Life Sentences

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

Nate, a slight but outspoken black man sitting across the room in a front corner, argued that the term would have been acceptable in 1968 when the poem was written, and that Wright was really showing us the lives of the poor in order to advocate for them. Meanwhile, other students started throwing out opinions.

Raising his voice, Russell said of the author, "He's just using these people, he doesn't really know what's going on with them."

Nate stood up halfway, twisted around, and yelled back, "You don't know what you're talking about, white boy...fat fuck!"

The room erupted. Russell pointed at Nate: "C'mon, you little pip-squeak, come here, I'll pound your ass!"

It took me awhile to quell the clamor, and I came closer than I've ever come to pushing my body alarm. I'm surprised the guards roaming the hallway and surveilling the class via video camera didn't intervene.

In prison the stress of race lingers like a mist, and that day I'd just glimpsed it. The coming years would teach me how to better avoid or negotiate these shaky moments, and I would be blessed with higher concentrations of stable, motivated students.

Yet my most recent term at OPH served up as much chaos as the first. In a good portion of those seats sat raw young men, recently locked up for drug- and gang-related offenses, as if the get-tough-on-inner-city-crime wave had just hit this little prison school on the prairie. As individuals they were smart and at least vaguely prepared to learn, even if an academic setting was no less foreign than space travel to them. But as a group they became a misfit organism breeding disruption, and that cancer spread around the room, making other students uneasy and distracted.

I found myself giving motivational speeches about being focused and respectful--to no effect. So I tried what seemed the least painful solution: a seating chart meant to shuffle the cliques.

That day I entered the room nervously determined. As usual, I unpacked my materials while the pre-class noise came to a simmer, then explained what I was about to do and why, not realizing I was detonating a bomb. From every corner, furious protesting: What the fuck? No way, treating us like kindergartners! This is bullshit! I'd never imagined so much resistance, but I kept going, calling out the new arrangement.

A back-row voice yelled that no one could sit behind him--he wouldn't let it happen, no fucking way! Another: "Look at this crap, he's putting us black-white, black-white." Another: "You can't put certain people next to each other--it won't work."

Meanwhile, someone slipped out of the room and complained to security guards that I was rearranging the class according to race. Actually the class had always been self-segregated, as are most group activities in prison. Breaking up the trouble pockets did make the class look more like a checkerboard, and I'd not realized how upsetting that would be. The guards watched us closely for the rest of that day, but didn't intervene. And we managed to survive for the nearly four-hour duration, bewildered and agitated. It took weeks for the chilly mistrust to wear off.

 

Those two classes might have fallen apart entirely had they not been held at OPH, which runs the best prison education department I've seen--what should be a model for prison education around the country. The success there has little to do with the number of tax dollars spent. Logistics make the difference: At OPH an entire residential wing is devoted to education, which means about 50 student inmates live, eat, and go to school in the same unit. This environment, more insulated from the insanity and discord of the general prison population, produces the most motivated students and staff.

A former student of mine, Ken Como, recently published "An Open Letter to Governor Ventura" in the OPH inmate newspaper, A New Perspective. In it he explains that after 40 years in America's ugliest penitentiaries, he had almost accidentally found the educational wing at OPH, where "failing in school...is not an option, and learning not to fail is a key element."

So despite the occasional warfare in the classroom, OPH tended toward harmony and, supported by a network of inmate tutors and study groups, easily created the highest success rate, with the lowest number of dropouts and failures, I've seen anywhere, inside or outside prison.

The students who benefit most at OPH are those least likely to survive elsewhere--the younger ones. Take Marlin Ivy, whose pudgy baby face looked misplaced in prison. He came into that last semester easily distracted; you could tell his mind and mouth were moving tentatively across terra incognita.

With some prodding, he agreed to read his first essay aloud in class, straightened out of a slouch in his chair, tested his throat with a prideful jitter, then spun a story about how his birthday always happened around the start of a school year. That meant he didn't get as many presents because all the kids in his family needed what money was available for new school clothes. On his sixteenth birthday, Ivy had had a dream that he'd been given a beautiful Cadillac, but when he took it to pick up his little brothers from school, they came out wearing rags, humiliated. Then the dream ended. There was no Cadillac. His brothers looked sharp in their crisp duds. And that had been his favorite birthday, because he'd given it away.

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