Life Sentences

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

A voice in the corner said almost stoically: "When I first came here I was so messed up, I would've thrown the switch on myself."

"But what about those who do good things in prison, even with no chance to get out?" I asked.

Zeke said the only way to keep going with no release date is some kind of will or spirit. Charles agreed. "You have to imagine some other future, somewhere in your head," he said.

Jordin Isip

Peter again: "I think these classes give us at least a place where we can talk and even disagree without beating on each other like they do everywhere else in this shit hole. But it's hard, you know, to understand what it's like in here. Imagine everything taken away from you tomorrow--your family, home, everything. It's hard to even care."

Fidgeting nervously with his pencil, George added that during the Thanksgiving lockdown, along with the escape attempt, there had been a suicide in the unit for new inmates. A young man, only 18 months to serve, had hanged himself between guard rounds. George paused for a moment, then said, "How do you make sense of that?"


Against a backdrop of questions about why a prisoner might not only keep on living but pursue an education, I found students like Gordon Miles, who had been chipping away at a long sentence when he came to the educational unit testing at a primary-school level. A rural Minnesotan, Miles had long hair, a weathered face, and tattoos that could have earned him a supporting role in a biker movie. But he approached his education as if it were a body part he'd just now discovered--an opportunity to recapture a lifetime of missed learning all at once.

Like many of my students, Miles insisted that if he hadn't gone to prison, he would never have taken college classes. He spoke about the first letters he wrote to his wife. They began with "Dear Babe," followed by a string of misspelled words without paragraphs or punctuation. She would have to wait till they talked on the phone to get a translation. But he earned his GED in nearly record time, made B's in my classes, and went on to earn his A.A. He said his wife could see the difference each week in his letters.

Sam, another student serving a long sentence, an ex-suburbanite and university dropout, once told me that in prison he understood more how college could matter to him--not that he preferred to be locked up. His modest demeanor and clean-cut appearance stuck out strangely among the more stereotypical prison personas. I wondered what kind of intimidation Sam faced in the shadows, but he did well in my class and even built some respect among peers with jabs of unexpected wit.

Months after that course ended, I heard that Sam had been raped by a muscular inmate who'd apparently slipped into his cell unnoticed. Eventually a guard had sensed a problem, approached the cell, and found the men in mid-act. Both would spend months in segregation, because in prison victims of crime are often put away, too, ostensibly to protect them from further abuse.

About a year later, Sam returned to the education unit. On that first day of class he still looked shaken, but as weeks passed, it appeared that he was learning to forget, turning his focus forward. Then he turned in his final essay, "Silent Screams," which explored the netherworld of prison rape: how it happens and why victims have little protection. At one point it asks the question, "When you go to prison, do you give up all your rights, even the right not to have sex with someone you don't want to have sex with?" One of the best student essays I've seen, it will probably be read by no one but Sam and me.


During the time I taught in Minnesota's prisons, I also had some classes on the outside. These groups often contained sleepy teens fresh out of high school who seemed to equate learning with watching a TV screen.

Summoned to teach English composition for an A.A. degree program at a contemporary music school called Music Tech in downtown Minneapolis, I faced a room populated largely by bleary-eyed metalheads. While we talked about paragraph structure, cover versions of old Yes tunes boomed through the ceilings from the rehearsal spaces overhead.

One young woman read a piece in class about how "fucking awesome" it had been to see Pantera live for the first time. When I asked her why the show had been so good, she appeared confused by the question, then replied, "Because they're my favorite band."

As with college students everywhere, many at Music Tech were on the dole from their parents, and beyond that looming authority, they seemingly had no motivation to learn about writing. The number of students who actually earned credit for the class probably could have fit in my Toyota.

After the Music Tech experience, I felt almost relieved to walk back into a prison classroom.


A serious, tightly wound black woman with braids cascading from her head, Bonnie Sangster once explained to the class that she was "a metaphysician and practitioner of black magic," without a hint of irony or arrogance. It simply was the case, and I believed her.

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