Professors, inmates talk prison education



Arthur Longworth presents material to other inmates during Spanish class, on February 16, 2012. Although he was sentenced to life without parole, he opted not to "just be quiet, shut up, go to my cell and die there." (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT)

By Leo Dornan, For The Pitt News

A  crowd of professors and social justice advocates cheered on inmates who shared their personal stories on higher education in prisons during a conference at Pitt this weekend.

People from all over the country gathered in the William Pitt Union Ballroom Saturday morning for the fifth annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prison. From Friday, Nov. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 8, educators and inmates gathered at various Oakland locations, including the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union, to discuss how to bring more education to prisons.

Held in recent years at Saint Louis University and the University of Illinois, the committee decided to host this year’s conference in Pittsburgh due to the efforts of Cory Holding and Peter Campbell. Holding and Campbell, both assistant professors in Pitt’s English department, have both promoted justice within the Pittsburgh community through their writing.

Justice for inmates and maintaining their visibility and humanity were common themes throughout the conference, which aimed to spark education efforts for people incarcerated in the Allegheny region. Through education, presenters at the conference said prisoners can reclaim their sense of personhood and come to terms with where they are in their lives.

“It’s important to be mindful of the community around you, especially if that community is invisible,” Holding said.

To make inmates more visible, several men from McKean Federal Correctional Institution, a prison in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania, spoke at the conference via video stream. Inmate Anthony Boyd and three other inmates gave a presentation and spoke with members in the audience — the first time in the conference’s history an interaction like that had ever happened.

“You’ve heard us called ‘inmates,’ ‘felons,’ but we prefer ‘incarcerated students,’” Anthony said.

Organizers, including Holding and Campbell, geared the conference toward academics who visit prisons to teach college-level classes, a program they referred to as “teaching inside.” The majority of the 150 attendees were either professors or former inmates who have benefited from these classes.

Ed Wiltse, an English professor at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, teaches literature and writing courses on campus and at the local Monroe Correctional Facility. The courses are identical in their grading and content, Wiltse said, something that often surprises both sets of students because both are held to the same high standards.

“It always pushes my buttons — in a good way,” he said.”Everything [one of the speakers] said made me stop and go ‘whoa.’”

Several of the more than 50 speakers were either currently incarcerated or had been previously.

Nikkia Roberts, in the first year of her 10-year probation after 10 years in prison for armed robbery, led a discussion on the difficulties of re-entry after incarceration. A lack of concrete rehabilitation programs in prisons, Roberts said, makes re-entering the free world more difficult. 

Roberts said she regained some sense of her self-worth through higher education in prison. She described how she came to terms with the crime she committed and acknowledged that she placed herself in that situation. Then, taking university-level theology classes though Emory University, she found new hope.

Even with that hope, Roberts said re-entering the free world after being in prison for 10 years was anything but easy.

“Crimes become your identity in prison,” Roberts said. “The only people that know me after 10 years [in jail], the only ones I could ask for recommendations, are those that knew me in prison.”

She related this hard truth: people just released from prison lose a significant amount of their lives and many contacts on the outside. The only people Roberts could conceivably ask for recommendations of any sort were the people who came into the prison and taught classes.

She could not forget her time in prison without forgetting the only contacts she had, Roberts said. For Roberts, the ultimate success of higher education in prisons was its ability to keep her from falling into despair, and its ability to remind her of her worth, she said.

“Success is changing the culture. Inspiring wardens to see themselves as deans of university campuses,” said Tony Gaskew, professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, in an earlier talk Saturday morning.

Gaskew spoke of how prisons foster cultures of anger and desperation, discouraging the inmates and staff alike. Education can transform prisons into places where inmates can retain their humanity and a sense of hope for the future, Gaskew said. But we must not base success solely on the number of classes available to the inmates, or the number of degrees they receive.

“You have to educate the soul,” he said.

A previous version of this story referred to the two leading organizers as Cory Holding and Peter Trachtenberg. The two leading organizers were Cory Holding and Peter Campbell. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.