Life Sentences

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

How long this funding source will be tapped seems to depend on the decisions of Commissioner Ramstad Hvass. Outside research supports the fiscal value of higher education in prisons. A recent Hamline University report, for instance, points to a wide-ranging 1995 survey of other prison research that examined the benefits of inmate education. That survey found that "participation in college education was correlated with lower recidivism rates in 10 of 14 studies, higher post-release employment rates in 3 of 3 studies, and an increased likelihood to participate in post-release education." The Hamline report ultimately concludes that the cost of not educating prisoners is far greater than the cost of educating them.


The end of Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," a story we often read in my prison classes, offers this half-flash of insight: "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything." The nameless narrator has just finished drawing a cathedral for his wife's visiting friend, an older blind man who'd asked if he could follow the drawing with his hands in order to see what he'd never seen.

Jordin Isip

The narrator is one of Carver's typical antiheroes, hiding his small-minded fears behind a veneer of prejudice and sarcasm. Throughout the evening, the blind man has had to negotiate the narrator's blind mind, but when the narrator allows himself to create a cathedral for his guest, he liberates himself, at least for a moment.

Prisoners responded to most of the fictional characters we encountered, but Carver's people became especially real. Theirs were lives the students knew, teetering on some internal edge between moving forward and falling back.

Once we were talking about how Carver creates suspense even though his characters don't do much. One student had already floated a theory about how Carver flirts with something dangerous and despairing in humans.

Then, in the back row, a man named Gerald lifted his hand and said, "You know, reading a Carver story is like scouting a house before breaking into it. You keep circling the house, looking through the windows, seeing that dark inside from different angles. You keep thinking about being in that house and what you're going to find in there. Thinking about which window you're going to break to get inside, and the sound the glass will make when it breaks. You keep thinking and circling, but you never break in. That's the thing about Carver--you never break in."


A few weeks later, Gerald was sent to solitary confinement--the hole; he never returned to my class. I never learned the reasons for his removal, but I've always imagined that some wave of blindness overcame his intellectual talents, and he'd teetered back over the same brink that had brought him to prison in the first place.

I remember one student who told the class at Stillwater that he thought of himself as a regular guy who would normally spend evenings watching TV with his family. But back in that cellblock he'd feel the anger and violence welling up in him, becoming part of him.

I first really noticed another man, Mark Steven Steiner, when he read an in-class essay about the self-loathing he'd felt looking in the mirror the last time he shot heroin, having to use a neck vein because his arms couldn't hold another needle. Angular and intense, Steiner could shock even prisoners with his candor.

His first formal essay was a regretful look at his failed robbery of a bowling alley, and how he'd been burned by his own greed. The essay had come to me with problems, but he responded well to suggestions for improvement, and, unprompted, revised the paper. When I returned it to him again with praise, he approached me after class and said he liked making those changes; he could see the writing get better.

That was Thanksgiving week, and on the weekend I heard a news report about an escape attempt at Stillwater prison. At our next class meeting, I joked to the group: "So did one of you try to escape last Friday?"

"No," said a man named Peter, "but that guy who used to sit there did." He pointed at Steiner's seat and said that word around the prison had it that three inmates, including Steiner, had hidden in the kitchen's dumpster, hoping to be tossed into a garbage truck and driven off to freedom. But they didn't count on the driver compacting the garbage before departure. About to be crushed, they yelled out to be saved. Security guards apprehended Steiner and the others and shipped them off to another prison, where I was told they'd spend exactly a year and a day in solitary confinement before they would have a chance of being released to general population again.

I momentarily tried to reconcile the Mark Steiner I'd known and the one who'd just burned himself again, but my students had already embarked on a discussion.

"If you had no chance for parole," someone asked, "would you let yourself be crushed by that truck? I mean, what's the difference between a life in here and letting yourself die in that garbage?"

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