Life Sentences

Teaching Minnesota's student prisoners reveals the power of the pen

Except when both first and last names are given, the names in this story have been changed.

All the corridors in the Stillwater Correctional Facility lead, inevitably, to a metal security door. The education wing is no exception. At the end of a Wednesday composition class I taught at the prison last spring, a dozen inmates and I filed out of the classroom, passed the library entrance, and walked through a thick steel portal. The door in front of us remained locked. Across the hallway, on the other side of a glass security bubble, a guard sat in front of a panel of knobs, buttons, video screens, and computers. "There's an emergency in the institution," he said indifferently.

"You can't leave yet." So we relaxed into postures of waiting, obstacles like this being a mere matter of routine.

Mark Alton, a student who has been locked up for 15 years, leaned toward me and eased into conversation: "Hey, Steve, ever been in one of these Stillwater cellblocks? It's a trip...like animal cages stacked up four stories high."

"Yeah, once briefly, a couple years back," I said, "but I didn't see the inside of a cell."

Alton nodded, "I think you'd find it fascinating. I call it home, my little goat pen. I told my mom on the phone, 'Imagine spending 15 years in your bathroom.' Except my cell's like an apartment all in one tiny space. At least that's what I tell myself. There's a bathroom, bedroom, kitchen. Then there's the living room and study. You have to use your imagination in here."

The second heavy door peeled open with a mechanical whine. Emergency apparently under control, the guard waved us out, and we moved in a pack across the threshold into the facility's main hallway where the light is uglier, the smell of bodies riper.

Of the nearly 1,400 men residing in this prison, the few walking up this hallway were among the small minority that even qualified to take college classes. Of the roughly 25 who started Comp I, these few would work through both of my courses, which are required to earn a two-year associate of arts degree from Inver Hills Community College. Most of the students were in their 30s or 40s, and after years of incarceration are scheduled--or hoping--to be released soon.

Alton and I lagged behind that day, talking about the longtime convicts. When I asked why they tend to make it through these classes more often, he adjusted his eyeglasses and said, "Most guys who've been in here long enough learn what matters. They know how to survive and mind their own business. There's a kind of honor code among them."

I stood off to the side while Alton passed through a metal detector, after which he swiveled around and spread-eagled his limbs before another guard for a pat search. Then we said goodbye, he branched off to his cellblock, and I passed through a few more barred doors, which clanged shut behind me, and into the spring air.

It had been a demanding semester for the dozen students in my class and the approximately 25 other undergraduate convicts at Stillwater. Having been told by the Department of Corrections that state funding for college programs would cease at the end of June, most loaded up on credits, trying to get closer to that degree. Typically they work day jobs in the prison--upkeep positions like carpentry and horticulture; or industry positions like assembling birdhouses and refurbishing computers--and this semester some were taking five courses, with classes five nights a week. After school, they'd depart the almost tranquil, antiseptic education area, which is tucked in a back corner of the main prison building, and return to one of several residential areas that reverberate like coliseums full of restless spectators.

These are the old-style, Hollywood cellblocks--concrete layer cakes of barred cubicles fringed with open catwalks--except that in here the film never stops rolling. This massing together of men produces a wild environment where gang activity, drug use, violence, extortion, and intimidation are enveloped by an endless din. "It's definitely gotten noisier around here in the last ten years since the younger guys started moving in," a student told me. "The decibel level has probably increased like three times."

Imagine trying to write an essay in your cell for composition class surrounded by hundreds of convicts jeering at tonight's Jerry Springer Show flickering on their TVs. Some students told me they wear earplugs; some said they actually sleep better through the clamor, then wake up at three or four in the morning (when most everyone is finally asleep) to do their homework.

Against such challenges, about 100 of Minnesota's 5,609 inmates have been taking college courses through a handful of postsecondary institutions like IHCC, Metro State, and Century College. In addition to the English classes that I taught, they've studied such curricula as health, ethics, economics, career planning, and stress management, toward earning an A.A.

Since the beginning of this year, though, the future of higher education in prison has been uncertain. After three decades of offering college opportunities to prisoners, the Minnesota Department of Corrections decided in January that it would cease funding college programs on June 30. That decision, made quietly at the tail end of former DOC commissioner Gothriel (Fred) LaFleur's tenure, may not have been the last gasp for higher education in Minnesota correctional facilities, but it marked a new low point since the more rehabilitation-friendly 1970s, when postsecondary schooling in prisons began.

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