Joys and Challenges of Teaching Math in Jail

Annie Raymond
Annie Raymond

In an article introducing what she calls “one of the most important and rewarding experiences of my career so far,” assistant professor of mathematics Annie Raymond relates how she came to teach math to prisoners, first at the Washington State Reformatory’s “University Beyond Bars” program while a postdoc at the University of Washington in 2016. Later she taught at San Quentin State Prison in California and most recently in the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton. She came to campus in 2018.

Writing in a recent Early Career section of “Notices of the American Mathematical Society,” Raymond’s article “Teaching College-level Mathematics in Prisons,” traces her pleasant surprise at how quickly she was able to see the inmates as students eager to learn. They had a “fierce passion and thirst for learning” and seemed genuinely excited by the curriculum she had prepared for an introductory course in discrete mathematics. This is a subject, she notes, “where we can talk about love, solve fun puzzles, do magic, become better poker players.”

Among the challenges Raymond discusses are the unevenness of students’ previous knowledge, her need to teach some of them study skills, occasional grudging correctional officers and a long commute to the facility. But she also lists successes including being asked to return because the students wanted more. “Let me emphasize this, inmates took advanced math just for fun,” she states.

 

To begin at the jail, Raymond first ran a Math Circle to test the inmates’ interest in mathematics, where attendance rose steadily through the semester. This was enough to persuade jail administrators that a credit-based math course would be successful, she says. She taught Math 100, “Math for the Real World,” in the spring of 2019 and is now teaching Math 197, “Introduction to Coding and Mathematical Modeling.” She acknowledges support and help from her mathematics department head Nathaniel Whitaker, for, among other assists, securing campus financial aid for county jail students.

Sprinkled throughout her article are web links for those interested in training and in learning more. Part of her motivation for the work, Raymond writes, is that “I believe that offering college-level math courses in our prisons is more important than offering any other subject.” Among other reasons, an estimated 40% of students who start a two-year college never finish because they do not complete the one math class they need. Teaching that class in jail or prison gives them a better chance at completing an associate degree, she notes.

Also, Raymond points to a national research report concluding that “the single most effective way to reduce recidivism is education,” and earning an associate or B.A. degree in prison drops the return within three years to prison rate from 70% to 13.7% and 5.6% respectively. “If you treat inmates like students,” she says of people that society has failed educationally, “they will become students – and often they will surprise you and even become scholars. They will become inspiring agents of change whom we want to see out in our society.”

In addition to her academic research and teaching, Raymond is the originator and interviewer for an Instagram feed, “_forall,” also available online,where she features women and people of color in mathematics. Since March 2018 she has featured a different mathematician about every two weeks in five unique posts, beginning with herself explaining its origins. “The goal is to show young people that math is for all,” she says. “I’m motivated for things to change in math.”