Life Sentences

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

Prospects improved considerably on June 28, however, when Governor Ventura's new DOC commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass announced at an inmate graduation ceremony that college programs will continue--though without tax dollars. Rather, the new funding, which might exceed the previous allocation by almost a third, will be taken from tariffs on prisoner phone calls paid by inmates.

At the final meeting of my last Stillwater class, well before Ramstad Hvass's announcement, I asked who would be earning enough credits for their A.A. degree by the end of June. One hand lifted halfway up, as if its owner was almost embarrassed by the luck of his timing. The other students shook heads in frustration, sighed, stared blankly at their desks. A few, including Alton, called out single-digit numbers of credits between them and a degree. Threatened with an abrupt end to their education, these inmates seemed to take none of the traditional student's relish in the onset of summer.

Later I was standing at the barred windows while students finished writing out their final self-evaluations for the semester. Alton wandered over to turn in what he'd written, then joined me in gazing out at a weedy unused courtyard, and murmured with mock nostalgia, "When I first came to Stillwater, this courtyard was where the serious card games happened--you know, high stakes, members only. In one corner they'd be smoking bud, in the other corner, drinking homemade wine. Guards didn't mind, just peeked in occasionally to make sure no one was dead. Lots has changed since then. Guards have cracked down, gained more control. Just a few years ago this place seemed ready to blow up."

Alton shared this with something like a historian's detachment. He's scheduled for his first parole-board hearing within the next two years--though his sentence is quite long--and listening to him, you sense he has already learned how to get some distance from this place. In class discussions he would assert, like most convicts, that something is terribly wrong with the American penal system.

But he would also keep some emotional remove from that stance, hesitating to dole out blame too quickly. Alton has taken advantage of the resources this facility provides to help inmates change their ways of thinking, including therapy, spiritual counseling, and college education. Once he even said, matter-of-factly, that rehabilitation programs at Stillwater had saved him.

 

In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes how he became literate in prison, transcribing and memorizing an entire dictionary, page by page, reading at night in a sliver of hallway light falling into his cell. It's no surprise that few prisoners have taken a conventional path of learning, the kind I was programmed to follow at a young age.

From a cookie-cutter suburban Washington, D.C., high school, I coasted through four years at the University of Virginia, where a creative-writing course finally woke me up and led me to a master of fine arts program in poetry at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. As a graduate student, I began teaching English composition, then moved to the Twin Cities and landed an instructing gig at Inver Hills Community College.

After two years at the main campus, set amid the sprawling subdivisions of Inver Grove Heights, I received a call from a dean who explained, as if bearing difficult news, that one of the classes she wanted me to teach was to be held in a prison.

So in the spring of 1995, having completed the requisite security training, I taught Introduction to Literature at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Oak Park Heights, which is considered a world-class maximum-security lockup and which houses the state's most dangerous felons along with a number of federal offenders. Since then I've been teaching composition and a few literature classes at three Minnesota prisons, including the hulking old facility at Stillwater and the women's facility at Shakopee.

Classrooms at these sites resemble most other classrooms on the outside, with rows of desks facing a blackboard under washed-out fluorescent lights. Yet reminders of your whereabouts are plentiful, especially at the men's facilities, where video cameras monitor every move, metal bars shadow the windows, and teachers are required to wear emergency buttons on their belts.

To participate in higher-education programs, inmates must not only qualify academically but also pass through security screening procedures designed to weed out those most likely to cause trouble. Students come to class wearing standard-issue prison blues or a limited selection of street clothes, carrying school supplies they purchase with their wages at the prison commissary. (Most convicts develop a remarkable ability not to waste a single square inch of paper or drop of ink.) For four years my students have used the same textbooks--a common writer's reference, a common anthology of literature--which were shared by the educational departments I taught through, following me to each prison, each semester, growing tattered along the way.

 

Not every class was dominated by converted spirits like Mark Alton. Some students were willing to learn, but not quite according to academic standards. Some were willing but struggled every inch of the way. Some just weren't ready.

That first course four years ago happened to be stocked with volatile characters. This became apparent one day when we were discussing James Wright's "The Minneapolis Poem." A large white man named Russell, who tended to associate with the prison's urban blacks, projecting himself as an ally, claimed that Wright showed prejudice against African Americans by calling them "Negroes" and depicting them in illegal activities like prostitution.

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