self-taught chemists who worked in less-than-legal labs; and prolific writers (like Rafael) who lacked only a publisher. My experiences have inspired my passion for social justice.
Before volunteering with Bears Beyond Bars, I had only casually considered becoming a lawyer. Now I am determined to pursue a law degree and use it to address the civil rights and social justice issues faced by inmates and the previously incarcerated. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
Jaclyn Harris, a senior at UC Berkeley, is president of Bears Beyond Bars.