By the time this column appears in print, you will have already watched Ken Burns’ “College Behind Bars.” I’m writing this column shortly after noon on the day Burn’s program is to air. I’m certain he will focus on personal stories, data, and arguments in favor of using resources to fund college course and degrees for prison inmates.
Some of you might ask the following: Why should criminals be rewarded with a free college education when I still owe $20,000 or $50,000 in student loans for my degree? Do inmates with life sentences enroll in college courses and if they do, isn’t that a waste of taxpayers’ monies? Shouldn’t these criminals be required to work at hard labor for ten hours a day instead of sitting in college classrooms? They owe society or those they have harmed, and we owe them nothing.
I started teaching prison inmates as a relatively young associate professor at what was then Urbana College in 1975 at Marysville, Ohio. The prison there housed the largest population of female prisoners in the state, and I did this for three years and also served as their advisor until I took a job as academic dean at a Kentucky community college.
I had two small sons at the time; however, they were young enough to understand about prisons and the bad people who were forced to live there. I was a little nervous when I found that my classroom was a corner of a gym and my supplies were limited to a piece of chalk and a chalkboard that flipped round and round when I tried to write on it.
I started by beginning my pitch about the importance of a class in creative writing when J. Hall blurted out, “How old are you?”
I responded and she said, “Damn, you look good for your age.” I laughed, the ice was broken and I said, “A gym is no place to teach creative writing. Isn’t there a better place?”
A few hands went up and within a minute we were traipsing over to a regular classroom. I had just broken Rule No. 1 for persons teaching in a prison. Always, the staff is responsible for knowing exactly where every inmate is. This means you stay where you are assigned to stay. Lock downs of a prison when there is a violation is tense, frightening, time consuming, expensive, and dangerous. The official located me and all my students, so a lock down was not necessary.
As students started submitting their creative writing for the class, I decided that it was time to discuss verisimilitude. Their characters were behaving in ways that I thought were unrealistic. That day they taught me that I had led a very sheltered life, and the horrific themes they presented were real.
After the creative writing class, I taught a class in autobiographies/biographies of contemporary American women, and we studied the works of Maya Angelou, Loretta Lynn, and Wilma Mankiller. Students then wrote their own autobiographies. I remember an early question from a class member, “How long do these things have to be?”
I suggested, “About 15 pages.” They wrote 50 pages, 75 pages, and more. And their stories broke my heart. Almost all of my students were in for having murdered a man. That might shock you, and you might be saying, “And well they should be in prison for murder.” These women felt they had no choice, as they had no support system, no resources, no way out of dangerous situations for themselves and their children.
Education teaches us that we do have choices.
I could write for hours about these special women and what they taught me as well as what I taught them. Right before nine of them earned their associate degrees in June of 1978, some professors and I performed Susan Giffin’s play “Voices: A Play for Women” at the prison. The play reveals the tortured stories of five women at various ages in their lives who engage in dialogue to attempt to uncover who they are and where they’ve been. That night many of my students showed up looking like models from Ebony magazine.
Flash forward. It’s 1986 and I have applied for the presidency of Lee College (Texas), the college that runs the biggest college program for prison inmates in the state. I took three years of experience with me to the interview and a strong belief in the power of education to change lives. I was appointed president, and very shortly, I knew I had a lot of cleaning up to do with the college prison program. With the help of some faculty and a few administrators and me in my role of “Fearless” Dr. B,” we cleaned it up. The quality became exemplary.
In conclusion, I’ll share with you my rationale for support of college education in prisons:
• Prison involves punishment, but it also involves rehabilitation. We rehabilitate when we give the opportunity for inmates to learn skills that will give them employment at their release.
• Those in prison who have limited financial resources are forced for their defense to rely on public defenders. At times, some of these are the last people you’d want taking your case due to their heavy workload, inexperience, or lack of commitment.
• Many inmates have come from crippling situations: absent parents, addicted parents, homelessness, failing school systems, physical and sexual abuse, inadequate food and clothing, absence of positive role models in their lives.
• It’s the humane thing to do, the right thing to do.
• It’s better to provide the opportunity for former inmates to have jobs and support at release and paying taxes rather than having them back in prison with taxpayers paying $25,000 to $90,000 each year to warehouse them according to the state and the quality of the facility.
I realize there are some really evil people in prisons and that I only worked with those who had been carefully screened. Yes, some do belong in prison and need to be closely monitored
In Texas we had our college graduation exercises for inmates getting degrees at the Chapel of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) As those men, many of them quite young, walked across the stage to get their diploma and shake my hand, I always said to myself, “But for the grace of God, these could be my sons.”
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.