By Annelise Wunderlich
High school can be a stressful time for many people — but imagine if you were in high school while in jail, either serving time or awaiting trial. Or, imagine if you were a teacher and managing a room full of adult students in that environment. Or, a correctional officer in charge of keeping students and teachers safe in that school, when many of the students are affiliated with over 22 different gangs, detoxing from drugs or dealing with mental health issues.
My co-director, Richard O’Connell, and I spent a lot of time in just such a school in 2013. We were filming our documentary The Corridor, a portrait of Five Keys Charter School, the nation’s first high school for adults inside the San Francisco county jail system.
When we first went inside the school with our cameras, we met resistance — from school staff, correctional officers, and the students themselves. We wanted to be quiet observers, documenting the day-to-day life inside the school. But of course we were disruptive: entering classrooms as outsiders, stirring up curiosity and discomfort. Teachers and deputies were concerned that we would be a distraction, and some students were worried we might somehow exploit them.
But the more time we spent in the jail, the more we began to see real moments unfold. Students and teachers alike revealed the challenges they were going through. We developed close connections with a few people who we followed on their path to graduation, who shared intimate reflections about the harm they’d caused their families, their communities, and themselves. They also shared stories of the harm they experienced, as children often abandoned or abused by parents who were addicted to drugs.
Fast forward five years, and the film is finally finished–and last week we went back to the jail for the first time to show it to a group of incarcerated students. They are hoping to soon join the nearly 2,000 students who have graduated from Five Keys Charter School with a high school diploma since the school started in 2003.
“My school was the streets, I had no education. My reading and writing was real low. I was from the projects, and school wasn’t my thing. My mother was doing the best she could, but if you put an application in front of me I wouldn’t be able to fill it out,” said Shawn Smith, now 52. “The teachers I had I appreciate, especially Ms. Lake who was in the film, she believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Jorge Canul, 43, remarked that he first learned to read and write while in jail.
“When I first come here, I never had a chance to go to school in my whole life. I started working when I was nine back home. I’m from the Yucatan, in Mexico. I came here and started with ESL (English as a Second Language), and now I’ll be graduating this June. It really changed my life.” Canul said.
Damadre Terxidorn, 21, said that he appreciated how the film didn’t play into stereotypes about people serving time in jail.
“We get stripped of our morality. People look at us for different cases we are fighting, and judge us as a bad person…but we are people, too, and at times we don’t see that about ourselves because of the situation we are in.”
Terxidor, who dropped out of high school, is now just a few credits shy of being ready to walk the graduation stage this June and apply to college. “School is designed to help you overcome different challenges in life,” he said. “If you can overcome the obstacle of graduating while you are incarcerated, you can overcome any obstacle that might be coming at you in the street.”
The film will be the season premiere of KQED’s Truly CA series on Friday, June 22 at 8 PM.