Educating the incarcerated is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. In Dancing to the Concertina’s Tune: A Prison Teacher’s Memoir, Jan Walker ’60 explores her unusual career in correctional education and seeks to give the reader an understanding of prisons and inmates.
At bottom, the book is about how education can be used as a means toward transformation and, perhaps, redemption. Walker is steadfast in her argument for educating the imprisoned in parenting and family skills. She clearly lets both reader and inmates know she understands that, while poor family structure is likely to have contributed to the criminal’s path, it is no justification for criminal acts.
Walker set up the Home and Family Life program at the Purdy Treatment Center for Women—now the Washington Corrections Center for Women—in Gig Harbor, Washington, where she taught from 1979 to 1990. Subsequently, she transferred to McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC), located in south Puget Sound near Tacoma, for another seven years, acting as coordinator for Project Social Responsibility. She writes, “Whatever my label, all who met me knew I taught, counseled, and advised in the context of personal and social responsibility. I wanted [MICC] inmates to reconsider their choices, their lives, their families and communities, and their own personhood. I wanted to be more than just another authority figure dishing out information or rules to inmates.”
Most of the inmates’ stories in this book are about success and hope. If you’re looking for graphic details of horrific crimes, you won’t find them here, save for the story of Tanya, who “spanked” her toddler to death. Instead, Walker focuses on how she worked with inmates to encourage them to build trust and tell the truth to their families outside prison walls.
At the end of the century, more than 1.5 million children nationwide had a parent in prison. Walker, who was spat upon by skeptics who believe inmates should have thought about their children before committing their crimes, defends her role, saying, “We need to think about the children now.” In Concertina’s Tune, she succeeds in presenting her case for educating the incarcerated in parenting skills and gives the reader a view of prison life not seen in mainstream media.