Posted by: krusty505 | June 3, 2011

Weeping Skinheads

The jail can be a very segregated place: transvestites aka  “he-she’s” and male prostitutes go in one pod (the place where the inmates live; the guys call it the “house”), high felons go in another, misdemeanors yet another. The list goes on. However, we get a mix in our school because our only real requirements are that the inmate does not have a high school diploma and that he does not have a sexual charge (those with a sexual charge are not safe in the jail). So our pod is a real melting pot: skinheads, African-Americans, vatos, occasional trannys, murderers, domestic violence offenders, drug addicts/dealers, larcenists,  etc.

Last year (my first) we had a “skinhead” in the pod who was very close to graduation; he only lacked half a credit of health, which I taught at the time. This guy was young (early 20′), but already he had a slew of racist tattoos. The most pronounced was one of a swastika on the middle of his throat. At first, he came at you with a real hard-ass attitude, but once you got to know him, he was basically a little boy in search of a father, someone who would guide him and express some pride in him.

He was really struggling with health, and couldn’t get past the last couple of tests, and he had decided to “fucking quit this shit!” Instead of allowing him to make a scene in the classroom, I pulled him out into the central corridor and asked him what was going on. “Fuck it, man. I can’t do this shit. Fuck this diploma.” I told him, “You know how I know you can do this? Because you are one of the only people who has finished the typing program” (they have to type 45 words a minute with 90% accuracy, which is pretty impressive for a bunch of guys who spend more time stealing computers than logging on to them). It looked like I slapped him across the face. I don’t think anyone in his entire life had ever expressed faith in his ability to accomplish something meaningful and worthwhile. As the realization crept into his psyche, his eyes clouded with tears; one or two ran down his cheek. In order to allow him to save face, I ignored his tears and just said, “When you’re ready, come back in and finish this thing up.”

It took him all of two class periods to pass the required tests, and he graduated the next month. He’s currently serving 3-5 for burglary.

This year, we got another skin head. This guy was much older; it’s always hard to tell especially if meth has been part of their lives, but I’d say he is in his early to mid-forties. Though he is 40-50 pounds overweight and most of his teeth are gone, he is solid as a rock and scary. His hands, from years of working on bikes, are like leathery vice-grips, his head is shorn, and his arms are thick ropes of muscle covered with swastikas and other white supremacy insignia.

My first assignment is to have them write a personal narrative about their lives. He chose to write about being inculcated into a biker gang by standing up to the leader of it. It was difficult to follow and rife with errors, including many homophones. I could tell this guy sincerely wanted to make a change, so I kept him after class to discuss his writing skills in private. I asked him if he knew what a homophone was.

“No, Sir. No I don’t.”

“Well, do you know what homo means, and I’m not trying to be funny.”

“No, Sir. Sorry, I don’t.”

“It means ‘same’, so a homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word but has a different meaning.”


“Would you like a handout of them so that you can study them in the pod.”

“Yes, Sir. I would. Thank you. You know I’m really trying, Sir?”

“Yeah, I noticed that you are working hard. That’s why I kept you after to help you out.”

“Thank you, Sir.” At this point, it was like deja vu. His eyes welled up, he cast them down, and tears dropped on the floor. Again, I don’t think anyone had ever acknowledged that he was a hard worker or had the ability to learn.

It was yet another lesson that so many of us are blessed with parents, teachers, and other influential people in our lives who express faith in us on a regular basis, that we take this gift of empowerment for granted, and that far too many others have not had this critical luxury in their lives.



  1. This is interesting, Chris. I’m not sure that that there’s anything like it out there. Although, it’s specific to a prison population, it’s remarkable how similar these anecdotes are to any classroom. I’m reminded once more how we are all in many ways the same. Keep posting!!

    • I will definitely keep posting about the jailbirds.

  2. Dude. Glad you decided to do this. A little glimpse into the life. We ain’t at 11,500 and enjoying the efficiency of the buzz at that altitude, but it’s a worthy substitute. Keep ’em comin. I’m a fan already.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. There will be more to come. I plan on writing about using a plastic shopping bag as a pack to summit Wheeler as using a tissue as a sleeping bag.

  3. Word. It’s nice to hear about the power of teaching (when you show you want to teach someone and they are willing to learn) because it’s that power that we hope will translate to someone’s life.


  4. This is great! It’s from a totally different perspective but it’s so universal.

  5. I was directed to your blog via Molly on Money. She was right, you have “it”.
    I was compelled to read all the way down. Many blogs leave me… or I leave them after their very empty blather. Keep telling us about these guys from the inside.

    • Thanks for the encouraging comment! We had a graduation today, and it’s definitely got me mentally composing…

  6. Chris, this is great stuff you are sharing. I think it could become a book at some point and the insights you let the reader discover without sermonizing or moralizing are profound. I intend to keep following and will send the link to some other people who share my belief that we’re making a huge mistake to ever write someone off. Education as an encounter that changes both parties ought to be our motto–not scores on standardized tests. Jerry Ortiz y Pino

    • Jerry, thank you so much for the kind words of support and encouragement. They really mean quite a lot coming from you and knowing your role in forming the school and your personal connection to it. Michaela posted a reply, so thanks for passing this on. Much appreciated!

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