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Learning to Be Free While Sitting in a Maximum-Security Prison

The Humanities Behind Bars

By Nancy Shepherdson | HUMANITIES, Summer 2016 | Volume 37, Number 3

Nobody enters Stateville Correctional Center thinking they will be out soon.

Almost every man at the prison, which is located about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, has been sentenced to a minimum of 20 years; some have been sentenced to life without parole. And because of Illinois truth-in-sentencing laws, many of those serving time for murder expect to remain behind bars for their entire sentence, with no time off for good behavior. It is a place that is ripe for desperation and despair. Yet, in a battered classroom on prison grounds, a serious college-level discussion is taking place. Under exposed fluorescent lights, behind a barred door, fighting to be heard over a noisy fan, liberal arts professor Christina Gómez, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, calls on Ruben Hernandez, who is serving a 60-year sentence. He is eager to read his homework essay: “How does language influence my identity? When I speak, people find out that I’m not that uneducated Mexican. Yes, I’m from Durango and also from Chicago. Mi gente . . . we are all one people, Homo sapiens, and we all bleed the same.”

Gómez mildly criticizes him for “code-switching” in the Spanish phrase mi gente (my people), and thus using an idiom only some of his audience would fully comprehend. Mi gente is well understood here, he argues. “People know what it means in here and you should make word choices to grab your audience,” he says, arching his eyebrows at his fellow students, emphasizing a concept Gómez has taught. There are 15 other men in the class, most with black or brown faces, and many of them smile knowingly. They are halfway through their 14-week class in Latino history and culture and they know audience-grabbing when they hear it.

After Ruben speaks, Gómez moves into a discussion of a reading from a book she coedited, Mi Voz, Mi Vida (My Voice, My Life): Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories, which is a collection of essays written by Dartmouth students. Many in the class identify with the student narrator Eric, who struggles with his beliefs after his mother dies while he is attending college. “How do we decide what we value in life?” Gómez asks the class. It’s a classic humanities question, incredibly broad, hard to answer, and yet very, very important.

Unlike many college students, who are sometimes unwilling to risk embarrassing themselves in front of their peers, the men in the class at Stateville are eager to share their views and what they have learned from the readings. Ruben and the other students discuss whether they are free to live as they choose or if their lives are determined by their place in “the system.” Ruben is convinced that his current troubles stem entirely from wanting more than he really needs. “My needs are simple now, but there is no doubt in my mind that if I wasn’t arrested for murder, I would have been murdered myself.” Carlos Priester, who has been in prison for 17 years and has 23 more to serve, has a more hopeful attitude: “You want to be able to supply your family’s needs, and I won’t let being a convicted felon stand in my way. I know people who are convicted felons and they own property.”

A New Normal

More than 550 inmates have taken humanities classes at Stateville since the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Program (PNAP) began in 2012. This year the program consists of 13 classes in culture, history, and art, but has proven so popular that 85 inmates were turned away for the summer session. PNAP was the brainchild of Sarah Ross, adjunct assistant professor of sculpture and art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was supported by a $2,000 loan from her dad. Ross had volunteered teaching women in a county jail, and her first job out of graduate school was at a prison education program in Danville, Illinois. She wanted to try something similar but more ambitious.

The signature innovation of PNAP was to recruit professors to teach rigorous college-level courses. “In class, [prisoners] can be a student, an artist, a writer, and not just a prisoner,” says Ross. “Some sign up just because there is nothing else to do. Boredom itself is a form of punishment. What they find out is that, really, it’s a way to be alive.”

Teaching humanities in prison is challenging, but not necessarily in the ways outsiders expect. Security is tight, of course, even for visitors; torn jeans are a reason to be barred from a visit and underwear is mandatory and checked for. Visitors—and that includes humanities professors, visiting journalists, and everyone else—must accept the possibility of being searched at any time. More crucially for today’s college professors, visitors are stripped of all technology upon entering the prison, including cell phones and laptops. But, in other ways, humanities class in a maximum-security prison is not unlike Humanities 101 on a leafy green campus.

“It’s very similar to teaching at the university except that there is no technology. It’s just the students, me, and the text,” says Gómez. She relies on photocopies and the occasional film on inmate closed-circuit TV. “This is learning at its purest.” She would teach in the program even without the small stipend she receives, says Gómez. “We don’t do it for the money; I gave half of mine to charity when I taught there last year.”

Stateville was built primarily in the 1920s, and it resembles a worn-down urban high school. Studying the humanities here—without the intrusion of bars, Plexiglas, or guards—is a privilege. Prisoners are aware that their continued participation depends on their own behavior. They must have no disciplinary actions against them in order to even qualify for the classes. According to Department of Corrections’ spokesperson Nicole Wilson, “Offenders who participate in PNAP often see it as an incentive to stay out of trouble because they understand that a major disciplinary infraction could lead to their removal from the course.”

Showing Up

Sarah Ross started volunteering at Stateville in 2011, teaching one art class. “I had conversations with students beforehand and asked them what they had here that allowed them to express themselves. ‘Nothing,’ was the common answer.” She knew right away that inmates would need to be able to depend on the program if it was to be effective. “I wanted them to learn to think together, so it had to be stable. Not here today, gone tomorrow.” But inmates still worry. “Carlos asks me all the time if we’re coming back again.”

To maximize its chances for long-term success, Ross structured PNAP so that it would never cost the Illinois Department of Corrections a dime and give volunteer teachers a rewarding experience. After her first class, Ross started recruiting a rotating cadre of volunteer instructors who are now known as the PNAP Teaching Collective. “We tell them to teach what you want to but not to ever underestimate the intelligence of their students.” Despite this warning, Christina Gómez, who taught her first class at Stateville in 2015, was a bit surprised by the intellectual capacities of her students. “Other professors told me that they were excellent readers, careful and detailed.” It turned out that questions about the text and discussions were on par with discussions in any university class, or higher. “They are brilliant, some of them, intellectually curious, and that doesn’t change just because they are in prison.”

Ross also embarked on a wide-ranging study of the few prison humanities programs that existed at the time, covering her travel expenses with a foundation grant. The words of a Sing Sing inmate, describing how studying the humanities changed his outlook, impressed her so much she can quote them today. “Before I would have jumped someone who said something to me wrong. Now I know where he’s coming from. People can learn to be more analytical instead of reactive.”

She also had the example of the late Margaret Burroughs, who ran an extensive educational program at Stateville for many years, offering college-level credit and even granting degrees. Some PNAP students remember receiving Pell Grants. That kind of money is gone, due to changing attitudes at the federal level about what is appropriate for the incarcerated. PNAP now depends on charitable donations and grants, including three so far from Illinois Humanities.

But Ross was careful not to forget that PNAP would be taking place in a maximum-security prison. “We had a few setbacks at first, so we established ground rules for the inmates almost immediately. The biggest problem was students who didn’t come to class. We’ve become better at laying out the expectations and the consequences. Come to class and do the work and you’ll be able to remain in class.” After the first year, Ross says, slacking off was no longer an issue. “If there are 70 guys being turned away and you got chosen, this becomes a highly-prized activity.”

The program has attracted instructors from Northeastern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as independent artists. This year, coursework choices include the Artistic Imagination, Religion and the Black Freedom Struggle, Black Women and the Justice System, and Words Free: An Exploration of Poetry and Poetics. In 2015, PNAP also got a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund an art program and guest lecturer series, set to begin in the fall of 2016.

Students in Stateville humanities classes write creative literature pieces like those in Mi Voz, Mi Vida for their final projects. The writings, along with inmate artwork, are displayed in a different art space in Chicago each year. In the spring of 2016, the exhibition, over a two-month period, was accompanied by poetry performances, a film of prison art projects, and scholarly panels on such issues as police and prison reform. Much feedback and rewriting is done on the final projects before everyone agrees they are ready for public consumption.

A Different Perspective

There are many rules at a maximum-security prison, for inmate and visitor alike. The inquiring journalist soon learns that gaining access is a very literal concern when your subject is behind bars.

Well after the Latino history and culture class was over for the semester, two inmates were finally granted permission to talk to me, which by itself did not enable an interview to take place. Prison regulations forbid any visitor like myself to return within three months or before another criminal background check is complete. Permission to return also required written authorization from the prisoners. To facilitate those authorizations, I sent my requests to the prisoners along with stamped, self-addressed envelopes. This was, unbeknownst to me, a violation of prison mail rules, and it caused the first set of letters to be rejected. In all, nine months passed before I received dispensation from the Department of Corrections to return.

I had requested permission to talk with five inmates, all of whom had stood out in class for intelligent and cogent comments, but one did not respond, one had used one of my envelopes to respond and was thus disqualified, and one had transferred downstate and was out of reach. Needless to say, the process was an instructive look at the frustrations prisoners must face every day.

We finally meet one afternoon in the visitors’ area, on opposite sides of a table in a tiny cinder-block room with a barred window. Each prisoner comes in separately for a one-on-one interview and the guard withdraws, closing the door and apparently disappearing. It is a mark of trust, the guard tells me between interviews, not granted other prisoners unless they are meeting their attorneys.

Carlos Priester, 38, is a tall, polite, impeccably groomed African American who wouldn’t seem out of place working in a bank, except for his starched and pristine blue prison uniform. Convicted in 1999 at age 20 of “accountability” in a drug-related murder, Priester is serving 40 years. Before he was arrested, he had been expelled from the well-regarded Evanston Township High School, for fighting. He remembers that he had a job possibility with the City of Evanston when “somebody died” during a drug deal. Priester did not pull the trigger but, under Illinois “accountability” law, was considered as legally responsible as his friend who did. He has taken three classes through PNAP since the program started.

“You get a different perspective on black people’s struggle. It’s not just us, it’s everybody,” says Priester. “Reading the books and seeing movies lets you learn about how people live. That allows us to develop better relationships with people in class—you can find someone to share things with. Ruben [Hernandez], for instance—I never said a word to him until the class, but I found out he was a real smart dude, a good guy. I found out that you shouldn’t pass judgment.”

(It was not possible to follow up with Hernandez, who was granted a transfer to a medium-security prison shortly after we observed the class. Did the classes help him make his case for more lenient treatment? Nobody would say.)

Michael Sanders, serving life without parole, also for accountability for murder, didn’t say much in the class but had a lot to say afterward about the value of humanities classes. He had never been much interested in school before going to prison, he told me. After his mother’s rapid decline and death from lung cancer, he began using drugs. At the time, he said, he was attending Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, nearing graduation, and working as a janitor in an upscale hair salon. His ambition was to be a lawyer. His whole life people had told him he was bright but undisciplined. His mother’s death set him on a downward spiral that ended at Stateville.

On a February day in 1998, he said, after a 24-hour period of binging on cocaine and liquor and driving around Chicago and the suburbs, Sanders and friends stopped at a friend’s apartment to eat and crash. Sanders remembers passing out, but not much more. The next morning, Valentine’s Day, he said, the friends were out driving when they were pulled over by the police and handcuffed. One of them was charged with murdering a woman, and he said Sanders had been with him. Sanders says he was not there. He has not been outside prison walls since.

“I try to stay positive, which is why I take PNAP classes,” says Sanders, who has taken four humanities courses so far. But staying positive while serving a life sentence, without chance of parole, is difficult. “If you don’t do something with yourself, you waste away.” Particularly valuable for him, he says, was an essay assignment comparing the educational philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington advocated training young black men to be good farmers; Du Bois favored higher education and believed “you can accomplish anything.” Sanders chose Du Bois as a role model and recently served as a teacher’s aide for the prison GED program.

Sanders is appealing his case on the grounds of actual innocence. The friend who originally said Sanders was present at the murder has recanted. Sanders’s lawyer requested a new trial, but the motion had just been denied before Sanders and I talked, though his lawyer has vowed to appeal. Sanders claims to be hopeful but looks away for the first time and sighs as he talks about the legal battle. His effort to clear his name, he says, has revived his interest in finishing his degree and his hope of actually becoming a lawyer. He shouts it: “I’d like college credits for this!”

Ross says she would eventually like to offer degree programs and that Northeastern Illinois University is prepared to do so if permitted by the Department of Corrections. Ross envisions it as a “competency-based program” requiring math, English, and other basic classes, while allowing inmates to create a major for themselves “based on the skills they have already acquired.” The Illinois state budget impasse is standing in the way, but, says Ross, Ford, Mellon, and other foundations have supported prison-education programs in other states and could do so here.

“Yes, they have long sentences, but getting a degree is so important because most of them are role models for children,” says Ross in reference to the prisoners’ own children. “It is also important for self-esteem and coping skills, which will make Stateville a safer place.”

In the meantime, she says, “we are not therapists, but for sure the humanities give the men a lot of tools for relating the experiences of others to their own lives. It’s a way to survive by thinking things through.”

About the Author

Nancy Shepherdson is a writer, a political activist, and a board member of Illinois Humanities, where she learned about PNAP while reviewing grant applications.

Funding Information

The National Endowment for the Humanities supports Illinois Humanities with annual funding for its operating expenses and grantmaking. NEH has also made several grants to support the celebrated Clemente Course in the Humanities, whose founder, Earl Shorris, helped make college coursework in the humanities available to low-income adults. NEH has also supported humanities reading and discussion programs in juvenile justice facilities through People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos. In 2012, NEH made a $25,000 grant to the Bard Prison Initiative.