Life Sentences

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

Ivy finished reading to scattered cheers and hoots. For all its charm, that first essay was really a mess on the page. Ivy started putting in overtime, though, working with inmate tutors, churning out better drafts. None of them came easily. One was about a ventriloquist's dummy that seemed to haunt his childhood home, attacking him one night when he sneaked into the kitchen to raid the cookie jar.

Ivy's final essay tried to understand how and why he'd gotten involved with gangs and drugs, and why so many African Americans are drowning in this flood. Midway through he wrote, "It's still hard for me to see the total amount of damage that I inflicted upon my community. I know there are some kids who looked up to me in the same manner that I looked up to the drug dealers before me. I hope those kids will take into account the consequences I suffered from my dealing with drugs."

Blunt revelations like these appeared almost commonly in the pages of the younger students: Behavior has consequences; environment affects behavior.

Jordin Isip

Jeffrey Johnson, another urban black man down for selling drugs, was at age 25 the youngest member of my final Stillwater class. He, too, began writing essays examining his past ills and, like Marlin Ivy, grappled with what had happened in his community. In a class discussion about the Columbine High School killings, he said, "It's strange to see so much response to those thirteen deaths. I'm 25--as long as I can remember, people have been killed in my neighborhood. Lots of people. Most years I personally knew at least thirteen of them."

Ivy, Johnson, and many like them came in barely grasping basic punctuation, yet managed not only to keep afloat but to surprise themselves with progress. Despite strong impulses toward wildness, these students followed the examples set by older convicts, who were always crucial to the learning environment.

In my previous classes, I'd seen how a fortysomething ex-gang member could encourage the newer gangsters with playful teasing to read their writings aloud to the group: "I know you've got something to say on that paper." Another convict, Federico, who'd been locked up for more than half his life, could divert bad energy in the class with sly humor, bringing us back to the academic topic. One time we were talking about final grades. A few students began voicing frustration about not knowing exactly what to expect, and the room turned tense. Federico put on a wicked smile and said, "Don't worry, he's afraid to fail us hard cons cause we'll come after him and make him pay."

Relieved by the laughter, I said, "I've failed tougher guys than you."

Still in a joking tone, someone said, "He's killed tougher guys than you."

Stress about grades defused, we all had a good laugh at that one.


I had heard rumors of imminent doom for prison college programming since I began teaching in Minnesota correctional facilities, but no one I talked to could ever explain why it might be terminated, beyond vague references to the need for spending cuts. Even when LaFleur's DOC decided to cease funding college courses with tax dollars, there was no official statement released justifying the move. To try to find an answer, I contacted Roger Knutson, departing education coordinator for the state's DOC, at his new position as education director of Thistledew Camp, a facility just north of Hibbing for male juvenile offenders. In his 29 years with the DOC, Knutson said, he's seen state and national corrections systems transform from a "rehabilitation model, which tried to cure offenders, to a justice model, oriented more toward consequences."

Knutson admits frankly that the cut in tax-supported funding "isn't really about saving money--it's a drop in the bucket." The DOC's most recent fiscal allocation for college classes statewide was only $156,000--this compared to an overall DOC budget of $315 million, and an overall educational budget (which mostly feeds literacy, GED, and vocational programs) that reaches nearly $8 million. Rather, Knutson describes the cut as a "preemptive move to deflate increasing intolerance from the public--and especially from the state legislature--for spending any tax dollars to provide college educations to prisoners. The DOC made these cuts," he explained, "hoping to cool legislators' anger that might have challenged even further the DOC's larger goals."

At the same time, Knutson says that Sheryl Ramstad Hvass "values higher education for inmates," a theme the new DOC commissioner underscored in a June 28 graduation speech in the Oak Park Heights chapel, a white cement-block room three subbasements underground. Surrounded by inmate graduates, prison officials, and the media, Ramstad Hvass announced the results of the HOPE advisory group (Helping Offenders Pursue Education), which she'd founded to investigate alternative methods for funding higher education. Chaired by the wardens of the prisons at Shakopee and St. Cloud, and including various private- and public-sector leaders, HOPE met three times before making its recommendations, which were accepted virtually in their entirety by Ramstad Hvass.

The single, short-term solution calls for funding convict college programs with $200,000 (or ten percent) of the tariffs paid by inmates to use telephones in prisons across the state--a revenue pool now allocated toward things like prison recreation equipment. Inmates pay a substantial amount for prison phone service: roughly 34 cents a minute for domestic long-distance calls, both in the state and out. About 55 percent of this money goes to the vendors who provide telephone service, which includes call monitoring; the rest is revenue for the DOC, which can largely use the funds as it sees fit.

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