Life Sentences

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

She enrolled in my first composition course at the correctional facility in Shakopee, and the writing she turned in was remarkable from the start--dense, lyrical prose shot through with an oracular tone. Self-taught so far and a voracious reader, she would start to give her talents more form in my class.

But something troubling was taking hold in her mind. Sangster became removed, closed-off, fighting something no one else could see. Around midterm she said depression was creeping back, suicidal thoughts, no hope in sight. She would have to drop the class, she said, her face barely holding together. I gave her my best pitch for finishing, but the next week she wrote a note explaining her need to drop: "Sad, sad, sad, & bone weary after only six months into this pretty hell...I'm drowning in my own shit."

I thought I would never see Sangster again. In my mind she'd joined that list of inmates like Mark Steiner who clearly possessed ability but succumbed to destructive forces and spiritual attrition. But about a year later she turned up in the next batch of composition students. More at peace, she would start to write a series of autobiographical essays, now with even greater ambition.

Jordin Isip

Like many of the women at Shakopee, Sangster found herself sifting through a lifetime of being abused by men, looking for the force inside her that kept bringing her back to those who inflicted pain. Her first essay described watching her father's endless terrorization of her mother, and how her mother's resolve one day took a turn. Claiming to be Jesus of Nazareth, her mom "took aim with a black cast-iron skillet...and cold-cocked the unaware Dad." This momentary victory began her mother's slow spiral into madness.

In another essay, Sangster escapes her father's abuse, hiring herself into prostitution with a smooth-talking pimp who replaces her father in the line of vile men. Her final essay describes the crime for which she's now serving a long sentence. After a several-day-long drug-and-alcohol binge with a male friend, she was awakened by his strangling grasp and "his exposed manhood, demanding I relieve him orally." The details blur at that point, but one thing is clear to Sangster: She brutally murdered the man.

These essays didn't try to elicit sympathy from readers. She reported the events in sharp detail and wrapped them in eloquent critical thought. Sangster strode confidently into the next term, even while shepherding her most difficult self-discoveries into writing. The unflinching exterior made me forget she'd ever had trouble as a student. Then her moodiness flared up again, assignments stopped coming in, she missed two weeks of classes.

On her next appearance, she asked to speak to me in private during the break. We sat at a table in the adjacent library area as other students milled in the background, flipping through magazines, braiding hair, gossiping. Sangster gripped her forehead as if to keep it in place. She said that the thought of writing any more made her sick, depressed. Something bad was coming back. She knew the writing was good for her, but she hated every second of it. She said she was too hard on herself but didn't know how to change that. A few tears burned lanes down her stony face: "I've never let myself finish anything important, not one thing that mattered."

I sat with her a moment, listening to the air duct hum. The other women kept some distance, pretending not to notice. Then I said she deserved to finish this class at least: She could let go of whatever expectations both of us have about her writing.

At the final meeting of that class, Sangster turned in the remainder of her work, which included that essay about her crime. Like other essays she wrote, it came to me in her trademark handwriting, ink glyphs on cramped notebook pages, each word a carefully carved choice.

"Glad to be done," she said, dropping it like a weight on my desk. "Why do I put myself through that? Stay up nights, make myself crazy until it's finally over. But thanks for the encouragement. You know I've got a few more of those pieces left to write. More I need to say."


The announcement Ramstad Hvass made at Oak Park Heights provided a stay of execution for higher education programs in Minnesota's prisons, but no one seems to consider the telephone revenue source a permanent solution to the funding question. The HOPE advisory group laid out a handful of long-term proposals, one of which is "a partnership with a private sector entity to establish an endowment that would fund higher education." So, too, HOPE recommended that the DOC investigate whether retired instructors might volunteer class time, and whether Minnesota's colleges and universities could donate courses. Thus far, no practical steps toward forming such partnerships have been taken.

For now DOC official Terry Carlson reports that "programs will be reinstated close to the way they were before, but with some slight modifications." For example, college classes will no longer be offered at the main intake facility at St. Cloud, but rather at one medium-security facility (as yet unnamed) in order to allow inmate students to continue work toward their degrees as they near their release dates. Also, Carlson said, it's likely that "some changes will be made to the eligibility requirements," meaning that some older convicts with longer sentences may be excluded.

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