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June 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Teaching ESL at a Correctional Facility

Robert Emigh received his MAT from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont and has taught ESL/EFL for more than 25 years.  He has taught EFL in Thailand and Brazil as well as ESL at the City University of New York (CUNY), Kingsborough Community College.  Currently, he is a tenured professor of ESL at Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Email:


In fall 2015, prisoners from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility challenged the Harvard debate team to a friendly competition at their maximum-security prison in upstate New York.  The correctional facility prisoners were enrolled as undergraduates through Bard College and had formed a debate team, which had recently beaten debate teams from the military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont.  Despite these impressive victories, the Eastern New York Correctional Facility team was a decided underdog against a Harvard team that had recently won the national debate title.  The prisoners had to defend the position that public schools should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students (a view that, in real life, the inmates strongly disagreed with).  The outcome of the debate was international news: a headline in the U.K.’s Guardian proclaimed, “Harvard's prestigious debate team loses to New York prison inmates.”  Articles on the debate appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times and on the CNN website.  Later, it was announced that film director Ken Burns was planning to make a documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative debate team, and it was reported that Warner Bros. was also interested in making a movie about the prison debate team that beat Harvard.  After their loss, the Harvard team graciously posted this message on their Facebook site: “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend.” 

To be sure, it was an astonishing and uplifting story, and the prisoners’ victory reflected the hidden talent and untapped potential that lie within our prison system.  However, the story, as inspiring as it might be, begged the question: what is being done to rehabilitate prisoners within the U.S. penal system? While retributive punishment and deterrence have long been seen as proper roles of a penal system, rehabilitation has also been viewed as a function of penitentiaries.  In fact, the word itself—penitentiary—implies that prisoners “could be induced to repent and reform” (Gershon, 2018).  But how effectively is society achieving this goal?  What is the current prison system doing to educate and rehabilitate its inmates so that when they are released they will be able to become productive—even outstanding—members of society?  Support for educational programs within correctional settings has waxed and waned over time as the nation’s philosophy of punishment has shifted back and forth from rehabilitation to crime control (Davis et al. 2014).  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, there are over 2.1 million individuals incarcerated in local jails or prisons (“U.S. Correctional Population”).  Erisman and Contardo state that post-secondary education is only available to 5% of the prison population (2005).  Part of the reason for this low percentage is that many prisoners have not yet graduated from high school or earned the equivalent General Education Development (GED) diploma.  Another reason is that in a number of states there has been a large decrease in the number of post-secondary programs offered to prisoners over the past 25 years. For example, in the early 1990s, New York State offered 70 college programs for incarcerated individuals.  By 2004, that number had been reduced to only four (Erisman and Contardo, 2005).  Correspondingly, the number of college degrees earned by prisoners in New York fell from 1,078 in 1991 to 141 in 2011 (Bennet, 2016).

One of the reasons for the decrease in post-secondary programs and prisoner enrollment in them has to do with legislation passed by Congress in 1994 called the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.”  In response to what was seen at the time as a growing crime wave, the legislation put into place a number of provisions intended to reduce crime.  Among those provisions were the hiring 100,000 new police officers, the expansion of the number of crimes that the death penalty could be used for, and the imposition a “Three Strikes” punishment—a provision which stated that Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes would receive a mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (“Violent Crime Control”).  The impact of the law was multi-faceted and, according to some, counter-productive.  Within twenty-two years of the passage of the legislation, there was a doubling of the population in federal prisons.  The law also reinforced, according to Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, “the popular thinking that the solution to crime was harsher punishments” (Lussenhop, 2016).  Even President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill into law, has stated that the bill only “made the problem worse.”  One other provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was that it prohibited incarcerated individuals from being recipients of Pell Grants.  The Pell Grant program, which was created as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, provides modest amounts to college students in financial need, and since 1972 it had allowed prisoners to be recipients.  In fact, Pell Grant founder Sen. Claiborne Pell stated at the time, “Diplomas are crime stoppers.”  Despite this admonition, in many states the revocation of Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals led to a steep decline in the percentage of the prison population enrolled in higher education.

In the years following the passage of this legislation, not only was there an increase in the prison population, but also in the wake of the 2008 economic recession there was a decrease in the correctional education budgets of medium and large states ranging from 10-20% in fiscal years 2009-12 (Davis et al., 2014).  These factors combined to lead to fewer opportunities for prisoners to further pursue educational advancement, particularly in the area of post-secondary education.  This lack of opportunity for educational advancement is particularly troublesome in light of mounting evidence that suggests access to education is one of the most effective methods for reducing prison recidivism.  Several studies, including two seminal studies—the 2001 Three State Recidivism Study and 2014 Rand Corporation Study—concluded that there are a number of positive effects that accrue by providing prisoners access to post-secondary education, including “fewer disciplinary infractions, higher rates of post-release employment, and improved self-image” (Schwartzpfel, 2015).  The Rand study found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs (Davis et al., 2014).  Additionally, research has shown that the education of prisoners provides significant cost savings in the long run: “The public saves $4 to $5 in re-imprisonment costs for every $1 it spends on prison education” (Bennet, 2016).

Clearly, education plays an important role in reducing recidivism rates, and this led me to wonder if I might be able to do something, however small, to address the problem.  I am, after all, an educator.  I am also an ESL instructor, and I was fairly certain that there was a significant population of prisoners in the penal system of my state whose best language was not English.  With this in mind, I set out to see if I could volunteer my services.  The coordinator of the criminal justice program at my community college suggested I reach out directly to the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC).  After exchanging a few emails and telephone calls, I was able to arrange a meeting with the “principal”—a position formerly referred to as warden—of the Bennington Correctional Facility (note: for reasons of security and confidentiality, I have changed the name of the facility, its employees and the incarcerated individuals I worked with).  The principal and I met the day after Thanksgiving, and he told me that he was very pleased that I was interested in volunteering at the prison.  He explained that due to budgetary cutbacks, the facility had discontinued its ESL courses.  It did, however, still provide GED courses for prisoners working towards their high school diplomas.  At that meeting we discussed the contours of the course that I was offering to teach: the days the class would meet, the length of the course, the class size, and the manner in which the students would be selected.  And although I could not devote a large amount of time to the course since I was also teaching summer courses at my college, the principal told me he was more than pleased by whatever I could do.  We agreed to proceed in the following manner:

1) The principal would search his facility for five-ten inmates who were interested in taking an ESL course.  Ideally, these students would be GED students, pre-GED students, or individuals who had already graduated from high school and who might be interested in attending a community college upon release.  We also wanted to target inmates who were close to being released.  This would be the ideal population, but we could work with others who didn’t meet these exact criteria.

2) I would develop a syllabus for a course that would begin in the late spring/early summer and probably run for about two-three months.  Then, after the course ended, we would assess its effectiveness and discuss how we might proceed in the future.

3) Grant money that I had been awarded from my college could be used to buy instructional materials to supplement those materials the facility already possessed.

With the parameters of the course settled upon, I felt both excited and a bit anxious about what lay ahead.  In the ensuing winter and spring months before the course began, I had three tasks to do: 1) complete a DOC application form for “VIPs,” Volunteers, Interns and Professional Partners, 2) attend a “VIP Safety and Security Orientation,” and 3) begin organizing the curriculum for the class.  Once I had completed and sent in the application, the DOC initiated a background check on me.   Next, I attended the VIP orientation in March.  According to the VIP Handbook, the purpose of the orientation was to “provide essential information to help you to function comfortably in a correctional setting or restrictive environment [and] help to make you more aware of expected conduct & behavior with staff, inmates & other VIPs.”  There were only two of us in attendance at the orientation: a pastor and myself.  Among other things, the orientation facilitator explained to us the type of correctional facility that we would be volunteering at, what we should do in case of a lockdown (stay in the classroom until a guard arrives), and why we should never give anything to the prisoners, even seemingly inconsequential items like a piece of paper or an eraser (smaller requests might lead to larger ones).  During these months, I also spent time contemplating the material that I would use in the course.  At my college, I teach mostly blended reading and writing courses to advanced ESL students.  My correctional facility students would also be at this advanced level, and so I planned to use the same curricular materials I use in my regular ESL college courses.  However, in each of those courses, we read a different, authentic, non-abridged, work of non-fiction.  One book is a memoir entitled The Other Wes Moore, which follows the lives two boys (both with the name Wes Moore) who grow up a few blocks from each other in Baltimore.  After a difficult childhood, the “other” Wes Moore takes part in a robbery in which a security guard is killed.  This Wes is currently serving a life sentence for his part in the crime.  The “author” Wes Moore, who also has a challenging childhood, takes a much different path and eventually becomes a Rhodes Scholar and a successful author.  In writing the book, the author attempts to understand the personal, familial, and societal factors that led to such different outcomes. The second book I use is Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which explains the nature of climate change and what can be done to mitigate its worst effects.  The third book is In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  This book critiques today’s food industry and reveals the industry’s toxic impact on the environment and our health.   

I choose these books not only because of my interest in the topics, but also because of my students’ favorable response to them.  However, I was uncertain if these topics would appeal to my correctional facility students.  Because of this uncertainty, I decided to poll my future students: I sent them a summary of the books and a response form where they could score the books from 1 to 10 based on their interest in the topic.  To my surprise, the students rated all of the books very highly; however, and again to my surprise, they scored Pollan’s In Defense of Food the highest.  Interestingly, as the course progressed, I discovered the topic of how food is produced and marketed was a genuine interest of theirs, despite—or perhaps because of—their common agreement that the meals they presently consumed were somewhat less than epicurean experiences. 

Then, finally, June and the first day of class arrived.  As I pulled into the parking lot outside the prison, the edifice in front of me looked a lot like what I would have expected a prison to look like.  A tall, chain-link fence with circular strands of barbed wire on top surrounded the prison.  There was a small, trim, grassy knoll between the fence and the prison itself, which was a large, imposing, and mostly brick structure.  When I walked through the front doors of the prison, the facility’s psychologist met me in the lobby.  The psychologist was the one who had tested and then selected the students for the class; she would also sit in on my first class (an administrator or guard would sit in on all of my classes).  I signed the prison’s register, and then she led me past the main security checkpoint and through what seemed like a labyrinth of metal gates, stairways, and hallways.  While walking down one hallway, I was surprised to see uniformed prisoners on the other side of the hall, alone and apparently unguarded, walking toward us.  When we arrived at the windowless classroom, several six-foot conference tables had been set up in rows facing an instructor’s desk.  Behind the instructor’s desk, there was a white board.  In my classes at the community college, I always arrive early so that I can arrange the desks in a circular or U-shaped configuration.  I asked the psychologist if we could arrange these tables in such a manner.  She was silent for a moment, processing this request.  This was the first instance where I became aware that in prison educational settings, security necessities more often than not trump pedagogical considerations.  Still, after a few seconds, she agreed to my request and we rearranged the tables.  After this first meeting, two of the students—Gabriel and Francisco—would arrive early to the class to configure the tables in this way.  Another example of how pedagogical activities are viewed initially through the lens of security occurred during one of my very first activities in the class.  After the students and I had briefly introduced ourselves to each other, I explained the activity.  I would give each student a slip of paper with a question on it that related to food and/or diet; then, I wanted them to stand, circulate around the room, and ask different students to respond to their question.  As I said the words “stand and circulate around the room,” I saw a look of alarm on the psychologist’s face.  She stood up from her chair in the back of the room and approached me.   “Could we discuss this?” she asked quietly.  Again, the issue was security.  She told me that in this activity notes or other things could be passed from one prisoner to another, and this was strictly forbidden.  There was also a concern that there might be some kind of confrontation between inmates if they were able to move freely about the room.  However, despite these concerns, she allowed me to do the activity, and there were no problems. 

On that first day of class, there were nine students in attendance.  After the first class, two students dropped out of the course, and a week or so later one other student dropped.  However, after that, the six students that remained continued until the end of the course.  This attrition rate was not unlike what I see at my community college.  In fact, that was not the only similarity I noticed between my correctional facility students and my college students.  Indeed, after the initial anxieties of teaching in a prison began to abate—the anxiety of entering a prison and walking through its hallways to my classroom, the disconcerting feeling of sitting around a table with students who were dressed in prison uniforms, and the somber realization that each student was there because he had been convicted of a crime—I began to see my prison students as not unlike my college students.  They were no longer the intimidating “convicts” I had imagined, but rather individuals with distinct personalities that reflected much the same range as my college students.  The classroom dynamics were also similar.  Often, in my college classroom, one or two students tend to be more vocal than the others, and so it was in my prison classroom.  For example, Sebastian was a large, friendly, and outgoing man who readily contributed to class discussions; his views, though, were often tinged with skepticism and pessimism.  Another student, Gabriel, also contributed generously to class discussions. Gabriel was tall and fit; he had a full beard and a shaved head.  The psychologist told me he was very much respected by the other prisoners.  At the same time, he was also thoughtful, polite, kind, and an exemplary student.  There was also Triston, a young man in his twenties who was somewhat short, but strongly built.  Triston had a shy smile and did make eye contact easily.  He did not engage as readily as the others did in classroom discussions.  I would often need to call on him to get him to speak.  However, when he did speak, his responses were invariably thoughtful and earnest.  One personality trait I did not see in my classroom was hostility or aggression; I never felt threatened at any point during the time I spent at the prison.  Granted, these were students who had been handpicked by the psychologist, and were, undoubtedly, model prisoners.  Yet, I also sensed that these men were not necessarily the same men who had been convicted of their respective crimes a number of years ago.  According to Pledger (1985), prisoners can experience the same five stages of grief as Kubler-Ross postulated for terminally ill individuals.  In the last stage—acceptance—prisoners can experience “genuine soul searching and accept responsibility for their situation… Attitudes are improving.  They fall into a routine usually try to improve through reading, school, church, or work. A sense of peace moves in and many show a sincere desire to change.”  Several months after the course ended, I was stunned when I learned that Gabriel had been convicted of a serious, violent felony and would likely remain in prison for the rest of his life.  Pledger’s assertion that a prisoner’s outlook can change was the only way I could make sense of Gabriel’s situation.

Once we had established a routine in the classroom, the two summer months that I had arranged to teach the class passed very quickly, and in August, I walked through the brick and steel labyrinth one last time.  During the course, my students had completed two essays: each essay had three drafts.  These essays, along with a letter of introduction, were to be included in their final portfolio.  In the letter of introduction, I asked them to reflect on the course and their experience participating in it.  Gabriel wrote: “Throughout the duration of the course Mr. Emigh has taught us how to better express ourselves verbally as well as in writing; furthermore, he has made the class very interesting by engaging and challenging us in many different ways to do better.”  This comment reflected both the student and the person that I knew him to be.  Not only was the sentiment heartfelt, but also through the grammatical structure of the sentence, Gabriel wanted to show me his learning: just the week before I had showed them how to join two independent clauses with a semi-colon + transition word + comma.  Sebastian wrote: “The book In Defense of Food has been an eye-opening reality and experience to my soul.  I started eating better and managing the sodium, fat, calories and processed food—as much as I can control from with my control….Keep up the good charity academic works, and if possible, don’t ever be discouraged by the monumental crippling bureaucracy that’ll overwhelm even the most willing in spirit.  I appreciate this experience.  Thank you.” 

Finally, Triston wrote that the he “learned a lot of things along the way.” That he had learned new vocabulary and “past participles.”  He also wrote that he “learned a lot from In Defense of Food [but] most importantly I met a good man along the way.  Thank you for your time and patience.”  While I was appreciative and moved by these words, something Triston had written earlier in the course left an even deeper and lasting impression.  As part of the placement process, I had asked the students to write a short essay about someone who had had a positive impact on their lives.  Sebastian wrote about the kindly landlord of his apartment building who had been like a father to him.  Another student, one of the two students who dropped after the first session, had written: “I am the person who influences [myself] to do positive things.  I believe that since the age of twelve, I’ve been teaching myself how to live my life.”   He added that he had been “in and out of detention and residential facilities since the age of twelve [and] to be honest, that’s when I took matters into my own hands.”  One student wrote about his mother.  Triston, however, wrote about Isaiah, his son. 

Triston wrote, “This essay will explain why my son, Isaiah, has influenced me in oh so many ways.  He’s helped [me to] become a better person, to become a role model, and especially, how to love.”  Triston wrote that he “never thought some one so little and innocent can change my life…I became this unselfish person that I never discovered.  All my time and attention was on him.  I found myself wanting him to cry, just so I can be there to comfort him.  To let him know he’s not alone.”  He continued, “I would like nothing in the world but to be my son’s role model.  I know I’m not doing a great job at this moment.  I find myself writing an essay about him in prison, but everything I do from this point on is to show him what a real man is.  I know it’s not too late for me, but I will never give up.”  Later, I learned that Triston would be released in the not-to-distant future.  He would, indeed, get a second chance.  However, data indicate that 77% of released prisoners will return to prison in less than five years (“3 in 4 Former Prisoners,” 2014).  I wondered if Triston would be one of those individuals who becomes part of a revolving prison door.  Or, with the support of his family, his friends, and society, would he become one of those four previously incarcerated individuals who does not return to prison?  Would he become one those four who is able to reintegrate into society, find gainful employment, and, perhaps, even become a role model for a young boy like Isaiah? 

In 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the Department of Education launched a pilot program called the Second Chance Pell program to re-start the allocation of Pell grants to prisoners in the penal system (“12,000 Incarcerated Students,” 2016).  The program currently has 60 participating institutions, and by the end of 2018, hundreds of prisoners had graduated as a result of it (“The State of Prisons,” 2018).  Still, the program is temporary and needs to be renewed annually.  While Congressional Republicans initially opposed the plan, the Trump Administration has taken an active interest in supporting the program, at least for the time being (Kreighbaum, 2018).  The pilot program does not repeal the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, but there does seem to be enthusiasm for the idea of restoring Pell grants for prisoners, particularly among Democratic senators and potential 2020 presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.  Since the time that Senator Pell stated diplomas are crime stoppers, numerous studies have supported that position.  The studies have shown that educational programs can significantly reduce recidivism and, at the same time, save taxpayer money.  One can only hope that the current political interest in prison reform will gain traction and include support for educational programs, like Pell Grants, for incarcerated men and women.  In the meantime, individuals through their voluntary efforts can make a difference.  By volunteering our time and expertise, we can support individuals like Triston and, in some small way, help them towards becoming the role models they aspire to be.



3 in 4 Former Prisoners in 30 States Arrested within 5 Years of Release.  (2014). U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Statistics.  Retrieved from content /pub/press/rprts05p0510pr.cfm

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Steinberg, P.  (2014).  How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?  Rand Corporation.  Retrieved from content/ dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR500/RR564/RAND_RR564.pdf

Erisman, W. and Contardo, J.B.  (2005).  Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy.  Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Gershon, L.  (2018).  Why Do We Have Prisons in the United States?  JSTOR Daily.  Retrieved from

Kreighbaum, A.  (2018).  Building Momentum Behind Prison Education.  Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from trump-administrations-renewed-interest-prison-education.

Lussenhop, J.  (2016).  The Clinton Crime Bill: Why Was it So Controversial?  BBC News.  Retrieved from

Pledger, C. B.  (1985).  Do Incarcerated Offenders Experience the Five Stages of Grief as Do Terminally Ill Patients?  Journal of Offender Counseling, v6 n1 p9-17 Oct 1985.

Schwartzpfel, B.  (2015).  Obama Is Reinstating Pell Grants for Prisoners.  The Marshall Project.  Retrieved from https://www. obama-is-reinstating-pell-grants-for-prisoners.

The State of Prisons. (2018).  Vera, Institute of Justice.  Retrieved from

U.S. Correctional Population Declined for the Ninth Consecutive Year.  (2018). U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Statistics.  Retrieved from content/pub/press/cpus16pr.cfm 

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.  (1994).  U.S. Department of Justice: National Criminal Justice Reference Service.  Retrieved from https://www.


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Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Teaching ESL at a Correctional Facility
    Robert Emigh, USA