Life Sentences

Jordin Isip

Except when both first and last names are given, the names in this story have been changed.

All the corridors in the Stillwater Correctional Facility lead, inevitably, to a metal security door. The education wing is no exception. At the end of a Wednesday composition class I taught at the prison last spring, a dozen inmates and I filed out of the classroom, passed the library entrance, and walked through a thick steel portal. The door in front of us remained locked. Across the hallway, on the other side of a glass security bubble, a guard sat in front of a panel of knobs, buttons, video screens, and computers. "There's an emergency in the institution," he said indifferently.

"You can't leave yet." So we relaxed into postures of waiting, obstacles like this being a mere matter of routine.

Mark Alton, a student who has been locked up for 15 years, leaned toward me and eased into conversation: "Hey, Steve, ever been in one of these Stillwater cellblocks? It's a animal cages stacked up four stories high."

"Yeah, once briefly, a couple years back," I said, "but I didn't see the inside of a cell."

Alton nodded, "I think you'd find it fascinating. I call it home, my little goat pen. I told my mom on the phone, 'Imagine spending 15 years in your bathroom.' Except my cell's like an apartment all in one tiny space. At least that's what I tell myself. There's a bathroom, bedroom, kitchen. Then there's the living room and study. You have to use your imagination in here."

The second heavy door peeled open with a mechanical whine. Emergency apparently under control, the guard waved us out, and we moved in a pack across the threshold into the facility's main hallway where the light is uglier, the smell of bodies riper.

Of the nearly 1,400 men residing in this prison, the few walking up this hallway were among the small minority that even qualified to take college classes. Of the roughly 25 who started Comp I, these few would work through both of my courses, which are required to earn a two-year associate of arts degree from Inver Hills Community College. Most of the students were in their 30s or 40s, and after years of incarceration are scheduled--or hoping--to be released soon.

Alton and I lagged behind that day, talking about the longtime convicts. When I asked why they tend to make it through these classes more often, he adjusted his eyeglasses and said, "Most guys who've been in here long enough learn what matters. They know how to survive and mind their own business. There's a kind of honor code among them."

I stood off to the side while Alton passed through a metal detector, after which he swiveled around and spread-eagled his limbs before another guard for a pat search. Then we said goodbye, he branched off to his cellblock, and I passed through a few more barred doors, which clanged shut behind me, and into the spring air.

It had been a demanding semester for the dozen students in my class and the approximately 25 other undergraduate convicts at Stillwater. Having been told by the Department of Corrections that state funding for college programs would cease at the end of June, most loaded up on credits, trying to get closer to that degree. Typically they work day jobs in the prison--upkeep positions like carpentry and horticulture; or industry positions like assembling birdhouses and refurbishing computers--and this semester some were taking five courses, with classes five nights a week. After school, they'd depart the almost tranquil, antiseptic education area, which is tucked in a back corner of the main prison building, and return to one of several residential areas that reverberate like coliseums full of restless spectators.

These are the old-style, Hollywood cellblocks--concrete layer cakes of barred cubicles fringed with open catwalks--except that in here the film never stops rolling. This massing together of men produces a wild environment where gang activity, drug use, violence, extortion, and intimidation are enveloped by an endless din. "It's definitely gotten noisier around here in the last ten years since the younger guys started moving in," a student told me. "The decibel level has probably increased like three times."

Imagine trying to write an essay in your cell for composition class surrounded by hundreds of convicts jeering at tonight's Jerry Springer Show flickering on their TVs. Some students told me they wear earplugs; some said they actually sleep better through the clamor, then wake up at three or four in the morning (when most everyone is finally asleep) to do their homework.

Against such challenges, about 100 of Minnesota's 5,609 inmates have been taking college courses through a handful of postsecondary institutions like IHCC, Metro State, and Century College. In addition to the English classes that I taught, they've studied such curricula as health, ethics, economics, career planning, and stress management, toward earning an A.A.  

Since the beginning of this year, though, the future of higher education in prison has been uncertain. After three decades of offering college opportunities to prisoners, the Minnesota Department of Corrections decided in January that it would cease funding college programs on June 30. That decision, made quietly at the tail end of former DOC commissioner Gothriel (Fred) LaFleur's tenure, may not have been the last gasp for higher education in Minnesota correctional facilities, but it marked a new low point since the more rehabilitation-friendly 1970s, when postsecondary schooling in prisons began.

Prospects improved considerably on June 28, however, when Governor Ventura's new DOC commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass announced at an inmate graduation ceremony that college programs will continue--though without tax dollars. Rather, the new funding, which might exceed the previous allocation by almost a third, will be taken from tariffs on prisoner phone calls paid by inmates.

At the final meeting of my last Stillwater class, well before Ramstad Hvass's announcement, I asked who would be earning enough credits for their A.A. degree by the end of June. One hand lifted halfway up, as if its owner was almost embarrassed by the luck of his timing. The other students shook heads in frustration, sighed, stared blankly at their desks. A few, including Alton, called out single-digit numbers of credits between them and a degree. Threatened with an abrupt end to their education, these inmates seemed to take none of the traditional student's relish in the onset of summer.

Later I was standing at the barred windows while students finished writing out their final self-evaluations for the semester. Alton wandered over to turn in what he'd written, then joined me in gazing out at a weedy unused courtyard, and murmured with mock nostalgia, "When I first came to Stillwater, this courtyard was where the serious card games happened--you know, high stakes, members only. In one corner they'd be smoking bud, in the other corner, drinking homemade wine. Guards didn't mind, just peeked in occasionally to make sure no one was dead. Lots has changed since then. Guards have cracked down, gained more control. Just a few years ago this place seemed ready to blow up."

Alton shared this with something like a historian's detachment. He's scheduled for his first parole-board hearing within the next two years--though his sentence is quite long--and listening to him, you sense he has already learned how to get some distance from this place. In class discussions he would assert, like most convicts, that something is terribly wrong with the American penal system.

But he would also keep some emotional remove from that stance, hesitating to dole out blame too quickly. Alton has taken advantage of the resources this facility provides to help inmates change their ways of thinking, including therapy, spiritual counseling, and college education. Once he even said, matter-of-factly, that rehabilitation programs at Stillwater had saved him.


In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes how he became literate in prison, transcribing and memorizing an entire dictionary, page by page, reading at night in a sliver of hallway light falling into his cell. It's no surprise that few prisoners have taken a conventional path of learning, the kind I was programmed to follow at a young age.

From a cookie-cutter suburban Washington, D.C., high school, I coasted through four years at the University of Virginia, where a creative-writing course finally woke me up and led me to a master of fine arts program in poetry at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. As a graduate student, I began teaching English composition, then moved to the Twin Cities and landed an instructing gig at Inver Hills Community College.

After two years at the main campus, set amid the sprawling subdivisions of Inver Grove Heights, I received a call from a dean who explained, as if bearing difficult news, that one of the classes she wanted me to teach was to be held in a prison.

So in the spring of 1995, having completed the requisite security training, I taught Introduction to Literature at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Oak Park Heights, which is considered a world-class maximum-security lockup and which houses the state's most dangerous felons along with a number of federal offenders. Since then I've been teaching composition and a few literature classes at three Minnesota prisons, including the hulking old facility at Stillwater and the women's facility at Shakopee.

Classrooms at these sites resemble most other classrooms on the outside, with rows of desks facing a blackboard under washed-out fluorescent lights. Yet reminders of your whereabouts are plentiful, especially at the men's facilities, where video cameras monitor every move, metal bars shadow the windows, and teachers are required to wear emergency buttons on their belts.  

To participate in higher-education programs, inmates must not only qualify academically but also pass through security screening procedures designed to weed out those most likely to cause trouble. Students come to class wearing standard-issue prison blues or a limited selection of street clothes, carrying school supplies they purchase with their wages at the prison commissary. (Most convicts develop a remarkable ability not to waste a single square inch of paper or drop of ink.) For four years my students have used the same textbooks--a common writer's reference, a common anthology of literature--which were shared by the educational departments I taught through, following me to each prison, each semester, growing tattered along the way.


Not every class was dominated by converted spirits like Mark Alton. Some students were willing to learn, but not quite according to academic standards. Some were willing but struggled every inch of the way. Some just weren't ready.

That first course four years ago happened to be stocked with volatile characters. This became apparent one day when we were discussing James Wright's "The Minneapolis Poem." A large white man named Russell, who tended to associate with the prison's urban blacks, projecting himself as an ally, claimed that Wright showed prejudice against African Americans by calling them "Negroes" and depicting them in illegal activities like prostitution.

Nate, a slight but outspoken black man sitting across the room in a front corner, argued that the term would have been acceptable in 1968 when the poem was written, and that Wright was really showing us the lives of the poor in order to advocate for them. Meanwhile, other students started throwing out opinions.

Raising his voice, Russell said of the author, "He's just using these people, he doesn't really know what's going on with them."

Nate stood up halfway, twisted around, and yelled back, "You don't know what you're talking about, white boy...fat fuck!"

The room erupted. Russell pointed at Nate: "C'mon, you little pip-squeak, come here, I'll pound your ass!"

It took me awhile to quell the clamor, and I came closer than I've ever come to pushing my body alarm. I'm surprised the guards roaming the hallway and surveilling the class via video camera didn't intervene.

In prison the stress of race lingers like a mist, and that day I'd just glimpsed it. The coming years would teach me how to better avoid or negotiate these shaky moments, and I would be blessed with higher concentrations of stable, motivated students.

Yet my most recent term at OPH served up as much chaos as the first. In a good portion of those seats sat raw young men, recently locked up for drug- and gang-related offenses, as if the get-tough-on-inner-city-crime wave had just hit this little prison school on the prairie. As individuals they were smart and at least vaguely prepared to learn, even if an academic setting was no less foreign than space travel to them. But as a group they became a misfit organism breeding disruption, and that cancer spread around the room, making other students uneasy and distracted.

I found myself giving motivational speeches about being focused and respectful--to no effect. So I tried what seemed the least painful solution: a seating chart meant to shuffle the cliques.

That day I entered the room nervously determined. As usual, I unpacked my materials while the pre-class noise came to a simmer, then explained what I was about to do and why, not realizing I was detonating a bomb. From every corner, furious protesting: What the fuck? No way, treating us like kindergartners! This is bullshit! I'd never imagined so much resistance, but I kept going, calling out the new arrangement.

A back-row voice yelled that no one could sit behind him--he wouldn't let it happen, no fucking way! Another: "Look at this crap, he's putting us black-white, black-white." Another: "You can't put certain people next to each other--it won't work."

Meanwhile, someone slipped out of the room and complained to security guards that I was rearranging the class according to race. Actually the class had always been self-segregated, as are most group activities in prison. Breaking up the trouble pockets did make the class look more like a checkerboard, and I'd not realized how upsetting that would be. The guards watched us closely for the rest of that day, but didn't intervene. And we managed to survive for the nearly four-hour duration, bewildered and agitated. It took weeks for the chilly mistrust to wear off.  


Those two classes might have fallen apart entirely had they not been held at OPH, which runs the best prison education department I've seen--what should be a model for prison education around the country. The success there has little to do with the number of tax dollars spent. Logistics make the difference: At OPH an entire residential wing is devoted to education, which means about 50 student inmates live, eat, and go to school in the same unit. This environment, more insulated from the insanity and discord of the general prison population, produces the most motivated students and staff.

A former student of mine, Ken Como, recently published "An Open Letter to Governor Ventura" in the OPH inmate newspaper, A New Perspective. In it he explains that after 40 years in America's ugliest penitentiaries, he had almost accidentally found the educational wing at OPH, where "failing in not an option, and learning not to fail is a key element."

So despite the occasional warfare in the classroom, OPH tended toward harmony and, supported by a network of inmate tutors and study groups, easily created the highest success rate, with the lowest number of dropouts and failures, I've seen anywhere, inside or outside prison.

The students who benefit most at OPH are those least likely to survive elsewhere--the younger ones. Take Marlin Ivy, whose pudgy baby face looked misplaced in prison. He came into that last semester easily distracted; you could tell his mind and mouth were moving tentatively across terra incognita.

With some prodding, he agreed to read his first essay aloud in class, straightened out of a slouch in his chair, tested his throat with a prideful jitter, then spun a story about how his birthday always happened around the start of a school year. That meant he didn't get as many presents because all the kids in his family needed what money was available for new school clothes. On his sixteenth birthday, Ivy had had a dream that he'd been given a beautiful Cadillac, but when he took it to pick up his little brothers from school, they came out wearing rags, humiliated. Then the dream ended. There was no Cadillac. His brothers looked sharp in their crisp duds. And that had been his favorite birthday, because he'd given it away.

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.

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.

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.

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?"

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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."


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.

Months later he had a letter sent to me with an appreciative note and still another revision of "Quiet Storm." A paragraph near the end of that draft reads as follows: "In that moment, right or wrong, I was fighting for my life. [Those men] may have had bad intentions. Or self-indulgence, confusion and pain may have been the real culprits. But I drew the derringer. I squeezed the trigger."


City Pages intern Sonya Geis contributed research to this story.

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