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Keeping It Real in a Baltimore Jail

It took only a few minutes for public health major Zachary Athing to discover that everything’s different in jail—even something as mundane as small talk. As a requirement for the major, all students must complete an “applied experience”—80 hours of unpaid work in a clinical or community-based setting. Athing chose the student-led Johns Hopkins Jail Tutorial Project, where undergraduates tutor men and women in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Athing started writing about his experiences.

I thought tutoring in a jail would be easy. After all, once you clear the metal detector and pat-down screening, tutoring is tutoring, right? Wrong. Tutoring in a jail is much more challenging because of the incarcerated students’ complex histories. Some dropped out of high school recently. Others have been injecting heroin for the past 30 years. Some are 18-year-old kids with kids of their own. Others are middle-aged men who have been in and out of the Baltimore City correctional system since they were 14. Connection and communication between teacher and student are always important elements of the tutoring process, but within a correctional setting, it can be difficult.

Zachary Athing outside the Baltimore City Detention Center

Zachary Athing ’13 stands outside the Baltimore City Detention Center, where he tutors incarcerated men.

I joined Jail Tutorial in the fall of 2009 after seeing their booth while I was walking through the Student Activities and Clubs Fair. I decided to join the substance abuse subgroup of Jail Tutorial. We tutor men 18 and up who are incarcerated on drug charges, and their needs vary greatly. Some need help preparing for a GED or SAT exam, while others are reading and doing math at elementary school levels. About 40 men are in the program at any given time. The most common charges are for heroin and cocaine. Because it is a rehabilitative substance abuse program, the men are housed together in a section of the jail, and this is where the tutoring takes place. Three or four men huddle around their Hopkins tutor at a cafeteria-style table. The walls are dull white concrete, and the few windows are barred. The voices and laughter of other men echo in the background.

Before we started, the club leaders repeatedly stressed the importance of “adaptable social interaction.” It was not until my first day of tutoring that I understood what they meant. When the three other tutors and I entered, the first person I saw was a tired-looking man in his 50s, with close-cropped hair and a shadow of a beard. I smiled and said, “Hi, how are you?” He looked at me for a second before he jokingly, but dismissively, replied, “I’m in jail.” I laughed nervously. He was right, he was in jail. It turned out I was not much of an adapter after all, and it hit me: This was not just tutoring.

At the jail I realized that the social toolbox I had subconsciously carried with me for 18 years was suddenly missing a few critical items. Communication is complex. Notably, the simple art of small talk seemed to have no appropriate use within the jail. In fact, it is painfully awkward and difficult. At times I felt completely paralyzed when I met a new inmate without small talk as a buffer. For one, the trusty weather is off-limits because of, well, incarceration. Sports and current events are problematic because television access is limited at best. Asking about the family can make an inmate feel the distance. Small talk associated with saying goodbye is hard, too, particularly during the holidays. When I leave for Thanksgiving break, is mentioning the holiday appropriate when the men will not be eating with family, or they have no family at all? Is “Have a happy New Year” applicable when 2013 will—for them—be largely indistinguishable from 2012, surrounded by the same concrete slabs and musty air? Or is purposefully omitting such good wishes even worse?

Because of these stubborn intricacies, I had to adjust how I interacted when at the jail. I had to check the superficial small talk at the door. Renouncing such a ubiquitous social tradition or norm was powerful and liberating. Yes, both tutor and tutee feel uncomfortable at first. We have next to nothing in common. But we get over it. We defy the complexity of it all. Once we both acknowledge that the uncomfortable social clumsiness is mutual and context-based, we can move on and focus on the tutoring. In many ways, the relationships I form at the jail seem so much more raw. We do not feel the need to impress each other or tiptoe on eggshells for fear we will violate some unspoken social rule. We are real.