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Now’s your chance to volunteer at the state pen

December 30, 2018

I’d like to introduce you to the remarkable Mr. S., an enthusiastic student of theology and science.

His journey of scholarship and faith has led him to study Kabbalah, Sufism, Bahá’í faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Native American religions as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To him, these subjects represent the highest aspirations of mankind, and studying them is the key to a rich and stimulating life.

He reached this insight through 20 years of thinking and reading in his cell at the maximum-security facility of the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe, where he spends 23 hours or more each day in isolation. He could well continue to do so for the rest of his life. Like a surprising number of his peers, he views this opportunity for contemplation and study as a blessing and second chance.

I don’t know what brought him to the Penitentiary of New Mexico, and he doesn’t know anything about my personal life.

Our discussions about science, language and religion are strictly intellectual and take place on opposite sides of his solid steel cell door. Since I began volunteering at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in November, it has been my privilege to talk with him and other inmates who are equally eager to learn. In fact, it’s been a highlight of half a century of teaching that did not end with my retirement from public schools.

At the Penitentiary of New Mexico, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with Mr. P., a grand master who enjoys playing simple chess games with me (moving the pieces on a magnetic board on my side of the door), as a relief from the complex chess problems he struggles with for hours each day in his head.

Also, Mr. C., a talented Diné artist whose beautiful eagle painting will soon adorn the sweat lodge that our enlightened state prison provides for Native American inmates.

And Mr. P., who learned to add and subtract fractions through our games of dominoes.

Perhaps my most memorable encounter was with Mr. R., introduced to me as being functionally illiterate. Though unable to read a first-grade primer, he proved during our first meeting that he had no problem reading the words of his beloved Tupac Shakur or writing down freestyle raps of his own. We quickly moved on to studying Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Are you a retired educator, person of faith or just someone who enjoys the challenge of thinking outside the box? Then please consider volunteering for one of the faith-based or educational initiatives at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

If you’re open to the idea of teaching and learning through a small glass window in a steel door or team-teaching with an experienced pro in a classroom setting, then volunteering at the Penitentiary of New Mexico might be a good match for you.

The next training session will be held in January, led by chaplains Robert Ortiz — one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2014 — and Kevin Everett, both coordinators of the volunteer program.

To apply for the January training session, go to the New Mexico Corrections Department website and click on “Volunteer Opportunities.” Participation is limited to about 20 people. If you’d like to start the new year with a highly rewarding experience, consider taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity to teach and to learn.

Craig Castleman, Ed.D., is a retired educator who lives in Santa Fe.

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