Just as you would see in a classroom on a Troy University campus, students are waiting for class to start. Many are focused on the tablets in their hands. They all look ready for class with their hair and makeup neatly done.
As class is called to order, the students put their devices away and a discussion begins about the book currently being read.
The only difference between this class and one on campus is that each student is dressed in a white jumpsuit printed “Alabama Dept. of Corrections.”
As class continues, the women clamor for a chance to speak and state their opinions on the reading. For some, this means more than just talking in class.
“I was not a reader until I got into this class,” said Deckrice Morrissey, an inmate at Tutwiler and a participant in the reading initiative sponsored by Troy University, with a copy of the class’s current book clutched in her hands. “I’ve learned so much, being able to speak and have a voice.”
Morrissey said that the reading and writing in the class have improved her grades in a GED program that she is currently enrolled in. Her exam date is Nov. 18, and she is confident that she will pass now.
Each week, Noel Kaylor, a professor of English, and Priya Menon, an assistant professor of English, lead a class with these women, giving them reading for the week and asking that they write self-reflective responses to the readings.
“I have learned much from the ladies of Tutwiler,” Kaylor said. “I have especially learned that the ladies have much to contribute to the positive correction of our challenged society. True correction is accomplished only by the efforts of the corrected themselves.
“Initiatives such as Tutwiler’s reading program can help the ladies develop skills to articulate their experiences — skills that can help themselves and others to understand the heroic value of deciding for the right,” Kaylor said.
The reading initiative, a class held from August until December of this year, is being sponsored by Troy University as well as Ingram State Technical College and the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
“In many ways, Tutwiler is our proving ground for innovative ways of education,” said Hank Dasinger, president of Ingram State Technical College.
“I’m glad this has gotten so much attention, but I have a longing that one day it will not be exceptional,” Dasinger said. “We certainly cannot keep doing things the same.”
“Education is one of those key pillars enabling these ladies to be future productive citizens of Alabama,” said Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. “We’re hopeful programs like this will lead to a better life and, most importantly, a life outside of the fence of Tutwiler.”
Multiple studies show that education in prisons lowers the likelihood of an inmate returning after being released. A study by RAND found that those in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.
“They ask us to relate,” said Tonya Brown, another inmate. “They also encourage us to write our own story.”
Brown said that all of the women in the class are able to keep the copies of the books read in their dorms. She said there is often a line of people asking to borrow them.
“I’m hoping they can keep it going because it helped me. There’s a lot of people interested in the book club,” Morrissey said. “I consider Dr. Kaylor and Professor Menon a blessing.
“Through the book club, they have brought me a little more hope inside these prison walls.
“We must continue to fight to be heard,” Morrissey said. “I too have a voice, and that voice matters.”