Unlocking Minds Teacher Goes To Jail To Teach Kids Accused Of Serious Violent Crimes
Math class in wing 6-West of the Spokane County Jail starts with an apology.
Linda Woods is handing out a numbers riddle when the introduction to the math problem catches her eye: “Why did the bank robber run home and jump in the shower?”
“That’s just pure coincidence that that’s about crime,” she says, embarrassed. “Pure coincidence.”
The last thing Woods wants these boys to think is that she looks in their eyes and thinks “criminal” - even though her class roster is a “Who’s Who” of Spokane juvenile crime.
She grabs pencils from her portable classroom - a bulging canvas handbag - and begins a lesson about positive and negative numbers.
The four teens at the wooden table try to ignore a man getting a haircut a few yards away, a television down the hall, paper bags rustling as guards pass out snacks from the commissary.
The distractions are nothing to 51-year-old Woods. She knew she’d mastered the art of educating inmates months ago when a fistfight broke out behind her and she went right on teaching English.
Woods, who spent 20 years in public schools, now passes through seven locked doors to get to her students. They’re kids accused of crimes so serious that judges won’t consider them children anymore.
They bypass the juvenile detention center for jail, where they live with inmates old enough to be their parents. They also bypass the education system offered to kids in juvenile detention.
Woods, a Spokane School District 81 teacher, is changing that. So are Everett and King County schools, which have started similar programs. Other districts are considering them, too, as the courts treat more and more juveniles as adult offenders.
The state is obligated to teach kids who want diplomas, even if they’re behind bars, the thinking goes.
Still, Woods expects to meet community resistance. The kids she showers with assignments and affection rarely warmed desks long enough to endear themselves to teachers and are more apt to pose for mug shots than yearbook photos.
Her students include Joey Brooks, a high school dropout who shot his girlfriend in the face, and Joshua Kaczor, who pleaded guilty last Monday in the shooting death of a Spokane cabdriver.
Jayson Bush, who turned 18 in jail, will be in his 30s when he’s done serving time for shooting a man. But he’s happy now. Woods stalled his transfer to prison until December, when he’ll have enough credits for a diploma.
Jayson is first to solve the riddle by placing numbers matched with letters on a number line.
Why did the bank robber run home and jump in the shower? That’s where he had his hide out.
Learning jail culture
Jayson landed in jail about the same time Woods did last fall.
Carl Johnson, a Spokane Community College employee who helps adult inmates get general equivalency diplomas, had been trying to teach jailed teenagers in his spare time. That was a few years ago, when only one or two teens were jailed at a time.
As more juveniles were tried as adults, Johnson couldn’t keep up. He took his concerns to District 81 and came back with Woods.
Until last fall, Jayson and Woods were lifestyles apart. She’d taken a break from teaching at Mead elementary schools to study Baroque music at Berkeley and teach violin.
A blast of what she calls “social conscience” ended her hiatus and pushed her back to Spokane in search of problem students, kids she could help.
She joined the Gonzaga Symphony as a violist. At night, she sang folk music at Espresso Delizioso cafe while people ate cheesecake and drank tea brewed in French presses. In the mornings, she went to jail.
Woods got a crash course in jail culture: Don’t give anything to inmates. Don’t mail anything for them. Don’t wear perfume. Oh, and here’s your office key. Good luck.
Some rules Woods made up as she went along. She never asks why kids are in jail, because she doesn’t want to label them. Sometimes, she just doesn’t want to know.
“They’re still our children,” she says. “We’re letting them down by writing them off.”
She refers to inmates as students, their cells as houses. They don’t go to trial in Woods-speak. They “sort out problems.”
She never uses red pens, because attorneys use them to make changes in legal documents.
And when she reads aloud math problems about kids sharing pizza with 16 friends or driving from Spokane to Post Falls in 45 minutes, nothing in her voice suggests her students probably won’t do anything of the sort for a long, long time.
Woods broke her biggest rule with Jayson. She knows all about his past.
Jayson was in a computer class at Rogers High School on Sept. 24, 1996, when police arrived with handcuffs. He’d been along two days earlier when two carloads of people began hurling insults at each other. He shot a man in the thigh, shattering his femur.
Two weeks ago, a judge sentenced Jayson to 23 years in prison for first-degree assault. Woods prayed with him before he went to court.
Jayson came to jail with seven high school credits. Now he has 19, two shy of a diploma.
Woods has helped him through science, scrounging for experiments he could do without supplies. He compared inmates’ pulse rates and estimated the fat content in jail lunches. She quizzed him on news articles for a current affairs class.
When Jayson gets in trouble, it’s because the brown bins under his bed hold more than five books, the most allowed inmates.
“My dad’s a school freak. He’s always harping on me about school,” he says. “I just finally took his advice.”
Admittedly, that advice is easier to take when you’re in a cell 22 hours a day, he says. The drugs and alcohol that distracted him before are locked out, along with his old friends.
“Mainly,” he says, “I don’t want to be stupid.”
‘She don’t judge you’
Woods’ program is based at Havermale Alternative Center, a North Spokane school known for its unconventional approaches to teaching. Her routine makes the others look tame.
While most teachers try to help students pass the state’s new tests, Woods tries to find her students between attorney visits and laundry duty. She asks guards to release them from their cells and sometimes resorts to teaching through locked doors.
While other teachers worry about crowded classrooms, Woods thinks just having a classroom would be nice. She juggles 13 students - a dozen boys and a girl - usually in one-on-one, half-hour sessions. Enrollment fluctuates as inmates arrive, transfer to prison or go home.
After school, Woods scours garage sales and Value Village for secondhand books and magazines. She carts them from cell to cell, where they’re snapped up like free food samples at Costco. Computers Made Easy. Low-Fat Cooking. Hot New Moves For A Better Butt. Newsweek. Everything goes.
For P.E. credits, Woods’ students tally the time they spend shooting hoops on the small court or doing push-ups on the concrete slab next to their beds.
They don’t get grades. Inmates simply pass or fail, and it takes 90 hours of successful schoolwork to pass. Most of those hours are spent doing “homework” in cells.
They’re more restricted than they’ve been in their lives, but Woods’ students are venturing to places they’ve never considered before.
Missing a girlfriend? She prescribes “Romeo and Juliet.” “There’s power in words,” she tells a boy during an English session. Carefully chosen words can impress a girlfriend, she adds, or a judge.
Seventeen-year-old Francisco Ayala has another goal: Becoming first in his family to get a diploma.
In an English session, Woods tells him about “The Necklace,” the story of a woman who borrows a beautiful necklace and loses it. Woods is losing him, too, she can tell, so she substitutes a fast car for the necklace.
“What would you do,” she asks, “if you borrowed a Porsche and lost or wrecked it?”
“I don’t know,” says Francisco. “Maybe steal another one.”
Woods doesn’t flinch, just kindly says, “And some people might apologize.”
Sometimes lessons are like counseling sessions, and it happens when she gives Francisco a writing assignment. She suggests he write about his father, but Francisco objects. He barely knows his dad, he says.
Woods is surprised. She met Francisco Sr. recently, when he occupied the cell next to his son.
“This is the first time I’ve really gotten to know my dad,-being locked up together,” Francisco says. “This made up for all my 17 years of not knowing him. At night, we’d lay in our beds and talk through the walls. It was a trip for me.”
He smiles. “For the first time, I feel like I really do love my dad.”
Francisco walks away with a literature book. He wants to find out what that woman did about the lost necklace.
Eighteen-year-old Adrian Washington sits in his cell at night and writes poems for English assignments.
Two years ago, he was jailed for beating up an 81-year-old man downtown, cracking his dentures and breaking his nose.
Now Adrian’s back, charged with stabbing a man in the stomach near Dutch Jakes Park in north Spokane. A conviction could mean 12 years in prison.
Adrian couldn’t stand teachers when he quit school in sixth grade, didn’t like them telling him when he could and couldn’t use the bathroom. But Woods is different, Adrian says.
“A lot of people come in and be scared. But she just comes in here and does her job. She don’t judge you, either. She didn’t even really ask me what I did. That’s not what she be worrying about. She just be teaching.”
He hands Woods his latest writing assignment and studies her face while she reads it: “People can lose everything in life except their dreams, That is why your dreams should be very treasured things.
Your dreams might not be nothing to the next man, But your dreams to you could be the most beautiful plan.”
Woods beams. “The poet bubbled forth,” she says. Adrian grins and looks away.
“Every big, tough guy has a little kindergartner inside,” Woods says later.
Graduating to prison
The corrections officers who watch Woods work range from skeptical to appreciative.
Officer Richard Durkin likes seeing the teenagers do something besides play cards.
“I suppose this is the time to catch them,” he says. “If they have a chance at all of a productive life, now’s the time.”
Another guard says the program would be fine if inmates didn’t enroll just to get attention. A third wonders whether it’s a wise use of taxpayer money.
Woods drives to Havermale Alternative Center to borrow textbooks, but wants to build up her own stash. At $25 a textbook, she’ll need more than her current $300 budget, she says.
Last week, she took her request to administrators, who say they may boost the book budget to $1,000.
Woods is also preparing for December.
When students everywhere go on Christmas break, her prize pupil will graduate from county jail to prison. And despite her rules, she knows she won’t be able to help missing Jayson, wondering if he’s getting enough to read.
But she expects that one day, a couple of decades from now, a college registrar will call. He’ll want to verify that Jayson Bush did indeed get his diploma at the Spokane County Jail.
“I’m hoping he’s taking with him that hunger for learning,” Woods says. “And he will be out when he has half of his life ahead of him. He’ll be out someday and part of society.”
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