Nashville’s inventive approaches to prison education reducing recidivism, changing stereotypes

Monday, July 25, 2011 at 7:05pm
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Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Growing up, Anthony Davis was always told he wouldn’t amount to anything. So when he only made it as far as the ninth grade before turning to drugs and crime, the justification in his own mind was already there. 

Davis, who is 26, has been incarcerated for a little more than three years now. He was convicted of burglary, theft, vandalism and statutory rape. In prison, he doubted himself, his childhood memories gushing back. Davis didn’t think he was smart enough to earn his GED. On the streets and at other prisons, his drug habits kept his brain in a fog. 

But entering a sex offender program in January 2010 at Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility helped Davis get clean, clear his thinking and provide a spark to want to do better by going back to school. He volunteered for Tennessee Department of Correction adult educational classes about a year and a half ago. Now at the Charles Bass Correctional Complex, Davis is one week away from getting his GED, the same day he’ll graduate from the sex offender program. 

Last year, 710 Tennessee inmates earned their GED, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. For fiscal year 2010, the number of offenders enrolled in an adult educational class (GED, pre-GED or adult literacy) equaled 8,460 — 42.1 percent of the total prison population. Another 5,120 — about a quarter of the population — enrolled in a vocational class to learn a skill. 

TDOC schools are recognized as special school districts and are operated by licensed teachers just like public schools, meeting Monday through Friday. Offenders who are between the ages of 18 and 22 are required to attend. School is voluntary for older inmates. Teacher supervisor Maria Butler spent the past 30-plus years teaching offenders in TDOC prisons. 

“In the 31 years have been doing [this], I cannot recall any of them coming back with a new sentence,” Butler said of her students, adding that a few have returned on parole violations. 

Still, Butler often hears the question: How can you spend money on teaching prisoners when no one is giving me money to go to school? 

Barring a societal shift, education in prison as well as the early years of life is key, she said, to fighting both crime and recidivism. “We can’t build enough prisons to lock up everybody,” she said. “So at some point we’ve got to start earlier trying to reach those persons that are heading down the path to correction.”

Nine years ago in Nashville, through partnerships with universities, higher educational programs (the first of which grew out of ministry) began to emerge in local prisons. The goal was to promote learning environments that combine inmate students with college students. 

In 2002, the late prisoner advocate Harmon Wray, along with Janet Wolf and Richard Goode, worked with officials at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution to introduce an educational course in what Wolf called “mutual learning communities” that promotes an honest exchange from both those on the inside and out. Previous models elsewhere relied on “outside” professors teaching only “inside” (inmate) students. The trio made two significant tweaks to the approach: one, get insiders to help design the program; and two, bring in outside students to make up half the class and encourage dialogue between the two.

Wray taught the first class in January 2003. Goode and Wolf also taught classes before the Vanderbilt Divinity School agreed to partner with the program and provide full-time faculty to teach the classes. 

The programs continue to expand. 

In January 2005, Wolf — now professor of church and society at American Baptist College — started an undergraduate program at the Charles Bass facility with half the students coming from the college. Belmont University later joined. 

Goode, now a history professor at Lipscomb University, saw a need for liberal arts courses in prison and pitched it to TDOC, which saw it as a great fit for the Tennessee Prison for Women. 

In January 2007, Goode started teaching a program there with half the students coming from Lipscomb. In 2009, Lipscomb added a class and next month will add another, for a total of 45 students each semester. 

Those on the inside, Goode said, find a sense a pride and success from their participation in the classes, while the stereotypes and preconceptions outside students may hold can break down in the face of human interaction. 

“The people see themselves as partners in a learning environment with gifts to offer,” Wolf said. “They begin to imagine new possibilities for their lives. They are not simply limited to name, number and crime that they have been convicted of.”

According to Wolf, American Baptist College will partner with Vanderbilt to offer an English class at Riverbend in the fall, and will work with Western Kentucky University to provide a course at the DeBerry facility. 

Last September, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Tennessee State University teamed up to offer an art program for inmates at the DeBerry facility. Funded by the commission, the “Crime and Prison Art” course sends 10 TSU students from the criminal justice and art departments per semester to convene with 10 inmates at DeBerry.

With the program still in its infancy, only the TSU students earn credits for the course. But Michael J. McBride, art instructor at TSU, hopes the program will eventually offer inmates college credit — and in its own small way fight recidivism. 

“We’d really make the program work to the point that it could actually help with recidivism to give inmates, when they leave [prison], something to go to … to feel like they can move forward,” McBride said. 

For Davis, TDOC’s adult education class has given him something to which he can look forward, once he’s out of prison. “I’m just trying to change my ways. I’m tired of living the same old life,” he said.

Davis is up for parole again in October. He hopes then he’ll get second chances with his kids — ages 6, 5 and 4 — and with a profession, preferably in computer technology.  

3 Comments on this post:

By: GuardianDevil01 on 7/26/11 at 4:58

We should not allow criminals to view prison as admittance to a free job training program. Preparing them for real jobs once released from prison is important but it should not replace harsh punishment, it should supplement it.

By: i.am.a.taxpayer on 7/26/11 at 7:43

We need to do something to prepare those who are in prison to be self-supporting without crime. The percentage of people incarcerated in the United States is way out of proportion compared to the rest of the world. If the people get out and have no skills to earn a living, they may be more likely to commit a crime.

By: BenDover on 7/26/11 at 8:03

These are excellent programs and should be lauded.