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Doing Good Behind Bars

By Kathy Barr



When Marilyn Miller mentions she’s a teacher, one can see her in a classroom of elementary school children, patiently teaching them about their numbers, letters and how to behave themselves. It comes as a surprise when she mentions where she teaches – at the French Robertson Unit, an all-male, maximum {{more}} security prison near Abilene. Marilyn has worked there for 14 years, primarily as a teacher of students who have a difficult time learning. Last year, she accepted a position teaching “Life Matters” in which students learn how to succeed in the real world. Inmates who want to learn how to develop skills like conflict resolution, leadership skills, balancing life and work, improve their verbal and non-verbal communication and handling finances can enroll in the class. Lessons on citizenship, employment and parenting skills are also a part of the curriculum. Also, inmates learn how to better take care of themselves, including information on good nutrition, avoiding heart disease and preventing AIDS. In addition to written materials supplied by the prison, she uses various other methods to teach. Each day, she puts a saying on the board for students to apply to their lives. Some of them include “Success is a do-it-yourself project,” “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” and “Your heart is a miraculous place. The more you give from it, the bigger and better it will be.” The three-hour class lasts six or seven months and is limited to 25 students per class. During this time, students do research in the library, participate in classroom discussions, and work on projects together. Cooperating together on assignments encourages students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to work together and also gives those with more education a chance to help those who need assistance. Marilyn’s day in the classroom starts at 6:30 a.m.; the students have already been up for three hours and most have eaten breakfast. To get to the classroom, Marilyn must go through metal detectors, give her ID to a prison employee who sits behind a glass window, go through sliding metal doors, and then is given back her ID. There are several gatesthat must also be unlocked and locked for passage. Marilyn has positive relationships with her students because, she said, although they have done something wrong, they still deserve to be treated with respect. “These are human beings who have made bad choices,” she said. Because they did not have the opportunity to learn how to succeed and were surrounded by poor examples when they were growing up, they made poor decisions and have ended up in prison. A desire to have what others have sometimes drove some inmates to do things that were wrong. Substance abuse also played a role in some of the prisoner’s behavior. Many of her students, Marilyn said, feel they are not smart enough to succeed. Marilyn encourages them to see their strengths and to see that they can make it in the world. Many of them, she reported, are very creative and artistic. She said she enlisted the help of one inmate who works in the prison’s craft shop to make her a cover for her Bible. Unfortunately, there are also those who engage in criminal behavior because they enjoy getting away with something. One hopes that their experience of living in prison, plus lessons they learn in Marilyn’s class, will change their thinking. Marilyn does have certain rules inmates must follow. How does she discipline inmates? Marilyn said the prisoners came up with a novel approach to discipline to deal with profane language in the classroom. For every bad word a prisoner says, they must do ten pushups. Prisoners enforce this rule, even if Marilyn didn’t hear the word that was uttered! Behaviors that would cause students to be expelled from class include disrespect shown toward her, not submitting to her authority, and the repeated use of profane language. To further insure her safety plus the safety of her students, there is a guard that patrols the hallway and can see inside the classroom easily because a large window allows easy visibility. Marilyn also has a positive attitude about her situation. “Wherever you are, something can happen,” she said. “Just keep God in your life – He’s my protection.” In addition to her teaching, a psychologist visits students in her classroom once a month to talk about dealing with stress, anger management and other areas of interest. Inmates can make private appointments with the psychologist if they want. Students recently had the opportunity to express their feelings about the class and their beloved teacher. Comments included statements such as “Thank you, Mrs. Miller, just for being you,” “It is teaching me how to respect others, which I really need to know how to do,” “This class has made me better prepared to deal with certain trials and tribulations when I return to society; being in this class is very rewarding,” “Today, life in Christ Jesus is my new life and I am grateful for this class because only God knew this class would be healing to some hidden wounds in my life…Thank you Mrs. Miller.” “…Personal responsibility is where it all starts.” Students knew that Marilyn’s care and concern for them was genuine when she read a poem she wrote for their graduation. Life Matters When the sun is shining,The breeze is blowing,Your loved ones are smiling,You are happy and glowing,Life Matters.When the sky turns cloudy,There is a chill in the air,Those around you are frowning,And you’re starting to not care,Life still Matters.When the cold winds howl,And you experience the sting of bitter cold,Everyone is turning their back on you,You struggle to find the strength to be bold.But Life still Matters.Life parallels with the seasons,Seasons change from warm to cold,Life ranges from better to worse,Through it all you must find an anchor to hold.Because Life does still Matter.So set your goals,Make the change,Check your attitude,And no goal will be out of your range. Then you will see that Life does Matter.Love yourself first so that you can love others. Treat yourself as well as you would treat a friend. Like yourself in spite of your faults and enough to overcome them. Accept yourself so you can accept others . Mrs. Miller has a BS Degree in Education from ACU, she has Naster Degrees from ACU in Educational, Vocational and Specail Education Counseling.

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