Lebanon Prison today.
Note: This Report from Kenya is unusual in that it is not about Kenya or Africa at all. It covers my teaching prisoners in the late 1980s via Pell Grants and is my attempt to encourage people to support and lobby for the return of college courses for prisoners. I would appreciate any comments that can increase the effectiveness of this essay. I have attached it separately (here) so that it is easy for you to forward to others.
I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different. Richard Wright, The Library Card.
There is growing interest in restoring Pell Grants for prisoners to attend college. The program initially launched in 1965 was reformed in 1972 under the sponsorship of Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island to include the ability for prisoners to attend college while incarcerated. Unfortunately in 1994, during that period of being “tough on crime” that led to present-day mass incarceration, this provision was revoked.
In 1987 and 1988 I taught “Introduction to Writing” and “Introduction to English Literature,’ the beginning courses for an associate degree, at Lebanon Correctional Institution in southern Ohio. The funding came from the Pell Grants program. The prison had about 2000 prisoners. It was a medium security facility as inmates were incarcerated for a considerable number of years but were released at the end of their sentence. To be eligible to attend the program, the student must have passed their GED (secondary equivalent exam) and be within five years of their release date.
Many colleges sponsored prison programs. The program in Lebanon Prison was sponsored by Willington College, a nearby small liberal arts Quaker college. Quakers have been involved in prison reform since the 1650s when they themselves were often inmates in the terrible prison conditions of that time. The course of study in the prison was exactly the same as that on the main Wilmington campus, resulting in top-notch textbooks and academic excellence.
The Quaker heritage had two important effects. First the college negotiated that there would be no guards or the use of force in the section of the prison used for the college program. This meant that for the 2.5 hours of class the students were able to shed their role as prisoners and be their true selves.
The second important aspect was that Wilmington College had a Student Council composed of the student-prisoners. In order to be accepted to teach in the prison, I was interviewed by one of the members of the Council. After introductions and pleasantries, the man asked me only one question, “Would I give an “A” to a prisoner?” I was shocked by the question and relied, “Of course, if the student did well in the course and deserved an “A” I would give it to him.” I then asked by why he asked that question and he told me that some teachers would not give a student an “A” because they were prisoners. I have always tried to find the good and the very best in people, prisoners being no exception. For this I am sometimes accused of being unrealistic and naïve, but in this case my response helped me as I was immediately approved. In retrospect I think that perhaps it is those people who think convicted felons are “bad people” who need more punishment are the ones who are unrealistic and naïve. This essay on my experiences teaching in Lebanon Prison explains why I believe this theory.
Teaching in the prison was easy. I went to the prison two times per week for 2.5 hours each time with the hours divided into two sessions of 1.25 hours. At the beginning of a class, I introduced the topic with some questions and the 1.25 hours would fly by as the students continued the discussion with rarely an interruption from me. I would just call on students with their hands up (and sometimes those who were too shy to speak much). I had established the routine that each student was to give his opinion and not confront, argue, or dispute with what other students had said. I rarely had to intercede in this. I was ready to intercede if arguments or tempers became hot, but I never once had to do this as the students were on their best behavior. They realized that the program was a great benefit for them and they wanted desperately to succeed.
I wanted to encourage my new students as they began their coursework. I told them that everyone who fulfilled the requirements would receive an “A” and that anyone who fell short of this would receive a lower grade. Although I marked their papers for spelling, grammar, and with comments, I never gave them a letter grade. Moreover after each writing assignment, those students who wanted to volunteer could read their composition to the class. Again to encourage them, I didn’t allow the other students to comment on the presentations. While not every student was willing to read his poem, essay, short story, or other assignment in front of the class, I never lacked volunteers to fill the time allotted for these readings. This gave those students an opportunity to share their compositions with a larger audience than just their teacher. This honored their work, created an engaged leaning experienced, and enhanced their confidence in their academic abilities.
People who knew I taught at the prison would sometimes ask if I was afraid of being in a room full of convicted criminals. My response was to say that I felt completely safe. They were human students like others and were there to learn. My bigger fear was the almost hour drive in all kinds of weather to and from the prison from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I then lived.
There were usually about twenty students in each of my classes, often about half white and half black. Almost all the black students came from the major Ohio cities of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati. The white students were mostly from the vast rural areas of the state. There was one commonality, however – almost all the students had fought in the Vietnam War. This clearly illustrates that a war, even if fought in a distant land, returns home.
The students were engaged and, at times, too engaged. In one instance I had to deal with plagiarism. In the writing course, a student submitted a very good story. The problem was that I remembered reading it a long time previously, perhaps when I had been in high school. I took this issue to my supervisor who was responsible for the prison program. The student, my supervisor, and I met. The supervisor asked him to repeat the story and define some difficult words in the text. The student was unable to do this. He was dropped from my class and perhaps from the program.
As part of the writing course we read George Orwell’s superb essay, Shooting an Elephant (see here). The true story, written in 1936 at the height of the British Empire, details Orwell’s conviction as an official in Burma when he was forced to kill an rampaging elephant that he didn’t want to kill. From this incident he concluded that the British Empire was crumbling. “It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” I would relish the opportunity now to be teaching at the prison and ask the students or assign a writing topic on this: Are their similar incidents today that indicate that the American Empire is (or is not) crumbling?” What an interesting discussion/essays this would be.
Using Shooting an Elephant as a model, I asked the students to write a true essay on some small incident that illustrated a much wider truth. I received an amazingly good story from a student named William, who was the last of eight children from a large African-American family from Columbus. All his older siblings had done well, but somehow he ran afoul of the law and ended up in prison. He was shunned by his family. It was considered inappropriate to ask the students about their crime so I didn’t know why he was in prison. I really didn’t care. The college program was to look towards a brighter future and not to dwell on the past.
William was one of my best students. By his diction, his writing ability, and his analytical thinking I concluded that he had had a much better family and educational background than most of the other students. One time he missed one of my classes. It was extremely rare for a student to miss a class as the students were – excuse the pun — a captive audience. The next session he apologized for his absence. He told me that he had leaned back in one of the wooden chairs used in the classroom and it broke. For this he was given three days of solitary confinement and therefore missed my class. Is this really what solitary confinement, now considered by many to be torture, is for?
William’s story went something like this. William never received mail, but one day he received a letter. He was so surprised that he didn’t want to open it in public at the distribution center, but took it back to his room to look at privately. When he got to his room and opened the card, he saw that it was from his former girl friend and came with a number of pictures. The one I remember is a teddy bear, which William interpreted as the times when the two were cozy together. There were other images which William interpreted to mean the difficulties that they had in what had clearly been a stormy relationship. William assigned clear intent by his girlfriend in each of the images. While his former girl friend had signed the card, William noted that there was no return address. In other words, as William interpreted it, his girlfriend had no intent in re-establishing the relationship. It was over. The story, therefore, was one of “What if?”, “If only”, one of regret. Regardless of why they were in prison, each prisoner had humanity, emotion and, in this case, heartbreak.
In my literature class for the drama section, I always chose Shakespeare’s Hamlet (see here) because it worked so well. While my Mom told me the story of Hamlet when I was a kid so I knew how it would turn out, most of my students did not know the story. As a result the play was, for them, exciting. I tried to get the students not to read ahead of the assignment, but I think some did anyway. The students had a major criticism of Shakespeare – he used too many clichés. I tried to explain to them that Shakespeare originally made up these phrases that are now considered cliché. I don’t think this explanation convinced many of my students.
My supervisor at the prison was an English professor. At the end of one of my sessions on Hamlet, he asked to come into my class and discuss the play with them. Since this would be something different, I readily agreed. In the class he gave a usual interpretation of Hamlet that Hamlet was too intellectual so that all he could do was procrastinate with indecision. He was not a man of action. The students would have none of this. To them Hamlet was a cold blooded murderer. He killed Polonius between the curtains without even discerning who was there. Even worse he doctored the document so that completely innocent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were executed. This was out and out murder. Think about this interpretation next time you read or see Hamlet.
There was a good deal of tension in the prison including racial tension. Although I was ready to quickly intercede if any racial animosity developed, I never had to do this. Since the prison was large and divided into “houses”, I suspect that any one student only knew a few of the other students in the class. Since about half of my students were black, I thought I should assign about half black authors. This meant that I had to assign almost all of the items from the textbooks written by black authors. At the end of each section I always asked the student to evaluate the authors we had read. In most cases, the white students gave higher marks than the black students to items written by white authors. Conversely the black students gave higher marks than the white students to items written by black authors.
Let me now turn to two cases in the short story section of my literature class when this white/black assessment diverged.
The first was Zora Neale Hurston’s 1925 story, Spunk (see here). The story was written in a strong southern Negro accent, very different from the accents of my black students. The story involves Spunk, who worked at a large timber mill, taking away the wife of another worker, Joe. Joe attacks Spunk with a razor, but Spunk shot him dead. He was not convicted of any crime because he killed Joe in self-defense. But then as soon as Spunk went back to work, Joe’s ghost pushed him into the big saw blade and Spunk bled to death, declaring that Joe had killed him.
This story received only a short discussion in class. The black students who did most of the talking hated the story because they felt that its dialect, brutal murder, and superstition were demeaning and humiliating to them. The few white students who spoke agreed with this. In their assessments, as expected, the white students gave the story low marks, but the black students gave even lower, rock bottom marks. As a result Spunk received the lowest marks of any assignment that I gave. I never assigned this story to subsequent classes.
The remarkable other exception was a story by a black author. This was Richard Wright’s last chapter, titled The Library Card (see here, it is well worth read), from his 1944 book called Black Boy.
It is set in 1926 at the height of the Jim Crow era. Wright is eighteen years old and working at a warehouse with lots of white employees who boss him around to do any errands. He has to play the role of the docile, ignorant “black boy” who shows a happy face regardless of his real feelings. He hears the white employees discuss with disapproval the books by a white author, H. L. Mencken. He wants to read what Mencken has to say, but can’t get a library card because black people in Memphis are not allowed to have library cards. He approaches an Irish-Catholic employee and asks to borrow his library card. The man agrees and Wright writes a fake note forging the man’s signature asking for some of Mencken’s books. The librarian is suspicious but Wright responds that he doesn’t know how to read so doesn’t have any idea what is in the note. He gets two of Mencken’s books and responds as indicated in the opening quote: I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different. He then borrows more and more books reading all night and playing the role of “black boy” during the day at his job at the warehouse.
The students immediately made the following connection. As a prisoner, the students had to play the dumb role of “black boy” and their entrance into the association degree program was their “library card” to intellectual freedom. What was most remarkable was that the white students made this association just as explicitly as the black students. As a result, when I received their assessment of this story, as usual for a black author, the black students give extremely high marks, but the white students also gave this story high marks. It was the mostly highly rated item that I ever assigned.
In the essay, Wright includes a long list of the authors he read. These include some, for example, Shakespeare, that we had covered in class. This allowed for a direct connection between Wright and my students.
Here are some quotes from the essay with my indications in brackets of how the students interpreted this story:
But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me [the guards] knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently.
I no longer felt that the world about me [the prison] was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls [of the prison].
I felt trapped [as a prisoner] and occasionally, for a few days, I would stop reading. But a vague hunger would come over me for books [the associate degree program], books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing, and again I would forge another note to the white librarian. Again I would read and wonder as only the naïve and unlettered can read and wonder, feeling that I carried a secret, criminal burden about with me each day [indicating the tension between the role of prisoner and that as student in the program].
Here is the last paragraph in the essay: What, then, was there? I held my life in my mind, in my consciousness each day, feeling at times that I would stumble and drop it, spill it forever. My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived [the prison] and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day [the tension between the deadly life as a prisoner and the enlightening one as a student]. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety. I wondered how long I could bear it.
Can there be a more convincing argument than this for the benefits of restoring Pell Grants so that prisoners can envision a better, more positive world than where they came from and what they have had to endure in prison?
Studies of these college programs for prisoners showed that those prisoners who received an associate degree or more while incarcerated had greater employment opportunities and lower recidivism rates than prisoners who did not attend the program (for example, see here). It was an effective program. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and others need to admit to their part in blocking this program for prisoners and apologize to hundreds of thousands of prisoners who had not been able to benefit from this program during the last twenty-five years. I encourage readers to lobby for the reinstatement of Pell Grants for prisoners. One method would be to distribute my experience with the program as widely as possible.
Would you give a prisoner-student an “A” if he deserved it?
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