Monday, December 16, 2013

A Moment of Reflection and Advice

A Moment of Reflection and Advice

As our program moves closer to its start date, I have found myself reflecting more on the past two years of its development. Now more than ever, there is no question that such work is necessary.
This initiative hopes to begin reversing the trends of our punishing society. There is an urgent need to stern the tide of violence and mass incarceration. For those inside and out it is imperative to move beyond lives of crimes, desperation, fear, and misconceptions. Relying on words, effective communication to solve problems, seek restoration rather than retribution, to try to build community rather than rely on incarceration. In working with prisoners in prisons and our communities, educators and activists will lay foundational groundwork for critical thinking, questioning and engaged citizenship through the empowerment of education.  
My list for “motivation for engagement” is working on being endless, but one of the greatest driving factors for me to keep recharging the energy to act is the painful desperation and isolation those incarcerated feel on a daily basis. The feeling that there is no safe space, let alone love, support, and comfort. The question of alienation is therefore crucial to understanding the prison context, for the people who fall into the system almost universally feel abandoned, removed from the normal patterns of work and love that keep the rest of us focused and driven.  For so many incarcerated, the world not only feels strange, foreign, and unwelcoming but sometimes like an imminent death sentence.  Being inside prisons and engaging in dialogue with those incarcerated puts this alienation into perspective, but while everyone I have met housed in these metal cages have every reason to give up on life, to quit trying, to retreat into a world of hurt and anger, they become energized, hopeful when given the opportunity through avenues of education to generate their hidden and forgotten potential into reality; excited and hungry to participate in meaningful connection.
Now, I recognize that the men we will be working with in prison have left behind them trails of wreckage. When pressed into gang life, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, many of our potential students were threats to themselves, their families, and their communities. They harmed others and caused immeasurable pain.  As a survivor of violent crimes in my own life, I can attest to how terrifying violence can be when it erupts into daily life, unsettling one’s faith in humanity and leaving the most banal interpersonal exchanges haunted by the threat of violation. I cannot speak to others’ journeys of healing but I have found through mine that the only way to end the cycle of violence is by moving past our anger and fear.
It is also important to recognize that “victim” and “offender” are not mutually exclusive categories. Many of those incarcerated, while have caused great harm in their lives, they have also been the recipients of great harm; unimaginable neglect and hardship, childhood abandonment and adolescent violence, educational failure, and job placement difficulties. I urge that if we are to approach a view that seeks to end the psychological, emotional, physical, societal and economical cycles of violence, we must acknowledge their pain, as well; we must admit that our incarcerated students have fallen through the cracks of society that sees them as disposable and treats them less than human.
This initiative is not merely Guilford College  granting course credits to those incarcerated. It is so much more. It is an opportunity to create a safe space, inside a prison classroom that can become a place for each participant to acknowledge and confront their past, to create physical and psychic sanctuaries for examining the present, and to imagine and co-create alternative futures; embracing a pedagogy of hope and empowerment, and an educational opportunity to work and share with others. To inspire one another; A place to eliminate division and shame, replacing it with pride, mutual respect and community building.
This initiative does not seek or intends to solely offer classes to occupy time or to provide escape from the monotonous daily life of prison (although it will in some regards). Planning for this initiative is greater than that.  The mission found in every aspect of this program will teach participants, inside and out, that our development as human beings is a lifelong process of personal growth, where over time we integrate more and more of our human potential with our own unique histories, capacities, and circumstances, agreeing to respect one another’s dignity and privacy, committing to a process of personal growth that is driven by the support and challenge we offer one another. The ULTIMATE strategic goal is to more fully develop our capacities as human beings with an emphasis on accountability, responsibility, and service to others. 
Each time I reflect, I am deeply grateful to those men and women who labor for justice and reconciliation in our communities. Those who are disciplined to do the grunt work day in and out without the accolades of publicity or glamour. I am deeply grateful for knowing ordinary people doing extraordinary heartwork and individuals and families, who have inspired and humbled me with the courage of their struggle and the tenacity of their hope.
If I could offer  any advice to  others about what I have learned through the development of this program and from people who have and continue to inspire and empower this work, it would be as follows:

1.       Start where you are. You don’t need to know everything, and you certainly don’t need to be perfect.

 2.       Make lists ---be creative, be simple, ambitious—however the list is constructed—seeing the ideas –written in words, living in language—is an invigorating and liberating step toward your goal.

 3.       Try to recognize the good in every person and speak to that, while maintaining your own values and goals. There is more to the world than the good guys and bad guys, friends and enemies; there is also empathy, empowering us to connect with one another.

 4.       Listen. Quiet the obsession to respond and/or respond correctly. Truly listen. Absorb and be present in each moment authentically.

 5.       Be ok with being wrong—because it will happen.   Here is where some of the greatest lessons and learning take place. Being wrong; failing on occasion might expose our insecurities and vulnerabilities but it will also expose us to elements of growth and strength.
6.       Take things step by step. It can be easy to become overwhelmed or frustrated. If you feel this begin to happen. Take a step back. Breath. Go for a walk and let the sun touch your face.  Don’t let stressors swallow you up. By taking things step by step, you allow yourself to make time for you; self-health….to refocus and re-energize.

7.       Build supportive community. You can accomplish far more with even a small group of dedicated, inspired people than you can alone.

8.       Be strategic. Ask what you’re trying to accomplish, where you can find allies, and how to best communicate the urgencies you feel.

9.       Enlist the uninvolved. They have their own fears and doubts, so they won’t participate automatically; you have to work actively to engage them. If you do, there’s no telling what they’ll go on to achieve.

10.   Seek out unlikely allies. This can be scary, but essential. The more you widen the circle, the more you’ll have a chance of breaking through the entrenched barriers to change.

11.   Persevere. Change often takes time. The longer you continue working, the more you’ll accomplish.  Life, along with your goal is not played out in a 90 minute movie. Goals, relationships, expectations are not met, developed, or nurtured in rushed timeframes. These all take constant development, reflection, and patience. Remember… It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process….

12.   Savor the journey. Change shouldn’t be grim work. Take time to enjoy nature, good music, and whatever else lifts your soul. Never underestimate the power of good conversation. Savor the company of people working in solidarity.

13.   Think large. Don’t be afraid to tackle the deepest rooted injustices, and to tackle them not only at a smaller community level, but even at larger state or national levels, don’t be intimidated. Remember that many small actions can shift the course of traditions, policy, and sometimes…history.

14.   Be ok with you. Some people will not like you. Or understand you. Some people will disagree with you, question what you do, or simple just not understand why. Be strong in your integrity, vision, and mission.  Regardless of others’ opinions, be your own kind of beautiful.

15.   Listen to your heart. It’s why you’re involved to begin with. It’s what keeps us all going….

Saturday, August 3, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Jessika Gurule

GUEST BLOGGER: Jessika Gurule

Jessika Gurule gives us a short glimpse into her world of addiction and subsequent incarceration. She speaks of her journey of finding herself amongst the challenges of prison life, her battle with addiction, and the importance of re-entry support through the Reforming Arts Program at Lee Arrendale State Prison.


I need only to blink my I eyes and see the crowded halls of my high school rushing by me. I was the quiet shy girl in the corner who only smiles for fear of embarrassment at all cost. I lived for the theater and the two periods of class that accompanied it. My seemingly endless contentment was simply a mask for the violent drug addicted home that drained me of life day after day. Eventually I surrendered to the same lifestyle as my parents. A world riddled with addiction, violence, and far worse scenarios playing out than you could ever imagine.

By twenty two this once over achieving honor student awoke one evening kneeled over on a concrete floor drenched in tears of pain and regret. I was hyperventilating for the realization that everything I once loved was gone, including most importantly my sense of self. Fifty one is the number of months that I served in at Lee Arrendale for drug trafficking. In that time I took advantage of every program that was presented to me in hope of making whatever change necessary to be healthy, happy, and productive in the world upon my re entry. I quickly learned that the system is crazy and incredibly inefficient. Society inside prison is a world unto itself.  The monotony of prison life sucks you in to some extent.

After a year at LASP I discovered the drama class taught by Wende Ballew. In the beginning classes were raw, imaginative, and very open. The class provided an outlet to express ourselves in a safe environment. Throughout my time spent at LASP I had the privilege to be present and active in the growth and development of Reforming Arts (RA). RA awakened my perspective on the world and pushed me to constantly think outside of the box. The curriculum was incredibly challenging. Personally, Reforming Arts gave me a renewed sense of hope and longing to succeed and go to college. The classes teach discipline while broadening your intellect without fail every minute that you are present. RA continues to be my greatest support in re entry. Reforming Arts and the many people involved in making it possible have helped me renew my long term goals and work diligently to continue my education while thriving among society.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacy Bell McQuaide is a  Senior Lecturer in English at Oxford College of Emory University. She volunteers at Lee Arrendale State Prison and has been leading classes for incarcerated women on reading and writing memoir since 2010.

                               What Does Auschwitz Have to Do with Mass Incarceration?


Earlier this summer I attended a conference about prisons in Prague; afterwards I spent several weeks traveling in Eastern Europe and visited two concentration camps.  Stutthoff is an hour from Gdansk, formerly the German city of Danzig, where WW2 began on September 1, 1939.  The barracks that remain in that eerie museum feature art installations reminding us that while the majority of souls exterminated there were Jews murdered in the Holocaust, many others were incarcerated and killed for “crimes” ranging from resistance against the Germans to homosexuality to being an intellectual. Next I visited Auschwitz, arguably the most heinous prison conceived by humans, but I was so numb from Stutthoff that not even the scale of Auschwitz II could move me.  I passed through as quickly as I could and did not allow my eyes to rest on the exhibits—thousands of pounds of human hair, rows of immaculate tallits—designed to underscore not just the horror of the Nazis, but the scale of that horror.


I was thinking about crime and how we define it, and incarceration and how we use it, both as a means to a socially-sanctioned end. Let me stress that I am not drawing a parallel between the mass incarceration of Americans in 2013 and the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. But visiting the camps forced me to reflect deeply on my experiences since I began going into prisons as a volunteer in 2010, and to consider what it means to be complicit in a system that concentrates the ostracized other.


Today, when we consider the Holocaust and the murder of so many millions, we decry the extermination of innocents; but as I walked through the camps I was struck by the terrifying realization that the people interred there were not innocent.  Indeed, they had been defined as “criminals” by the Nazi machine, and when you visit these places, you have to confront the fact that the Nazi effort was made possible by the complicity of many people.  I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to go into detail about that period of history.  I want to focus on the fact that every social group throughout history has defined deviance and then has struggled to deal with deviance collectively.  “Crime” is any behavior proscribed by the state. Definitions of crime are socially negotiated and vary across time and place—the definitions are largely created by those holding greater agency. “Citizens” accept the definitions that have been created for them, as they unconsciously maintain the privilege of the elite—a group that represents the central aspirations of the culture.


In the superb documentary The House I Live in, historian Richard Miller explains how elite groups preserve their power and status through the process of identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and finally annihilation. He makes an explicit analogy between the Holocaust and the practice of mass incarceration in the U.S. In response, David Simon, journalist and renowned director of The Wire, asserts, “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion.”


When I am inside prison, I always think about confiscation:  everything that has been taken away from the women in my classes, not just their property and their freedom, but in so many cases the opportunities and options that might have prevented them from ever going to prison. But when it comes to rallying the public against the terrible costly failure that is our incarceration system, those of us who witness from inside have a lot of work to do around identification….working to change the way “crime” is defined, working to change the way criminal behaviors are associated with certain groups, and working to change the way people inside are perceived by those outside. I hate when people say the incarcerated have made “bad choices”—it is the most othering language imaginable, as it pretends that everyone chooses from the same palette.


It is very easy now to believe that the Nazi reign of terror was a sad anomaly in human history.  “Never again, “ we say. Miller and Simon have a point.  The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, a system that concentrates and in many cases annihilates disproportionately minority populations of ostracized others whose choices were narrowly circumscribed on the day they were born.  How do we shake our national complicity in this broken system?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. V, Staff member of Reforming Arts at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. V, Instructor at Reforming Arts at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia

This entry comes  from a staff member at Reforming Arts located at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, reminding us how often we may take things in our life for granted and encourages us not only to take a minute to reflect but to embrace the view from another's perspective. 


There is nothing like a healthy dose of perspective. What do I mean by that? Let me explain. It is so easy for me to take for granted all of the privileges that make up my daily life. For example, I have endless choices of what to eat at restaurants or buy at the grocery store; the freedom to decide where I want to live, work, and visit; and the right to keep all of my skeletons in the privacy of my own personal closet. I often fall into the routine of forgetting just how fortunate I am and just how challenging my life would be if I had gotten caught making certain mistakes that could have easily landed me behind bars. After paying a few visits to the Reforming Arts class at Lee Arrendale State Prison (LASP), I learned three powerful lessons that stuck like glue to the walls of my heart:

It was lunchtime when I learned a lesson in sharing. Most of the women in the Reforming Arts class went off to the cafeteria while a few stayed behind for handmade “spring rolls.” This innovative meal consisted of a flour tortilla shell filled with Ramen Noodles and ground beef, topped with a savory sweet-and-sour sauce made from blending cherry Kool-Aid powder, water, and crushed Cheetos. Once the spring rolls were formed, they were carefully placed between a hot flat iron to give them a warm, toasty crunch. These delicacies aren’t easy to come by with costly commissary prices and when there is only one woman who has the culinary skills to make them “just right.” Still, when it came time to eat, the first thing this one student did, without hesitation, was offer her spring roll to me. I could feel my eyes well up and a lump begin to form in my throat. How could she, in an environment that is devoid of decent food, be so generous with what little she had? As it turns out, spring rolls are just too delicious not to share. I had come face-to-face with a kind of raw selflessness that cracked me wide open.

On another visit, I was reminded of my freedom. It being holiday season, like many people, my thoughts were crowded with travel plans and gift ideas. In the midst of all these distractions and after having so much fun watching the students’ improv performances, I found myself a little disconnected with the reality that I was a free person inside of a prison. After class, I asked one of the students, a young, hilarious, bright woman, “So when are you getting out?” I watched as her playful look became heavy and sad. She answered, “Not for a while. I have 4 years to go.” I was speechless. Damn. Four years? An entire college career? 48 months? For four years this incredible spirit, with all of her potential, all of her light, and all of her talent, would be trapped in prison? It was a hard pill to swallow. In that moment, as I remembered my freedom, I was reminded that she, and so many others like her, are trapped in cages for years and years to come.

“Good morning, class. I want to ask everyone to share your name and something fun and interesting about yourself.” My third lesson reminded me of the enormous privilege that comes with having a clean criminal record. In addition to numerous housing, employment, and other social advantages that are mine to take for granted, I became deeply aware of my unexamined right to conceal my wrongdoings, my skeletons, and my shadows. As we went around the room, some of the women were speechless, unsure of how to talk about themselves without including some explanation, some account of how they got to be locked up. One woman began talking about some of the events that led to her incarceration and I interrupted her, “You don’t have to explain any crimes here. Did I start out my introduction with my laundry list of past crimes? Of course not, because I know I can keep those skeletons in my own personal closet. And in this space, you can do that too.”

Incarceration dehumanizes people on many levels, but this instance was a perfect illustration of how prison can make people feel like all of who they are boils down to a crime they did or did not commit. Human beings are so intricate, so multifaceted, and so diverse that it is simply impossible to define them according to a few moments in time. To me, it is a crime to limit complex, ever-changing people to one or a few past actions. Yet, these incarcerated students, and many others like them, are constantly being told, explicitly and subtly, that they are not people—they are criminals. Incarcerated people deserve to know in their heart of hearts that they are not their crimes. They are people. Interesting, complicated, ever-evolving, clusters of mind, body, and spirit, just like everyone else. Just like me. Just like you. I was reminded of my right to decide who gets to know the darkest corners of my past and I saw one of the ways incarceration and criminal records deny people the right to be an imperfect person just like everyone else.

Three lessons. Three opportunities to confront my otherwise invisible privilege and expand my limited perspective. Three reasons to be forever grateful to the incredible women imprisoned at LASP and to Wende Ballew of Reforming Arts for making all of this possible..
Dr. V

Monday, July 8, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER: Victor M. Vincent, Jr.

GUEST BLOGGER: Victor M. Vincent, Jr.

I am pleased to share this heartfelt entry from Victor, a fellow Guilford College Alumn. He shares his thoughts as someone who has been formerly incarcerated and transformed by his educational attainment. Victor is the Founder of The Re-Entry Expert, an organization that "reaches out to those who have been incarcerated; raising the bar and allowing them to be successful after incarceration."

Victor M. Vincent, Jr.
The Re-Entry Expert

As someone formerly incarcerated, I was asked what higher education could afford someone who is or who has been incarcerated. As an ex-offender it would only be fair to speak first about the journey during and after incarceration.

Many people in prison ponder life after incarceration. Offenders dream of getting their lives together and having a successful life once they are released. However, when inmates get close to their release date fear sets in. Not a strong fear, just fear of the reality that life will be harder. Many ex-offenders build themselves up by saying “I can wash dishes or sweep floors and make it” because these are the jobs that sustain them while incarcerated. Life is so different once an inmate is released. Coming out of a downward spiraling economy an inmate realizes he has to compete for these lower wage positions to only be paid minimum wage. Higher education offers an environment which aids in the development of someone who is or has been incarcerated, offering the opportunity to live above the poverty line.

Speaking as an ex-offender I have often felt stuck, limited and coheres into low wage paying jobs. College has given me the opportunity to once again dream of a successful life and allowed me to understand my walk in life.  I was able to understand why I turned to crime at a young age and how I had to change my methods of thinking.  History gave understanding, law classes gave explanations, and business classes taught me how to conduct myself in the work environment. My professors took time to listen to me, believe in me and encourage me to make a positive difference in the world.

In 2011 I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and created a re-entry Program to assist and aid in the development of ex-offenders. Higher education has given me the skills to give back to the community and is a much needed resource for inmates and those who have been released.    

Victor M Vincent Jr.

Guilford Alum 2011

Victor M Vincent Jr. The Re-Entry Expert

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Another amazing spirit who is the project manager of Mix IT UP!, Joe brings the voices of incarcerated youth from behind bars and cement walls; empowering them through creative writing, connecting all of us through written word. I have had the opportunity to read and review some of these works and they are absolutely astonishing, beautiful, heart-breaking and inspiring.

Joe Coyle
Project Manager- Mix IT Up!


 Adults rarely listen to the voices of young people when it comes to important social issues, policy, or art. Young people in detention centers are especially ignored. Of course, young folks in custody have a lot to say and are producing important work on these topics everyday. There are many writing programs across the country serving young people in detention centers that bring these voices into the public.

I run a writing program out of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center in Urbana, IL.  Each week, the writers and I hang out, talk about social issues and our lives, and write.  We also read and discuss literature, essays, and poetry together. The general structure of each meeting tends to be pretty loose because each writer has a different purpose and project. Currently, two of the young people I work with are busy editing a collection of poems and prose on parenting and DCFS, one is working on a zine about the education system, some are writing poems to help process their relationships to family members, and others are producing visual art and entering their work into contests.

            Every two weeks, the writers who are interested publish their work in The Beat Within, a magazine that features the writings and art of young people in custody across the United States. This magazine is always a high circulating item in the detention center library. For some, reading other writers’ words in The Beat Within can help them process their own experiences. For others, reading their own published words can bring a sense of validation of their experiences and is a step in the process of developing an identity as a writer.

            One of the most exciting parts of the writing program is the communication that happens between the writers and their readers. Every week, I digitize the writings and e-mail them to a group of volunteers who provide feedback to the writers. The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them have never known anyone who has been in a detention center. Others are incarcerated, serving prison sentences. The reviewers are yoga instructors, preschool teachers, city council members, activists, stay at home parents, lawyers, counselors, high school students, and so on. The writers at the detention center highly value these reviewers’ feedback. Every day that I run a writing program or provide library services, writers ask me how many pieces of feedback have arrived for them. However, it is not only the writers who benefit from this kind of communication. The reviewers are often receive an education, and are inspired or changed as a result of participating in this program. Plus, they get to read great writing.

            To me, one of the greatest values of this kind of collaboration is that it facilitates intercultural, interclass, and intergenerational connection through the act of writing. It is through these kinds of connections that the voices of young people in custody can continue to be brought from margin to center.


If you are interested in becoming a reviewer, or just reading weekly writings from the writers at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center, e-mail Joe Coyle at

Monday, June 17, 2013



Rebecca Ginsburg, Executive Director of Education Justice Project--Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Barbara Lawrence, Associate Professor in the Justice and Policy Department at Guilford College

Joe Coyle, Project Manager of Mix IT UP!

Amanda Berger, Prison University Project (PUP) volunteer at San Quentin State Correctional Facility in California

Victor M. Vincent Jr., Guilford College Alum and Founder of The Re-Entry Expert Program
Sara Inman, Education Portal at Oregon Youth Authority
Stacy Bell McQuaide, Senior Lecturer in English at Oxford College of Emory University. 
Christopher Beasley, Founding President of Returning Student Support Group 
Tzipporah Gerson-Miller, Dr. V, and Jessika Gurule, Staff and participants at Reforming Arts at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER Kenneth L. Parker

GUEST BLOGGER: Kenneth L. Parker is an Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Saint Louis University who has worked on developments to establish a college-in-prison program at the University. I had the privilege of meeting and gaining Kenneth's support for our efforts during the National Higher Education in Prisons Conference this spring. I am grateful for his participation in this guest blogger series where he highlights profound memories and experiences about his time teaching within prison.

“What I Learned about Learning in Prison”
Kenneth L. Parker
Associate Professor of Historical Theology
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, MO


The title is misleading … I have never served time in prison. But last semester I had the
privilege of teaching in one. I say “privilege” because the experience became without
question the best classroom experience of my twenty years as a teacher. Don’t get me
wrong—teaching Ph.D. candidates, theology majors, and undergraduates in our honors
program has been stimulating and engaging—but never before have I taught the
intellectually-starved. It is hard to write about this because the experience evoked so
much pleasure. Would I feel the same way if I had spent the past semester feeding the
physically emaciated?
Yet that is the intellectual equivalent of what I did. Teachers crave, even long for the
experience of students who walk into their classrooms with eager smiles and open minds.
Imagine assigning texts that baffle the brightest undergraduates on the main campus and
find a room filled with students who have read the text three and four times, outlined the
argument and struggled until they had conquered the riddle of words and syntax. Try to
picture fifteen students sitting for almost three hours engaging in intense discussion and
debate on topics that you have posed and who are eager for your instructional guidance.
Conjure up the image of a student returning his paper to you … because he wants more
correction and guidance as a writer. Consider what it feels like to have a group of
students in the final assessment tell you that the experience in your classroom has given
them hope—a sense that life has purpose. What I have described is just a pale reflection
of my experience of teaching in prison. What I learned in prison is that the privilege to
learn, when withdrawn, creates desperation and despair, a loss of hope that is hard to
revive and a smoldering anger that is difficult to extinguish.
America’s prisons were not always an intellectual wasteland. Between the mid-1970s and
the mid-1990s a network of over 350 college-in-prison programs existed in forty-five
states. Numerous studies confirmed that college education in prison dramatically reduced
recidivism rates. The more undergraduate education received while in prison, the less
likely an inmate would re-offend once released. When recidivism rates nationwide
averaged around 65%, college-in-prison programs produced results in the 15% to 0%
Yet in 1994 a Republican senator from North Carolina and a Democratic representative
from Missouri helped champion a campaign to bar inmates from access to Pell grants.
They argued that if hard-working, law-abiding citizens struggled to educate their
children, why should the government subsidize criminals in pursuit of college degrees?
Jesse Helms and Dick Gephardt succeeded. Their legislation effectively shut down
undergraduate education in American prisons. In many states even vocational training
and GED programs were treated as luxuries that prisoners did not deserve.
The results for the United States have been devastating. In an atmosphere that shifted
from rehabilitation to retribution, the last fourteen years has seen our prison population
explode. Although we are 5% of the earth’s population, we house and feed 25% of the
world’s inmates. One in every one hundred adult Americans is behind bars. The
construction and operation of prisons has become such a burden that states have slashed
funding of state-run universities and colleges. This has resulted in higher tuition at these
institutions and reduced access to higher education for the country’s working poor—
further exacerbating the cycles of behavior and despair that result in criminal behavior
and more prisoners.
When the Saint Louis University Prison Initiative, funded in part by the Incarnate Word
Foundation, solicited applications from the prison population we serve, over 300 men
applied for fifteen places. The applications were compelling and often heartrending. Most
of the men came from impoverished backgrounds, with little parental guidance (often
because one or both parents were in prison), and found affirmation and nurturing for a
criminal life on the street. In prison they now have time to think and reconsider their
priorities in life. They long for guidance. Yet the recurring theme in applications was that
programs did not exist to address this constructive desire. Many described the SLU
Prison Initiative as their first opportunity to pursue post-secondary education after
years—sometimes decades—of incarceration. In the end, selection of students focused on
those who were using what they had to make a difference inside. The students in our
program are GED tutors, facilitators in restorative justice groups, and several are
autodidacts—one reads his New Testament in Greek. Another has become an award
winning script writer. There are self-taught musicians and artists. One student’s academic
skills are so advanced that he could easily pursue graduate studies. In prison I learned
there is great talent and extraordinary ability behind prison walls—human potential that
we as a nation are wasting because we chose not to redirect and reshape it toward
productive and positive purposes.
College education offers a key. I have long known that students will live up to my
expectations. If I create demanding goals in a course, those who persevere tend to excel
and achieve beyond their ordinary patterns in other settings. This is what I did in the
prison course. Assignments that are selections from a book on the main campus became
book assignments for my prison students. I marked their essays severely, but added notes
of encouragement at signs of progress. While this practice often is met with grumbling
and complaints on the main campus, prison students rose to the occasion and spoke in
triumphant terms about their struggles to understand a text and how they conquered it.
They discussed the pain of writing four and five drafts of essays assigned until they
achieved the desired result. The passion and commitment astounded me.
What I learned in prison is that there are men and women aching for the opportunity to be
pushed to their limit and receive praise for achieving hard won goals. These are human
beings—like us—who crave respect and restoration of their dignity. I learned that despite
their crimes, often heinous, there is a core of humanity that responds when respect is
given and judgment is suspended. When I consider that 95% of the women and men in
prison will one day be back on the streets, it is only prudent to ensure that they will leave
with their dignity and sense of self-worth intact. College education on the inside is the
only proven way to achieve that goal.
I learned in prison that the best students and most fervent learners are to be found behind
bars. If you would like to experience the guilty pleasure of teaching the intellectuallystarved,
develop a college-in-prison program in your area. You may be surprised, as I
was, that the help to do this is waiting for your call. While others may praise your
altruism and commitment to serve a despised population, your greatest challenge may be
living with the guilt of knowing that you are enjoying the best teaching experience of
your life!

Please visit Kenneth's Profile Page:
SLU College-in-Prison Program:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Medical Facility at Butner Federal Correctional

Friday, April 12, 2013

4:19 a.m.

In four hours I will be on my way to Butner Correctional Medical Facility (BCMF), in Durham, North Carolina

Usually, and surprising to most people, I have very little anxiety about entering a correctional facility, but this one is different.  My mind has been racing all evening into the early morning hours.  I can’t sleep and the thought of entering the facility brings me to the brink of tears.

I can pretty honestly say, I have been a wreck most of night.

BCMF will be an all around different experience.

Here, is where many of the inmates at Butner Federal Correctional will relocate if they become seriously ill or are dying.

The thought of someone spending their last days slowing dying in a cold, lonely place is incredibly disheartening.  There are some inmates who might qualify for medical parole, but that is not the majority of cases.

I have read several articles written by nurses who care for terminally ill inmates and the overwhelming consensus is that while they are undoubtedly compassionate for the victim’s of the offender’s crime, the inhumane way of dying alone, without a loved one, without the very basic need of our human element: connection is a very sad reality. (Note: most nurses who wrote about the conflicting compassion expressed intense guilt for such compassion towards the inmates. (This shaming is sad and unfortunate.).)

This may be a touchy subject for some. Some will have little sympathy for these terminally ill patients.

Let us dare to ask though, how we would want our loved one: our son, daughter, father or mother to spend their last moments before dying? Alone? Scared?

Absolutely not.

Can we not afford incarcerated patients  equal worth?

I ask that we all try to be mindful and carry a compassionate, open heart.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Boy Named Freedom

A Boy Named Freedom

There was a boy, his name was Freedom

A funny name of sorts

His parents, Law and Justice

Never really knew him

His father stoic, dry and lacking warmth

His mother blind.

There was a boy named Freedom

Like every young boy

In search of who he was.

Defined by others perceptions

Liberation was as foreign as his father acceptance

There was a boy named freedom

Who stood on the shore

Looking for the girl he loved-




Rebuilt in a more beautiful and breathtaking design.

A design that never could have been imagined in a different place and time.

This is your blueprint:  use color

Be fearless and draw your lines askew

Outside the box.

Hell, draw a circle if you want.

In your canvas use texture and never forget its feeling.

Appreciate the Cool, rough and bumpy

Imagine. Despite all you think you don’t have.

There is always more in the art of life we don’t see.

Cusped in your hands

Is warmth.

Create a beautiful and breathtaking design.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In the sanctuary of education, you don’t have to be a prisoner:

In the sanctuary of education, you don’t have to be a prisoner:

Recalling defining moments of our visit to the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison


“There is a resilience of human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity. “ –Howard Zinn


 There are many of us who have seen stories of San Quentin prison depicted on “reality” television shows whose claim to fame is to bring outsiders a “truthful” look inside a notorious institution. An institutional juggernaut of violence, addiction and gangs.

My goal here is to not discount everything that is depicted. There is some truth to the conditions of prison life. It is not a place to be or to call home.  Prison is painful, exclusionary and sad.

Try to imagine it.

The lack of human affection; of love.  The absence of the warmth of your lover’s body wrapped around you at night, the inability to hold your child…these are all lost human connections. Sometimes replaced with actions of violence, against oneself and others; feelings of vulnerability, shame, fear and anxiety to conceal the maddening loss of autonomy, respect and loving connections that compose our humanity.

There are gangs.

 There is violence.

There is addiction.

 There is mental illness.

 There is death.

There is despair.

 There is sadness.

 There is remorse.

 There is guilt.

 There is shame.

And there is regret.

There is also something else.

Hope. Courage.  Determination.  Strength.  Resilience.

This is the story within the walls of San Quentin I want to tell.

That despite its conditions and limitations the inmates in general population at San Quentin find themselves in, there is an unyielding journey of repair, self-discovery and determination to not let mistakes define who they are.

Our visit to San Quentin Prison was to see first-hand the structure, dynamics and interpersonal relationships that occur and develop within the Prison University Project (PUP).   We were nothing short of blown away.

Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project, met us at the gate before escorting us through the prison clearance routine. Meeting Jody was like reuniting with a long lost friend. I had corresponded with Jody through several emails and telephone conversations prior to our visit out to the West Coast. Jody wanted to ensure we were all aware of the rules and dress codes at the prison but also extended kind gestures of transportation, food and networking. She was even more warm and welcoming in person than she was over the phone.  After exchanging hugs, Jody thanked us for visiting and thanked us for our pursuits advocating for education within prisons.

Truly a warm welcoming especially compared to the intimidating infrastructure of historical Spanish architecture that now housed thousands of California citizens under state correctional supervision, towering in the background.

Several guards dressed in dark-green military style uniforms met us at three different identification check points and security scan before we could even actually enter the prison. Not to mention slamming prison gates that mimicked infamous Californian earthquakes.

Despite the warmth and kindness of Jody, all the intimidating factors started weighing in.

How does one truly prepare their psyche to encounter what is a reality to so many but so far removed from outside society?

After all, this was the notorious San Quentin Prison! I think I can speak for myself and my colleagues, that walking through the corridor of the prison, down the descending pathway and around the corner of the long prison wall we were expecting to see a scene of "thugs" ballin' it up in the yard, lifting weights and pockets of racially segregated groups.

We approached the yard and nothing could have been further from the truth.

What we did see was amazing and a powerful testament to the value of the Prison University Project. We saw men lining the outside walls of the educational trailers.

Armed with books.

 Books in white mesh book bags thrown over their shoulders. We saw a table set up to encourage other inmates to participate in a democratic dialogue of concerns and community building within their walls. We saw staff writers and editors passing out the current edition of the San Quentin news; one of the only newspapers in California, possibly in the nation written entirely by inmates.

We saw men approach Jody, bid her good evening and strike up conversation as if they had been friends for a lifetime.

Their attitudes were contagious. At every corner, there were not rival gangs defending their yard territory, there were men engaging in conversation and debate about what social psychology theory best applied to the anticipated night’s lesson, men sitting independently proofreading papers to turn in for class, men reviewing notes from the last class.

During the several days we visited San Quentin, we had the opportunity to sit in on higher education classes all taught by professors and graduate students from Stanford and UC Berkley, some of them driving over an hour to and from to teach….voluntarily.  The dialogue was challenging and thought-provoking. The PUP students were held to the same academic parity as fellow graduate students from Stanford or Berkley.

During a break in one of the seminar classes I had the privilege to speak with a PUP student, Kenyatta (what I didn’t know at the time was that Kenyatta was the valedictorian of his graduating class for his Associates Degree). He inquired about our visit and relayed to us that the PUP was literally a lifeline for him.  He said that “education was the most worth having possession he could have.”

In our time we also had the opportunity to attend the preparatory reading, writing and math classes. I have sat for weeks trying to find the right words to express how sitting in those classes watching grown and sometimes frail, old men struggle to read or do simple multiplication made me feel.

Is there a word for sadness so deep it burns a picture into your being? I will never forget those men. Struggling but remaining hopeful. Frustrated yet persistent.

Each time we left the facility during our visit there was an array of emotions to sort through. Whether we travelled back into the city by car, train, cab or ferry our conversations were filled with reflections about the classes and social dynamics within the program that trickled out into general population.  

Documenting mentally and on paper the stories behind the Prison University Project has helped me further advocate for the benefits of educational programs in prison. Furthermore, our visit has empowered me with greater knowledge and a deeper understanding of the dire importance to aid in the deconstruction of social misconceptions of those incarcerated. Misconceptions generate a fear; creating an unhealthy divisionary reaction of seclusion from one another and our communities; placing members of our society into categories of us and them; the worthy and the un.

I want to make clear, prison is no playground and there is definitely a need for reform. It is sad and painful. There is little rehabilitation and in some pockets, breeding grounds for further criminalization. But understand this; there are more people than not who are holding on to hope and doing the very best they can in their circumstance to change the course of their lives. There are men incarcerated at San Quentin who do community fundraiser to help at risk children, they organize walks, runs and prison baseball games to raise money for fellow inmates with cancer. They are not all bad people; some have just made mistakes (or been in the crossfire of bad law and policy). They are human beings who work against our societal grains of letting their mistakes define who they are. It is ridiculous and sad that these stories are not what we see in the news and media.

I am thankful to Jody for all of her inspiring work and relentless dedication towards stimulating public awareness and meaningful dialogue about higher education and criminal justice. The Prison University Project at San Quentin is one of the guiding models the Guilford College Higher Education in Prison Initiative hopes to learn from.
The following link is a video reflection of the research and visit to San Quentin and the Prison University Project. Enjoy!

For more information on the San Quentin Prison University Project and the San Quentin newspaper please visit: and