For those of us who have taken an art class at KO, it can safely be said that it’s one of the most relaxing classes of the day. Instead of numbers or chemical bonds or 500-word essays due the day after tomorrow, it’s just a space to the side of Roberts filled with paint and brushes and watercolor paper. What is created there feels as though it belongs to an entirely separate world, which is why it can be so enjoyable – and, according to Ms. Burnett, the inmates at the Cheshire Correctional Institution feel the same way.
Ms. Burnett has taught at the maximum security prison for men for the past two summers and plans on going back this year. The first summer, she taught painting classes once a week, and this past summer, she taught a week-long colored pencil workshop. She teaches through a program at Wesleyan University called the Center for Prison Education; through it, inmates can earn degrees and graduate college by taking classes in prison, though it can take years.
Although the program gets a lot of teachers, most teach subjects like English, philosophy, and history. So far, Ms. Burnett is the only person to have taught art, and she says that she understands why. “There’s so many difficulties trying to teach painting in a prison,” she commented. “Getting supplies to them is really difficult. Like, we didn’t have running water. So I needed to have guards take me down the hall to fill this giant bucket that Wesleyan got for me. And I would just fill this giant bucket and then drag it back to the classroom.”
The prisoners weren’t allowed to have access to many things, and that meant that Ms. Burnett was limited in what she could bring into the classroom. She wasn’t allowed to bring metal objects, including things like her phone, keys, and even pencil sharpeners, which later proved to be an issue.
In her most recent experience teaching at the prison, they did a colored pencil workshop, and not being able to sharpen them was a huge hindrance. “Everybody was using very little of the pencil,” she recalls, attempting to describe the obstacles she and her students faced. “They were trying not to press really hard because for them to have these Prismacolors is so great. They’re so grateful for them, so they don’t want to use them all up.”
Eventually, the prison installed a sharpener on the wall, but students still weren’t allowed to bring art supplies back to their cells. The only thing they were permitted to keep was paper, as the prison was concerned that inmates walking around with pencils would be unsafe.
Additionally, during her first summer teaching in the prison, Ms. Burnett was required to wear a body alarm. “So you clip it on you, and then if you feel threatened or something happens, the body alarm will go off,” Ms. Burnett described. “If I fell to the floor, the body alarm would go off and then they’re [guards] there within seven seconds.”
However, Ms. Burnett explained that she felt uncomfortable wearing the body alarm. She wanted there to be a sense of trust between her and her students. When she taught at the prison for the second time, the prison did not require her to put on a body alarm, and she said that it was nice to forget why everyone was there.
“I don’t look at what they’ve done,” Ms. Burnett stated. “I don’t want to judge them for the worst day of their life. A lot of their circumstances were really, really hard. So, you know, I like just being in the room with them; not having a body alarm and not being with a guard allows us to really do our work, and they love it.”
Whether prisoner or KO underclassman, Ms. Burnett’s students appear to all receive the same thing when they walk into her class: a warm smile, and a good time.