Teachers fight recidivism with creative writing in prison

Published 10:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2018


CORINTH, Miss. (AP) — The lectern in the corner of the classroom at the Alcorn County Regional Correctional Facility nearly reaches Myra Byrnes’ shoulders. She must shrug to lift her elbows on either side of the script in front of her. The retired high school English teacher thought she was done directing plays after a final community theater performance six years ago.

Then she started teaching G.E.D. classes at this prison about 50 miles north of Tupelo. Here, she met Amanda Garvin, an English professor at Northeast Mississippi Community College who specializes in eye contact and body language, like nodding along with a smile.

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Garvin teaches at A.C.R.C.F. through the Prison Writes Initiative — a nonprofit that enhances job-seeking and rehabilitative skills through creative writing. In September, she started guiding a nine-man class through essays, poems and prose. Byrnes helped with the course’s final — two original plays written by students and performed at a graduation ceremony on June 8.

“Make sure to project your voice, or the audience won’t be able to hear you,” Byrnes instructed during a rehearsal in May. “We want everyone to hear you.”

Every Wednesday night, students in black and white striped pants walk through door No. 34 with “education” painted in red letters above it and into class. They drink coffee from plain plastic mugs and write their scripts with pencils with “weapons of mass creation” inscribed on them.

Prisons have the ability to often dehumanize their inmates, from low-pay or unpaid labor to expensive contact with the outside world to a lack of privacy. In the classroom though, caring instructors treat students as equals. They teach to provide both an escape from an oppressive environment and skills to lower a recidivism rate that costs Mississippi millions upon millions of dollars every year.

“The teachers make me feel like I am a real person, like I’m not just a person wearing these ugly stripes, like I’m a human being who made a mistake,” student Stanley Henderson said. “It’s a blessing for them to take time out of their schedule and teach what they know and share experience with us.”

Getting out and staying out

In data from 2016, the Mississippi Department of Corrections said it spent $49.79 per day or $18,173.35 per year on each inmate.

Per the latest data on recidivism available from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, 9,590 inmates were released in 2012. Within three years, 3,439 or 35.9% were incarcerated again. Those 3,439 inmates cost the state over $62 million per year.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Mississippi spent $8,303 per year on each public school student from 2013-2015. As of May 1, the M.D.O.C. had 21,049 inmates, or 2,689 more than the number of students in the Tupelo, Lee County and Oxford school districts combined during last school year.

“If an inmate gets out, and the only thing they know is criminal activity, then that’s what they’re going to do,” A.C.R.C.F. warden Josh Davis said. “What we’re trying to do is give them a skill set to go out in the real world.”

In addition to Garvin’s writing class, Northeast has partnered with A.C.R.C.F. to create a “Jails to Jobs” program that provides classes in employment readiness, fundamentals of electrical construction and basic manufacturing skills.

At the state penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm, Louis Bourgeois, the founder of Prison Writes, teaches three creative writing classes to students in long-term segregation and one to students in the elderly and disabled ward.

Apart from Prison Writes, the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program organized by University of Mississippi professor Patrick Alexander and Mississippi College professor Otis Pickett offers for-credit college courses at Parchman and the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.

The programs provide an escape from the monotony of prison life while helping students process their pasts.

“It gives you a chance to not exactly leave prison, but to be somewhere else where you don’t have a guard sweating down your throat cursing at you,” said Melvin Miles, who graduated from a Prison Writes class at Parchman in 2012 and is currently working in a mechanic shop in Mobile, Alabama. “A lot of people in prison had a rough childhood. They were molested or beat on or burnt with cigarettes. Sometimes writing gets the feelings out instead of in. That’s life-saving for some people.”

Release of writing

The average sentence for the nine men in Garvin’s writing class is 15 years. Even after they are released, Mississippi law revokes their right to vote. The three students with jobs work seven days a week for no pay. The prison’s zones are full of rows of bunk beds that offer no privacy. Some days, inmates say that those without jobs are not allowed outside.

Global Tel Link, which offers telephone services to inmates housed in all state facilities, charges 25 cents per minute plus tax and a transaction fee. A $10 deposit into a Global Tel Link account at A.C.R.C.F. yields $3.72 worth of minutes and a $6.28 fee.

Without an opportunity to make money, writing letters is the cheapest and easiest way for inmates to communicate with the outside world. Creative writing class helps those letters mean much more.

“Writing is my only form of communicating with my mother and my daughters right now. I can’t just sit back and send anything back to my kids, I’ve got to send some creative writing to my three girls,” student Marcus Carr said. “I was looking at my letters before class and after class, and I can see the difference in that. I never took time to notice the way my handwriting and punctuation looked. That’s a big difference.”

Show time

Each actor was allowed to invite two guests to the graduation ceremony.

“Who are you going to invite?” Garvin asked during a break in rehearsal two days before the performance.

“Well I invited the mayor,” Byrnes replied.

“The mayor?” asked student Darrell Craig while throwing his hands in the air. “The mayor is going to be there y’all, we better know these lines.”

Corinth Mayor Tommy Irwin was in attendance. The show started with “The Awakening” — a drama about a neglectful father who, while in a coma, fights his ego, reconciles with his conscience and changes his ways. It concluded with “Jester’s Court” a two-act comedy that starts with a guinea-pig attack in a pet store and ends with a court scene that ridicules a biased judge, unreliable witnesses and incompetent lawyers.

After their performance, the cast joined hands and bowed. After Garvin presented them with graduation certificates, they presented her with a thank you card for her nine months of work.

“It was very very hard to say goodbye to them,” Garvin said. “I didn’t want to leave this class and neither did my students.”

Staff are instructed to have limited physical contact with inmates, Garvin had to offer her students a handshake instead of a hug.

She made it to her car before tears started falling.


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com