Lessons learned working in a prison

We’ve all been alarmed for almost a month as two murderers escaped their New York prison and were able to avoid capture for three weeks while at times in excess of 1,000 law enforcement officers were pursuing them.

In terms of the wooded terrain and the search, I have no comments. In terms of life in a prison and the human dynamics there, I do.

For three years in the 1970s I was a faculty member and adviser to women incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, as part of the Urbana University college prison program there. I also was president of Lee College in Texas when we ran the largest college prison program in the state at various locations of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Let me share my sense of my work as well as some stories. When I announced to my husband that I would be teaching college courses to prison inmates, he was not happy. I have never shied away from new experiences, so I was excited about this new opportunity for inmates and myself. I was assigned to teach a class in creative writing, and on the first day I was ushered to a gymnasium where desks had been set up and the only chalk board was a small one that flipped, and flipped. Exasperated, I said, “This place is just not working. Teaching creative writing in a gym? No.” One of the inmates was quick to point out where there was an empty classroom, and we all traipsed over.

• Lesson No. 1: Every person in a prison must be accounted for at all times, and an outsider moving inmates around at will is absolutely taboo, no matter how valid her reason.

As a person who had never been in a jail cell, I wasn’t certain if I could relate to these women. In that first class, one woman, Jane H., blurted out, “How old are you? “ When I answered, she said, “D—-, you look good for your age.” We all laughed and the ice was broken.

As they completed their assignments, I learned about a whole other world and only once did I say, “This just is not believable. No reader will want to read your work unless you establish verisimilitude, believability.” I learned that many of their experiences were obscene, horrific, crippling — and they felt they had no way out.

I taught many courses, enjoying every one and expanding my sense of the world, and they were some of the best students with whom I’ve ever worked. I realized that they were a select group, and I also realized that they had plenty of spare time to write. In short order, I was very comfortable with all of them, and I felt as if I were on another college campus.

Before I took a job as academic dean in a Kentucky college, I taught my last class at the prison, “Autobiographies of Contemporary Women.” We studied Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and Wilma Mankiller’s “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.” My students also wrote their own autobiographies. Most were in for murder, and their stories enlightened me, made me question my own life and the privileges I had enjoyed. I came to understand that with different circumstances, I might be among them.

• Lesson No. 2: All people, including prison inmates, should be treated with respect by their faculty.

I was proud to attend their graduation at the prison when nine of my students were awarded associate degrees and disturbed that they were strip-searched after they mingled with family and friends following graduation. Now, I understand the importance of that. Contraband in a prison can be as simple as a college catalog, stamps, candy bars. It’s not always about files in frozen hamburger or heroin.

• Lesson No. 3: What we in the free world consider inconsequential can be used in a prison to buy favors.

• Lesson No. 4: I learned this lesson, and it was reinforced later. Even when inmates are released from prison, they still have connections with people in the prisons. Inmates in prison have connections with the criminal world outside of prison, connections they can and sometimes do use. As much as I enjoyed working with the women, I never agreed to sponsor them once they were released.

Fast forward to 1996, when I became president of Lee College in Texas (I’m skipping over an account of a prison program I helped set up for males who were criminally insane because as a female, I didn’t teach in that program).

Things were not quite right with the prison program, and I knew this instinctively when I was told on my first visit to Huntsville (about 100 miles north of Lee College) by the acting academic dean that I needed to tape record the meeting. I refused to do so, but I knew per my observations of some most inappropriate behavior that I would need to “clean house.” Without going into the particulars, I will tell you that I did and as a result I had death threats. The last one was communicated to me by a local bank president who suggested I carry a revolver at all times. I refused to do this.

Having competent people running a program that is at a distance from the main campus and at diverse locations is critical, and the Lee College program has that now. As president of Lee College I dealt with having to terminate a faculty member for having a relationship with a white-collar criminal while he was incarcerated and afterward, as well as a faculty member who put a movie in a classroom for the inmates and went on home for the evening. Before long other inmates were in that classroom watching the movie and the whole prison had to go on lockdown until every head was accounted for.

• Lesson No. 5: Have competent administrators and faculty involved in college prison programs and always be on guard for employees who become institutionalized and begin to behave like prisoners. Act quickly to remove them.

In conclusion, I want to tell you about graduation at TDCJ each year. We always held it at the Chapel of the Prodigal Son. Many of you probably know the parable Jesus told when he was scolded by the scribes and Pharisees for receiving and eating with sinners (Luke 15: 2-24). When the prodigal son returned, his father said, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

As those inmates walked across the stage and I handed them their diplomas and shook their hands, I always knew that had my sons been brought up in the circumstances that many of these young men had endured, they, too, would have been incarcerated.

I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal; I’m aware of the high recidivism rates in prisons. I’m a pragmatist who knows that some offenders can be reintegrated into society even as our first responsibility is for public safety. The earlier interventions are staged in the lives of children who live in abominable circumstances, the better their chances for leading productive lives.

Recently, I was discussing interventions, and the person with whom I was talking questioned the high price of interventions I was suggesting. I told her that it’s all about paying early for interventions or paying later in terms of tax dollars for welfare, prisons, lost productivity, and all the expenses associated with keeping violence at bay.

Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected]