The University Record, May 7, 1996

Sociology class meets in prison; teaches inmates writing skills

By Jared Blank

Students in last semester's Sociology 389 course were initially surprised by their new classroom at the 1,600-prisoner G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.

When they enrolled in the course to teach creative writing to prisoners who have earned the right to take a course like this, they expected the guards who watched over them during the sessions. After all, they are working with men who have committed violent crimes, who have physically, brutally hurt other people.

But most of them didn't expect to see a new facility, without bars on the windows, without that starkness that makes a prison a prison. Except for the line of men in bright blue uniforms, "penitentiary" is not the first word that crosses your mind. "Truck stop" crossed the mind of one student. Look across the street to Jackson State Prison, another said. That's what a prison looks like.

My name is Dwight Chappell. I had the misfortune of getting caught in the "game." I have now lost a business, a house, and thousands of dollars on lawyer fees. This has been a hell of an experience for a person that's used to life's freedom.

Many of the U-M students said that they enrolled in the course because of a desire to empower a group of people who, through one circumstance or another, have become marginalized.

"Just by being there for other people and having them know I'm there to help out is enough to make me feel that I have accomplished something in life, made a change," LS&A sophomore Odalys Kuang told her classmates. "I believe that everyone should be given a chance to change for the better ... This class is a challenge, and I will not deny that I am very scared."

But the students' own sense of empowerment dissipated when they first entered the prison. Many of them did not expect the new set of power dynamics that exist in a prison. They were forced to think beyond the "student/teacher," "empowered/marginalized," "strong/weak" dichotomies that exist outside the prison society.

"What struck me was how quickly we could get caught up in this new world. I remember a few of the prisoners mocking us as we walked through the yard, saying, 'We're human, too,' sort of making fun of our liberal do-gooder attitudes, but at the same time telling the truth: They are, in reality, no different than us," said graduate student Paul Lefrak.

My name is Rick Chappell and I'm a born-again Christian. I became what I am by making the wrong choices in life. I was brought up in a reckless home and was driven to live the best I can and my ways were not the right way, but I learned them all. I've turned my life to God and I feel like a new man on a new mission.

LS&A senior Aaron Hurst helped to create this course three years ago because he felt that he wasn't going to get a full education if he spent four years studying in the library. "It's important for students to get out into the community," he says.

Hurst didn't create the class to teach inmates how to write. He wanted to teach inmates why they should write. "It's a pretty hostile environment in prison, obviously. I wanted to show inmates why writing is valuable, that they can use it as a comfortable way to express themselves," he says. Because of the constant power struggle in prison, most in mates do not feel they can openly express their emotions for fear of being labeled weak.

"It is a precarious situation in which power dynamics form the very core of the prison system. That is, in effect, how prison operates. Everyone has to establish their position in respect to one another and that plays into every aspect---the guards, the inmates, even the volunteers," observed Ramon Herrera, an LS&A senior.

Hurst says he found that the "weak" and the "strong" aren't always easy to pick out. Who's powerful, an inmate asked, when an HIV-positive inmate is raped by an inmate who is HIV-negative?

As you stand in the middle of 7-Block, it looks like a big human bird cage, and it also reminds you of a "prison" movie on TV. They take and assign you to your cell, and for the next week and a half, they run tests on you as if you were some type of laboratory rat or something.---Chester Pirtle

The U-M students needed to understand these power dynamics if they were to elicit creative expressions of the prisoners' experiences. Each day, inmates face gangs, corrupt guards, drugs, rape, smuggling, theft and a barrage of other emotion-numbing transgressions not often encountered by university students. The students found that prisoners feel dehumanized.

"It struck me that the level of interest among many of the inmate students was probably higher than a freshman English composition class, or even a typical creative writing class," Lefrak says. "Robert (an inmate) asked us if we co uld provide him with general information on education in prisons. That would be fairly easy for me to locate and get him some articles on the topic, but supposedly that's in violation of the rules about doing special favors for inmates. It seems like this is part of the overall attempt to dehumanize inmates and treat them like numbers. I can't imagine that would help at rehabilitating people."

After my shower I was asked many questions from nurses and guards alike, things like have you ever been to prison before, do you have any medical problems, are you a homosexual. Then I was fingerprinted, photographed and as signed the number 237343. This would be my new name for a while to come. Stan D. Peoples

For the inmates, this class is an opportunity to share with others the fruits of their thoughts, to hear others praise them for their ability, to be told they do something well. For many, after a lifetime of struggles and failures, this class has taught them that they can be successful.

If I've troubled any that hear or read these writings, then I've accomplished what the original intent was. If it de notes a genuine concern or your behalf, either sympathy or empathy, I know not. These writings are only where and what I was, nothing more ... Ron Williams

The prisoners' writings, along with discussions among the students who were teaching the course, can be viewed on a World Wide Web page created by members of the class, a partnership between the Department of Sociology and the Office of Community Service Learning. The URL is http://www.sils.umich.edu/~plefr/cotton.html.