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Campus behind bars: Washington U teaches inmates at Pacific prison

Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

Washington University philosophy professor Claude Evans remembers the day that one of his students leaned back so far in his chair that the chair broke and a foot-long piece of metal broke off and was lying on the floor.

Right away, his students made sure that Evans took custody of the broken piece until the end of class.

“One of my guys immediately said, ‘Give that to the professor. Give that to the professor,’” Evans recalls.

Why the urgency? Because Evans wasn’t teaching a session at the university’s leafy, traditional campus. He was teaching inmates at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, as part of a pilot program where offenders can earn college credit and prepare for the day when they join society beyond the fences topped by razor wire.

Studying works by Shakespeare and Homer, Kant and Montaigne may not sound like typical prison fare. But when they discuss how the program has gone so far, both the professors and their students marvel at how well things have progressed.

“After teaching Hamlet to 19-year-olds for 23 years,” says Washington University literature professor Robert Henke, “I was before a group of men who were living with the consequences of violent crime, which is what Hamlet is about.”

When he saw one of his students reading about how Hamlet was worried about the consequences of his foul crimes, Henke added, “I said this is going to be different from teaching Washington University students. But they had some great ideas about the play. A little bit unconventional at times. Some new ideas. This one guy had this whole theory about sharks and minnows and he sort of likened it to prison, the politics of the yard.”

Adds Margaret Garb, who has taught history at the prison:

“They're pretty sharp thinkers, and they do some really sharp analysis of whatever text you're reading. And they bring insight that 19-year-olds at Wash U don't always have.”

Inmate Robert Boyer, who is serving time on a variety of drug charges and receiving stolen property, said that when he first heard about the program, he didn’t believe he was going to have the opportunity to take Washington University classes. Then, he said, he was worried he wouldn’t make the cut.

Robert Henke
Credit James Byard | Washington University
Robert Henke

“I was so scared that my application wasn't going to be accepted,” Boyer said. “I probably went back to the office three or four times checking on it, until the results finally came out and the class was announced.”

But he got into the program, as did fellow offender Damon Hartley. Both men said they had squandered opportunities for education when they were younger, and they didn’t want to waste a second chance.

“It had been a long time since I had been back in school,” said Hartley, who is imprisoned after a conviction on theft and forgery charges, “and even with me having a lot of spare time here, it took up a lot of my time.

“I dedicated myself to it, though, and though it was intense, our professors definitely don't cut us any type of slack just because we're incarcerated. The expectations they had with us are the same expectations that they had with their students.”

Warden Jennifer Sachse says she knows that those expectations only help whet the inmates’ enthusiasm for their courses.

“I know they're excited,” she said. “The teachers have a captive audience, and I think they're getting something out of that too, because the offenders are just very, very much into this opportunity that they have that's been given to them. I think they're appreciative of that.”

Beyond the traditional campus

University programs behind bars aren’t new. Saint Louis University has worked with both inmates and staff members at the at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Corrections Center in Bonne Terre, Mo., for several years and is developing a program to help released prisoners ease their way back into society, whether or not they have been SLU students while in custody.

The prison initiative at Bard College in upstate New York may be the best-known effort at educating inmates. Garb, at Washington U, said Bard had received a grant from the Soros Foundation about three years ago and was looking for other institutions to begin similar programs around the country.

Margaret Garb
Credit Joe Angeles | Washington University
Margaret Garb

Eventually, she and others helped secure the approval of Washington U administrators and faculty members, and under the auspices of its adult education arm, University College, it began a three-year program with a $50,000 Soros grant.

But getting that backing wasn’t easy, she said.

“They were open to the idea,” she said. “But they were very concerned about safety and liability issues. Early on, we talked to them about possibly bringing in undergraduates, and that was shut down pretty quickly. But they liked the idea. They just were concerned about issues of safety.

“Once we demonstrated to them that actually there are programs like this all around the country, this isn't the only program, and never has there been any problem in terms of threats to teachers, faculty, in prisons, then they kind of got on board and have been very, very supportive.”

To get into the program, inmates had to have a high school diploma or GED, write two essays and fill out the regular University College application. Out of 64 people who applied, 30 were chosen for the first year.

Teaching classes in Pacific, the professors have found interesting similarities and striking differences compared with their regular classes on campus.

“College is not beautiful bushes and manicured lawns,” Henke said. “College is fundamentally a committed specialist, a facilitator, and a group of engaged students. So we are creating college. When they come into that room, and move from the yard, we have constituted a liberal arts college.”

Adds Garb: “We say we're not in prison here. We're in college here. This is a classroom. And the rules of civility and debate of the classroom apply within the classroom. And they understand that and they appreciate that.”

And while technical skills like grammar and writing mechanics may be lacking, the professors said the critical thinking component of the students is on a high level.

“They can read a text and pull it apart and analyze it,” Garb said. “In class I kept saying, ‘Where do you see that? Where is that in the text?’ And they got to the point where as soon as somebody said something, they'd pull out their book and start reading to me a section from the text, because they knew whatever claim you're going to make, you need to be able to back it up with some kind of evidence form the text. That became just sort of normal and part of their analysis.

“But they're pretty sharp thinkers, and they do some really sharp analysis of whatever text they're reading. And they bring insight that 19-year-olds at WashU don't always have.”

And they also bring an appreciation for even basic materials that most students can take for granted – like a dictionary.

Claude Evans
Credit Washington University
Claude Evans

“I noticed early in the semester,” Evans recalled, “that one guy would bring a nice thick dictionary to class, and the whole class was circulating it. They ‘d look up something. So I ordered paperback copies of the Oxford dictionary, and when they saw the stack when they came into the room, everybody went over and picked one up.

“I handed back papers that day, and one guy said, ‘Oh, I'm so embarrassed at the words I misspelled, but now I've got a dictionary.’ I've never seen people as hungry for dictionaries.”

Despite the broken chair episode in Evans’ class, where the prisoners were concerned about the hunk of metal lying on the floor, the professors say they have never been concerned about personal safety.

“The guard was there and often left early and kind of locked me in with the students,” Garb said. “Then when it was time to go, one of my students would go to look for somebody in the labyrinth of the program area with a key.

“I never ever once felt at all concerned. They're all taller than I am. They are men. And they would just stand and talk to me and joke with me and not for one second did I worry or feel endangered.”

And Henke was happy to see that his incarcerated students were able to disagree academically without becoming disagreeable personally.

“University students sometimes agree with each other a little too quickly,” he said. “I was so pleased because to me, it was a great example of, like all of us, they've probably gotten in a few arguments, maybe even some violent arguments in their lives, but they did a great job at civil discussion that I think the country could use more of.”

A second chance for learning

For Hartley, 36, who graduated from Belleville East High School, the Washington U. classes represented a welcome second chance to continue his education. He joined the Air Force a week after getting his high school diploma and was stationed in Japan.

“When I was in the Air Force,” he said in an interview at the prison’s visiting area, “I was young. I was far away from home. I started taking college classes, and then I got introduced to the party life, and immaturity, and I never completed any of the programs that I started. 

“A few years ago, I attended St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. Same thing. I just wasn't ready. I wasn't focused…. As I've gotten older, I've come to understand and realize the importance of education, and the fact that I can't expect the society to invest in me if I'm not willing to invest in myself."

He said the close attention that his academic writing received made him nervous, but he spoke proudly of the first paper where he received an A.

Damon Hartley
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Damon Hartley

“Dr. Henke at Wash U, he critiqued me a lot,” Hartley said. “It was kind of nail-biting at times, because he would always you know, tell me, 'these are all the wonderful things I like about your writing style — however, these are the things that you need to work on.'

“So I continually tried to improve and tried to make him happy. I never got an A in his class on an essay, but I finally got an A now, and it all came together to come to that.”

Both Hartley and Boyer talked about how protagonists in the literature they read, like Hamlet or Odysseus, spoke to them in ways that young college students are not likely to appreciate. When Odysseus has to say that he is Nobody, to trick his way past the Cyclops, prisoners are able to relate.

“Many times I kind of repeat that to myself,” Hartley said. “In times during my incarceration that is how I felt , like I'm nobody. Due to my own actions, I've lost a lot — family, friends, communication, freedom.

“So it's like you're starting from Ground Zero. And you have to almost rediscover, find out who you are, and then from there kind of put yourself back together.”

Boyer, 44, dropped out of high school in Troy, Mo., in the 11th grade and later earned his GED. He tried one semester at St. Charles Community College, but it didn’t really take.

“That’s pretty much it until now,” he said of his educational background.

Robert Boyer
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Boyer

But with age has come maturity, Boyer said, and a new recognition for the benefits that school has to offer.

“It’s a shame that when you need to get it is when you don’t appreciate it,” he said.

Like Hartley, he takes pride in his first A paper, one he wrote for Henke on Montaigne.

“I actually had to ask the professor, was this grade on a scale, or is this an actual A?” Boyer said. “He said no, it was actually really well researched and thought out and made a lot of good points. So I guess I was a little skeptical at first.”

He had an easier time with that paper, he said, than he did understanding philosopher Immanuel Kant in Evans’ class, where students found the dense prose slow going.

“I realized that the steam was out of the class,” Evans recalls. “The air had gone out of the balloon. So the next time I tried to focus a little more on issues, and then take it back to the text, and that was better. The third week, I came in and just raised questions and problems and had a long discussion and then would take it back to the text. And the class opened up.”

Boyer remembers being frustrated and puzzled, at least at first.

“I didn’t understand a word of it,” he said. “Besides words like ‘is’ and ‘the’ and ‘it’, I didn't understand it. But fortunately, the professor helps us work through it, and read it again, and it is eye-opening. He's got something great to say.”

Now, both he and Hartley say they enjoy not only learning in class but engaging in intellectual discourse with other inmates that they never imagined having before.

“I find myself discussing things with people that I would have never talked to before,” Boyer said.

“I see a guy in the weight room that I would have never had any reason to talk to before, because of cultural differences, or whatever. And now I'm in the weight room discussing homework with him. Did you get your homework done? Do you need help? Would you like me to help you read it? Would you read mine? I think that is one of the things that kind of surprised me.”

But it’s not always easy to find the right time and the right conditions to study, Hartley acknowledged.

“I would say you have a minority amount of people that are serious about education,” he said. “So in here, there's a lot of things that you have to overcome. Maybe sometimes there's a loud atmosphere, there are people who are not in school who don't understand that hey, I need my quiet time. So I invested in some earplugs.”

Education and rehabilitation

Once they leave prison, the students in the Washington University program will need more than earplugs to help them readjust to the outside world. Understanding what that transition requires has helped the university and the Department of Corrections work together to make the classes as useful as possible.

“This warden is just a wonderful person,” Garb says of Sachse. “She takes education seriously. She takes the notion of rehabilitation -- this kind of old-fashioned word that's gone out of fashion -- she takes that seriously.”

For her part, Sachse says she was eager to set up the program that the university proposed, and she feels that the inmates aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the classes.

“Hopefully, if they choose to turn this into something positive, then maybe they will give back to society in some way,” she said. “I call this the gift that's been given to them, and I have talked to them and told them need to pay it forward at some point in their lives, to other people … .

Jennifer Sachse
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Warden Jennifer Sachse

“Given the opportunity, they might be able to better their lives, and they might not go on to get a college education, but it might inspire them to get a better job and them make better decisions and choose a different path in life.”

And Henke notes that even if the credits they earn in Pacific don’t lead to a full university degree, the knowledge and the study skills that the inmates gain won’t go to waste.

“They may not be able to do a complete degree,” he said, “but any course they take, any training they take, is going to help them. They're going to be out in the community, and we especially want this kind of thing at these medium security institutions.

“They carry these credits. We actually already have one person who just took the one course, and he's already out. He's got three credits from Washington University, which can be transferred to other institutions.”

To someone coming out prison, Sachse said, those three credits can represent a lot more than just a line on a transcript.

“I think personally it just demonstrates to some that they can do more than probably they thought they could,” she said. “That gives them hope to aspire to do more things than maybe or try more things than they thought they could do in the past.”

Garb put it this way.

“Recidivism rates are not the reason to teach college courses in a prison, but it's something that people like to hold on to, because it gives you a little data. What they have found is that for people who take college courses in prison, the recidivism rate is something like 2 percent, 5 percent, whereas people who don't take college courses recidivism rates from 40 percent to 60 percent.

“So it has a profound effect in terms of transforming people's lives.”

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.