Undue Familiarity - Reader Response
After reading Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity,” about teaching inmates in juvenile detention [September 2016], I was questioning my own relationship with younger inmates here in prison. I’m reluctant to talk to them other than to ask how they want their hair cut at the prison barbershop where I work. A day or so later I cut R.’s hair. He’s twenty-three and told me he has been locked up since he was fifteen. I felt compassion for him.

Collett’s essay had humanized R. for me. Last week I asked R. if he wanted to read it. He did, and afterward he and I had a good conversation. Collett gave us a way to talk to each other in spite of our age difference.
— Greg, Virginia

Read "Undue Familiarity" online here.

Ellen Responds to Undue Familiarity Readers
I’m a thirty-seven-year-old inmate. I spent time in a juvenile facility from the ages of fifteen to seventeen and have been in prison since eighteen. Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity” [September 2016] struck a chord. Over the years I’ve experienced every feeling she observes in the boys she writes about.

Collett clearly cared for her students. That none of them wrote to her after she stopped teaching them only shows how fickle boys and inmates are. On occasion, these capricious youths mature and become what few thought they could be: good men.
— Jeremy, Indiana

Being incarcerated, I’ll make no pretense of objectivity, but I was surprised by the strong backhand that Ellen Collett’s “Undue Familiarity” laid across the face of prison education.

Yes, there are predators in prison writing classes, but are they more pervasive than in fraternities and corporate America? In my experience the predatory types who attempt to dupe teachers are about as subtle as the average soap-opera villain.

I hope people will see for themselves how beneficial prison writing programs are, both to the incarcerated population and the general public. I’ve been in an excellent volunteer-driven program for five years. Prison writing, like other writing, improves communication, broadens one’s worldview, and builds a capacity for compassion — the same virtues embodied by every volunteer teacher I’ve had the honor to meet.
— Andrew, Minnesota

Ellen's response:

I’m touched that Jeremy spent a stamp on me. I don’t blame my students for not writing; I was the naive one. I continued to teach in that prison until it closed. After that first semester that I described in my essay, some of my new students did write. The ones I heard from all became the men I knew they could be.

I share Andrew’s belief in prison writing programs and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. My students were fearless, focused, and brutally self-aware. They wrote to understand themselves and to survive the total annihilation of self that prison has as its goal.

As I continued to teach, I had each student write a document that explained his incarceration to a future employer, landlord, or college admissions officer in a way that proved he was no longer the boy who made that initial mistake. I take great joy in hearing about the students who are now finding success on the outside.

Reader Response to Undue Familiarity

Below is a response from a reader on Undue Familiarity (published in The Sun Magazine in September 2016):

Though well written, Ellen Collett’s “Undue Familiarity” was cynical and one-sided. Are those who are paying their debt to society to be viewed as criminals forever?

At the end of her essay Collett portrays these young inmates as incapable of feeling gratitude or compassion. I taught in a state correctional facility in New York City for fifteen years, and my experience was that despite inhumane conditions, many of my students proved themselves to be resilient, decent, and capable of giving and receiving love.
— Deneise, NY

Ellen's response:

In response to Deneise, I want to clarify that those inmates were the finest and most disciplined students I’ve ever taught. They inspired and humbled me. After the experience I wrote about in “Undue Familiarity,” I turned down paid teaching jobs at universities in order to volunteer at that prison. I did this for years until the prison closed due to budget cuts.

I hoped to show it was not my students but their teacher whose failings were on display. I agree with everything Deneise says about our incarcerated students and share her sense of feeling blessed to spend time with them.