Bill Crider has worn many hats in his career as a writer, professor, and reviewer, but most of them have some connection to mystery fiction. His Ph.D. dissertation was on the hardboiled detective novel, and though he writes Westerns and other types of fiction, he has mostly focused on mysteries, creating the well-known Sheriff Dan Rhodes and P.I. Truman Smith series, as well as a cozier series starring college professor Carl Burns. He is a collector of vintage paperbacks and regularly contributes reviews and commentary to a variety of journals and fanzines. EQMM readers know that he also has his finger on the pulse of anything related to mysteries in the blogosphere; he has written EQMM’s Blog Bytes column, which reviews several new sites each month, for many years. Bill’s latest novel, Half in Love with Artful Death, features Sheriff Dan Rhodes and will be available August 12. Today he gives us a glimpse of a lesser-known chapter in his literary career.—Janet Hutchings
Some of you might not be familiar with the story of my time behind bars. So here it is.
In 1983 I accepted the job of Chair of the Department of English at Alvin Community College. My family and I moved to Alvin, which is located about thirty miles from Galveston, one week before the arrival of a visitor named Alicia. Hurricane Alicia, that is.
Alicia was my first big surprise, but when you’re coming into a new community and taking a new job, there are bound to be a few surprises, some of then not so pleasant. Alicia was just the first one.
The next surprises came the next week when I reported to the college. For the first time I got a look at the fall schedule of English classes. Many of them had the names of the instructors attached, but many more had simply “Staff” beside them. The former chair of the department was still on the faculty. He’d tired of the job and gone back to full-time teaching, but he was available for advice. I went to his office and asked him what was going on.
“You can fill your own name in for some of those classes,” he said. “The rest will be taught by adjunct faculty.”
“Okay,” I said. “Who are they?”
“You weren’t told?”
“Part of your job is to hire the adjunct faculty.”
I hadn’t been told. And there was more to come.
“That includes the prison faculty,” he said.
“You weren’t told?”
I hadn’t been told.
“The college teaches classes in three or four prison units,” he said. “All the male instructors are required to teach at least one class there. You have to hire adjuncts for the ones that are left over.”
I believe it was at this point that he led me whimpering to the office of the dean, who said something like, “Well, I would’ve told you, but you didn’t ask.”
I hadn’t asked about hurricanes, either.
“I’ll tell you what,” the dean said. “I’ll give you a break. You don’t have to teach a prison class this semester. Since you’re new, you need to get your feet under you. You can start next semester.”
“What about hiring all the adjuncts?”
The dean smiled. “Oh, you still have to do that.”
The former chair took pity on me and dug out his list of the people he’d hired for adjunct work in the past, including the people he’d hired to teach in the prisons. After registration, I got on the phone and started calling. I got the classes staffed and relaxed until the next semester, which is when I went to prison for the first time. The class I taught was in a maximum-security unit, and there were five or six of us teaching there on Monday nights. The unit was one of the older ones in our district, a hulking brick building surrounded by a high fence that was topped with razor wire. We entered an enclosed area through a sally port with a gate that was closed and locked behind us electronically by the guard in the tower above us. He then opened the gate in front of us, and we went into the prison’s front yard. The lawn was neatly trimmed, and the flowerbeds clear of weeds. The stairs to the classrooms were not far from the entrance to the building, but to get to them, we had to go through a steel door. The guard checked our college ID and opened it. It locked behind us when we walked through. I was behind bars, locked in.
It was a strange feeling, but I didn’t feel threatened or uncomfortable. I never did while in the prisons, but then I wasn’t in the cell block. I went upstairs, checked in, and found my classroom. I think the former chair had told someone it was my first time, because when I looked at the blackboard, I saw that someone had written “BOO!’ across it.
The inmates had a good laugh when I saw the message, and so did I. And then we had class. It was like a regular class, except all the students were men, and they were all dressed alike in white cotton pants and shirts. And they all smoked. This was before the TDCJ banned smoking, and there was a lard can by each desk. The cans were the ashtrays. By the end of class firefighters could’ve done smoke drills in the room, and the cans were practically full of cigarette butts.
Although I taught in a couple of different prison units over a period of several years, there were never any dicey moments, not even the night when a big rainstorm knocked out all the power for a while. The prison, including the classrooms, was in complete darkness, as if I were in cave. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I figured that cowering under the desk wasn’t the best course to take. So I just kept on talking about Samuel Taylor Coleridge or whatever the topic was that evening. When the lights came back on, nobody was creeping toward me with a shiv, and class continued as usual.
Later on, it was my department that led the way with having women teach classes in the prisons. One of my English Department members was the first, and in fact it was her idea. Many others followed her.
Some people preferred the prison classes to the ones on campus. One of the adjunct instructors I hired the very first semester in 1983 is still teaching there. He’s spent more time in prison than a good many of the inmates.
One reason people like the classes is that the inmates have usually read the assignments and done the homework. They don’t have much else to occupy their time. I recall, however, that at least once I felt like a failure as a teacher because the students were begging me to let them leave class early. I thought that I must be pretty bad when they’d rather go back to a cell than stay in my class. Later I found out that the NBA finals were going on, and they all wanted to go to the rec room to watch. I felt a little better when I learned that, but not much.
One of my best students escaped, not from my class but from the prison. They caught him after three or four days. This was several years after he’d been in my class, so I’m sure he didn’t learn any escape techniques from me.
As department chair, I attended prison graduation every year. One incentive to for students to graduate was that the ceremony provided an opportunity for a contact visit. Punch and cookies were served afterward, and the inmates could mingle with their families. I took my wife a couple of times, but she wouldn’t go again. She said it was too sad. It was supposed to be a happy occasion, but I could see her point.
This is the whole history of “My Prisons.”
Okay, that’s not true, but I’ve always wanted to steal that line from Mr. Thoreau. There’s a lot more to be said about teaching inmates, and maybe someday I’ll write about it.