Life Sentences

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

The same premise informs the only other college funding opportunity available to inmates, which began in midwinter of this year and was made possible by a $99,000 Federal grant to Minnesota, part of a program created by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania). Participants in these classes must be 25 years or younger, and have no more than five years of prison time to serve. Sounds like a smart way to achieve practical results, but most younger felons are too confused and undisciplined to succeed in a college class. Pack them into a room without older role models, and you've got a recipe for disorder and failure.

Carlson said that eligibility restrictions for the recently reinstated programs "won't be as narrow as those for the Specter grant," but affirmed HOPE's goal of targeting "inmates who might realistically be released and be able to use their education to gain employment." Given that only a tiny percentage of inmates are never released from prison, it's unclear now how such distinctions will be made.

In the meantime, it will be a rush simply to set up classes for the fall semester. Though Carlson acknowledges the potential for delays, she says that classes will resume "as soon as possible."

Jordin Isip


Like Bonnie Sangster, Charles R. Mitchell came in like a fire. A lean black man with sharp features, he played the contrary student from day one, questioning assumptions and definitions at every chance. He'd sit, grinning, legs crossed casually at his desk, waiting to take his next shot (what do you mean by that? why can't the opposite be true?). Instead of writing about a memory for the first in-class assignment, he wrote about how he didn't trust the way I spoke. "I really have to seek guidance on whether to learn what I need to know, or would it be safer and more prudent just to run for the hills."

The first (and only) formal essay I received from Mitchell, "Quiet Storm," detailed events that he later told me were not based on "fact" but on "real life." In the essay, the narrator had been arguing with his girlfriend, a woman so important to his spiritual development he called her "my muse." They agreed to meet later, and as habit dictated, he carried a concealed derringer. When the narrator and the woman greeted with a hug, the gun brushed against her and she felt betrayed. He tried to explain his need for a weapon, but she walked away. Defeated, he drifted into a "nameless bar" for a drink. There two white pool players launched some blatantly racist banter his way, then converged on him. A scuffle ensued. The narrator shot one of the men with the derringer.

The first draft was impressive, and I offered suggestions for improvement. He revised it; I returned draft two with more praise. Instead of moving on to other assignments, though, he kept fine-tuning that one essay. The basic story and structure remained the same, but he kept adjusting his perspective by slight degrees, as if trying to find the focus of the lens to explain why things had happened as they had. I saw maybe four drafts of that essay before Mitchell dropped out of the class. Toward the end he'd grown a bit more pugnacious in class, and then he was gone, just another name vanishing from my attendance sheet.

About halfway through the next term, I crossed paths with Mitchell outside the prison library. He seemed glad to see me and wanted to explain why he'd dropped my class. He hadn't thought he wanted to be a writer so much as a litigator, he said, but came to regret that decision. He asked if he could give me another revision of "Quiet Storm." Amazed at the prospect, I said okay, then asked why he'd revised that piece so many times.

"Well, on that first draft, you'd suggested that maybe there were other forces at work besides the obvious prejudice of the men in the bar," he said, "so I keep trying to discover what those forces might be."

In the coming weeks, Mitchell and I renewed our dialogue about his writing. He even started attending my class--though not enrolled--just sitting off to the side, listening, absorbing, not showing his previous contrary ways. We'd talk during breaks, and once after a fiery class debate about the latest cultural controversy, Ebonics, Mitchell told me that James Baldwin had spoken most eloquently about these matters in a 1979 essay called "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" Mitchell wanted to give me a copy he had back in his cell and asked if I could stop by his wing--he'd give it to me on my way out.

I did as requested, and as he handed off the copy I took in my first long glimpse of a Stillwater cellblock--a stale island of sad, angry men. "Looks like hell, doesn't it?" said Mitchell.

Maybe he was more of a teacher than a student, although he continued to come to my class, following every word. I'd suspected that his presence rubbed against prison policy, and one day, without warning, a guard entered my classroom, interrupted me in midsentence, and eyeballed Mitchell: "Let's go." As punishment, he was given a 24-hour lockdown in his cell.

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