Prisoners Assist College Students
|July 4, 2004||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
People Helping People
Words Beyond Walls
One of our favorite periodicals, The Texas Observer, recently ran this article. We are proud to report on such innovations.
This spring, each of the 48 writing students in professor K. Limakatso Kendalls composition class at Wharton County Junior College outside Houston received mentoring from a unique talent pool — inmates at Texas maximum-security prisons.
Throughout the semester, Kendall mailed student essays to a select group of inmates who pondered the work and then returned the pieces with detailed comments. Many students found that the prisoners critiques improved their writing stylistically and grammatically, Kendall says, and some made emotional connections with their incarcerated mentors. Kendall says several students who required more time and attention than she alone could provide wouldnt have passed the course without aid from their mentors. Who has more time than prisoners? she says. For the inmates, the project offered much-needed intellectual stimulation.
Kendall, who had worked in inmate education programs in Louisiana and Massachusetts before coming to Texas, thought of the idea for the project last July. She then went on the Friday night prison show on Houstons KPFT radio station, a favorite of inmates and their families. Kendall asked anyone interested in the idea to contact her. Within a week, she received more than 300 responses.
Kendall spent last fall winnowing the field. She wrote the prisoners to give them writing assignments, and eliminated those who couldnt write well or who were looking for girlfriends, she says. Eventually, 29 prisoners remained. One had a masters degree and was a former professor. Others were less formally educated but proved to be fine writers.
When the spring semester started, Kendall broached the idea with her students. She told them that they didnt have to participate if they felt uncomfortable, but all 48 chose to utilize the mentors. Students had to write three essays. Before they turned in their final versions, Kendall mailed drafts to each students mentor for comment. She was adamant that the contact between the prisoners and students remain anonymous. The prisoners knew only the students first names and vice versa. Kendall mailed all the essays to prisoners herself, and the mentors returned them to a post office box.
The inmates in solitary confinement, trapped in their cells 23 hours a day, seemed to benefit most from reading student essays, Kendall says. They were also often the most incisive. A self-educated mentor in solitary confinement named Guillermo discussed Thucydides and Lao Tzu in his responses. (In one note, he wrote to his student, Craig: Your paragraphs are neat and in order. The words and phrases smell of your military background. You and I have more in common than I initially thought. I also had a drinking problem when I was out there. I would get drunk and start fights. In fact I picked up these cases Im down here for while I was on one of my binges. Next month makes thirteen years Ive been down. What does this have to do with you? You describe the effects very clearly: 1) destroyed my marriage, 2) gave me a dishonorable discharge from the Marines, and 3) made me distant from my family. Its real easy to say the cause was alcohol. Ive done that. But theres something way deeper than just booze. I have this self-destructive mechanism buried in my subconscious, and this rage in my heart that would surface when I drank. Im not saying this is the case for you, but I would suggest you look deeper into the cause of those effects. Its just something to reflect on. The essay will stand as it is, but it could lead to something more important than an assignment for class.)
In evaluations at the end of the semester, two students expressed unease about corresponding with prisoners, but the other 46 raved about it. Kendall already has 27 mentors lined up for this fall and hopes other teachers will follow her lead. Anyone interested in information about the project should contact her at Kathrynk@wcjc.edu. Part of what this is doing is teaching the students that prisoners are human beings, she says. Youve got this huge pool of untapped energy and talent, and this is a way to put that to use.
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