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Noise and the Incarcerated Student

By Christopher Zoukis

Sitting in my cell I can feel the floor shaking. I can hear the banging. I can see a man dancing on top of a table in a common area. This is a typical afternoon in a federal prison; FCI Petersburg to be exact.

As I sit at my desk, which is in a cell which has a shut door, I work hard on an English paper. Spread out on the desk before me are my col- lege study guide, a textbook on writing by Joseph Trimmer, and a pad of paper with notes across it. I mean business. I aim to complete another lesson in my college correspondence course.

Yet, every few minutes my concentration is broken by another out- burst which I can hear over my ear plugs and feel through the floor of my cell and my desk. The shrieks and banging which produce vibrations in my desk and distract my concentration are here to stay. And there is no one to stop the madness, for the guard assigned to the unit has left his post and is nowhere to be found. (Note: The guards here at FCI Petersburg regularly either leave their posts or even join in with the yelling at the TVs.)

Studying in an environment like this is no piece of cake. The distracions are legion and the respite is fleeting. Often I must stay up late - - around midnight -- when it is quieter. Not quiet, but not incredibly loud either.

I believe that this really says something about my fellow incarcerated students and me. We are determined individuals who care. We care about our futures and our minds. We study on Saturday afternoons rather than drinking or gambling. We carve time out of our days to sit in our cells in order to complete coursework in a timely fashion. In these moments, we are genuinely decent people; much unlike those who like to beat on the trash cans when every basket is made, missed, or a foul is called.

This level of noise is neither conducive to healthy living nor a productive study environment. As a matter of fact, I believe it to be both mentally taxing -- in a serious psychological way -- and a cause of hearing loss. Neither of these are what prisons should be facilitating. But this is FCI Petersburg -- a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia -- and this is what the administration deems fit for the residents. After all, the housing unit guards participate in the madness, too.

The sad part of this is that even the library is much too loud. It's not as loud as the housing units, but it is still not conducive to learning. Just this morning I was typing an English paper and while in the pro- cess I had to put in ear plugs. This was because of a table of four men who were yelling at each other; not yelling as being angry, but yelling as talking emphatically. This is a common occurrence in prison. I suppose there are a number of parents out there who never gave the "Inside Voices/Outside Voices" chat to their children. Sadly, I believe all of these men were a number of years older than me.

What we need to focus on are solutions to this devastating problem. I highly doubt that there is any way to convince the majority of prisoners to utilize appropriate volume when speaking. But what can be done is asking them to leave places of learning. For example, if you're a staff educator and you happen across a table of men screaming in the library, ask them to leave. After all, they are obviously not reading or studying. They are hampering others who are trying to do so.

If you're a unit guard and you see men beating against trash cans, dancing on top of tables, or screaming with a group of friends over a chess or dominoes game, ask the participants to stop. And if they don't, issue incident reports for failing to follow a direct order. Do this for the good of the unit and the sanity of those present who aren't acting like idiots. It's not right or fair to allow this kind of noise pollution to continue. It simply reinforces poor decision making skills and harms those who want no part in it.

Noise is a real problem for incarcerated students. It wouldn't be if we weren't focused on our studies, but we are. We are not drinking, getting high, obtaining new tattoos, or fighting. We are studying. We are a cut above the rest. As such, we are valiantly fighting for a future worth living; a future far away from the confines of a prison.

One would hope that those in charge of the prisons would do some- thing about this negatively socializing experience. But in many prisons, such as FCI Petersburg, the administrations don't seem to care at all. They project the idea that they would rather we fail than succeed. It would be quite a statement if they were to abide by their existing policies and allow for a more civilized environment, one in which the residents could succeed in productive tasks, not succeed in maintaining the status quo.

For now, if you are in a position of power, please do what you can to make the environments under your control more bearable and palatable to the residents. I know that both I and other incarcerated stu- dents would greatly appreciate it. This is not to mention your fellow staff.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of the forthcoming College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014). He's a contributing writer at the Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, along with the founder of and More about Chris can be found at

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