Lance leans over his desk, his round belly situating his body tightly between the wooden chair and plastic desk—both too small for someone with his girth. A collection of yellow notepad papers, their edges frayed after being torn from their original binding, wrestle alongside one another in his hands. It is a Saturday morning, and the classroom is small, and silent but for the friction of Lance’s papers and the grinding on the pen he bites out of nervous habit. His large fingers fiddle about the loose sheets, verifying that they’re in order as he mutters to himself, quietly reading his story aloud, restless in the anticipation of sharing with his classmates. Lance is often the first person to arrive in class, having rigorously prepared the entire week, perfecting his assignment so as to leave his peers impressed.
In this way, Lance is not so different from students I previously taught as a high-school teacher in Maryland. He is brimming with the sort of intellectual curiosity all teachers hope to see in their students. What is different is that this isn’t a high-school classroom: It’s a state prison in Massachusetts, and Lance is serving the 46th year of his sentence.
When his remaining four classmates arrive, they form a semicircle of five desks around me. Lance is a short, stocky man with olive skin, a shaved head, and uninhibited inquisition. Tyrus is tall with black, matted dreadlocks that fall to the middle of his back and a thick Caribbean cadence ornamenting his speech. Leo is built like a linebacker but laughs with the unrestrained whimsicality of a child. Chad has a thick New England accent, imbued with Bostonian bravado that juxtaposes his small stature. Darryl’s long salt-and-pepper goatee curls under his chin. His fingers trace the round frames of his reading glasses when a book passage presents him with an intellectual dilemma. Between the five of them they have spent 151 cumulative years in prison. It is unlikely that any of them will be released.