This week, the director of the Travis Hill School inside of New Orleans’ jail, Christy Sampson Kelly, was arrested for an allegedly inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old imprisoned man. Evidence supposedly included over 700 recorded phone calls of a sexual nature, and Kelly depositing hundreds of dollars in the young man’s account.
I worked under “Miss Christy,” as we called her, for almost two months in summer 2019 at Travis Hill. And though I can’t say I knew her, definitely not enough to defend her, I find this news unbelievable. It’s tough to imagine anyone crossing that dangerously stupid line, much less Miss Christy.
Travis Hill School, a charter run by the non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings since 2016, remains a beautiful example of the way America should handle young people, or really any people, who’ve broken serious laws: At the jail, recently renamed the Orleans Justice Center (OJC), any imprisoned person 21 years old or younger is forced to attend high school, with the goal of earning not a GED but a real diploma.
At last summer’s end, I watched two students walk across the stage in their cap-n-gowns.
Named after a New Orleans musician who spent time in jail as a youth before becoming a beloved local trumpet player and bandleader, Travis Hill is one of very few in-prison schools in incarceration-addicted America.
The school provides a rare opportunity for men to leave jail a little “better” than they came in–when usually jails manufacture only sociopathy. Until all jails are bulldozed and replaced by a better system, at least Travis Hill School exists.
These young men have plenty of time for school, since most will wait in purgatory at OJC for literally years before a judge finally decides to either set them free, or bus them to Angola to serve a long bid. One of my students received a 25 year sentence and all he had to say about it to me the day before he left was, “At least Angola got a real exercise yard.” (OJC, a “temporary” holding facility, does not).
Every day at school, some imprisoned student would tell me, “I’m going to trial today! You won’t see me anymore!” I’d congratulate him, and then next day have him back in class, catatonic with angry despair.
Working in such an environment, for me, at least that first time, often felt impossible–while Miss Christy not only made her difficult job look easy, she seemed to me the righteous leader of a righteous cause. The imprisoned students came to us each day, their wrists and ankles shackled, and Miss Christy made them feel cared about, and human, and like they did in fact have futures. She treated those students, some of them accused of truly heinous crimes, like regular kids at a regular school. She showed them the type of real respect and compassion that only the best teachers are able to sustain.
Or, she seemed to.
I admit that when I first walked into Travis Hill and met Miss Christy, I wondered why the jail would hire an attractive woman to work among imprisoned men. Of course, that’s a sexist thought, and whoever can do the job best should work the job. And she seemed to be the best. But during my music class, the students told me many times that being kept away from women was the worst part of their punishment. Jails divide inmates up based on their sex, so it seemed as if, to keep the peace, they would also hire men to work with men.
By that same token, posting female jail guards, some of them quite small, at Travis Hill, did not seem to me like a good idea either, at first. But I soon realized that female guards had the potential to break through the imprisoned men’s toxic masculinity–whereas the male guards and teachers might just enflame it. I watched female jail guards shout curses in stubborn student’s faces, and in some cases slap the young men upside their heads very hard. To which the men would just laugh, “OK, OK Miss Lady, damn…” and then do what they were told. Whereas a male guard’s similar behavior might cause a riot.
Similarly, when any student threatened me or otherwise acted up, Miss Christy would pull them into the narrow hallway and pour on the kindness, and put them back on track. When my entire class’s pitch would rise and the mood felt truly volatile, she and Travis Hill’s other bosses would swoop in and call a “circle.” Just her presence seemed to calm the students, who would begin dragging chairs around the room to form a circle, wherein Miss Christy would lead them in discussing their gripes and feelings. Miss Christy’s circles always ended better than they began.
And so, it’s hard for me to imagine her creating chaos. And impossible to picture her being so dumb, breaking Rule Number One.
My mind wants to believe she simply fell into a bad situation; any teacher at any school puts themselves in a vulnerable position. The wrong small mistake, for any teacher, can easily unravel into a big problem. The jail especially, is full of landmines.
Some of the training sessions that Miss Christy helped lead centered on recognizing the manipulation tactics the imprisoned men might try to run on us jail employees. “First they talk you into passing a harmless note to a family member,” another of my Travis Hill bosses chuckled during those trainings, “and the next thing you know you’re smuggling pills in your ass for them, and you don’t even know how you got there.”
In our mandatory Title IX sexual harassment training, we learned that sex with an imprisoned person is always considered rape, because an imprisoned person cannot consent. An imprisoned man can beg and persuade a female guard for years, and if she ever gives in she is a rapist.
Still, we also learned in that training that, in the adult sections of the jail, sex between guards and the imprisoned represents a mini-epidemic. No one in the class could believe it. ‘How could anyone be so dumb?’ we new hires all wondered amongst ourselves.
And now a year later, I’m left wondering not How could anyone be so dumb?, but, How could the smartest person be so dumb? How could our righteous leader not only break Rule Number One, but bring shame upon the amazing Travis Hill School? How could she work in the jail every day, watching all that misery, and ever risk ending up inside?
I am not defending Miss Christy. It’s just, imagining our former leader wearing the same wrist and ankle handcuffs that our students wore brings but one word to my mind: Unfuckingbelievable.
Read more about Travis Hill School in this excellent article by The Marshall Foundation.
Featured image: Travis Hill School’s other campus at the New Orleans Youth Study Center, which specifically works with students who have “experienced school failure” (typically due to repeated absences, suspensions, or expulsions). The school’s main campus is located inside of the Orleans Justice Center, the parish jail.