Troy University has partnered with Ingram State Technical College and the Alabama Humanities Foundation for a grant to improve education within the prison system.
Priya Menon, an assistant professor of English, and Noel Kaylor, a professor of English, are leading 11 weekly meetings this semester with 20 random inmates at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, located in Wetumpka. These sessions will focus on analyzing and discussing readings.
The professors were driving to Tutwiler for one of these sessions when, according to Kaylor, they became lost after getting involved in conversation.
They were late going into the class, only to find that class had begun without them.
“One of them went up to the podium and began reading her report on what was covered last time,” Kaylor said.
After she was finished, they offered apologies for being late and explained getting lost, only to be met with disappointed looks.
Kaylor said that he realized the women were not disappointed in the professors for being late, but that they could not get lost while confined in prison.
“They do not simply have the luxury of getting lost — you’re always being watched,” Kaylor said. “And it hurt me to hurt them.”
Both professors said that their confinement was the only difference between teaching college students and the women at Tutwiler.
“We never use the words inmate or prisoner,” Kaylor said. “They are the ladies of Tutwiler, and they are ladies. They are very intelligent and very articulate. The only difference between you and me and them is that they got caught.”
“Initially, I was quite apprehensive,” Menon said. “But I’m so impressed by the way they’ve responded. They’re very industrious. They want to be there, they read from cover to cover and they participate very actively in discussion.”
The women read every week outside of the class, and then write a response based on what they have read.
Currently, the group is reading “Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing,” an anthology written by fellow inmates during incarceration concerning “how people try to come to terms with doing time,” according to Menon.
“It’s a good bunch,” Menon said. “They ask questions; they’re very curious. They look up words they don’t know. All of them have attended all of the classes so far.”
Kaylor said that he sees a high level of involvement from the women as well.
“Our students at Troy are wonderful human beings, but they are young,” he said. “The book experience doesn’t seem to touch them.
“The ladies at Tutwiler, some are in for life without parole, some are in multiple times, many are in for complications from drug addiction or poverty. The ladies read out of the books both the intellectual and social moments of importance of their own lives.”
Kaylor said that the engagement could also be due in part to what the other aspects of life college students and those in prison might have.
“Students here come into class from the sorority, athletics and from family,” he said. “And when they are in the classroom they think about the sorority and fraternity and friends and family, so their concentration is mixed between all the outlets.
“The ladies at Tutwiler have none of those outlets. They come to us from the work they do in the kitchen and laundry, from their three meals a day. So what we do is not a distraction from what my students at Troy would call ‘their real life.’ ”
The class offered at Tutwiler is having different effects from a typical college course, where Kaylor says that many students are here to get a degree as “a ticket to a job.”
“These students have such a full spectrum, a broad range of human experience — theft, murder, larceny — that the discussions are in no way superficial,” he said.
“The ladies at Tutwiler are worthy human beings, and most of whom have not enjoyed the advantages that many of our students have been blessed with.”
“It’s a different audience, and I love it,” Kaylor said. “They’re very surprised that we are eager to hear what they have to say.”
Kaylor said that within the prison system of inmates and guards, “most of the people can’t be bothered” to listen to an individual’s opinion.
“And suddenly we’re in this classroom, and we want to hear them,” he said, “to show them that what they have experienced is worth talking about and that they should develop their voices with confidence because there are those of us out here that want to hear.”
Kaylor and Menon applied for the grant through the Alabama Humanities Foundation after Kaylor had a discussion with Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. about the “need for work in the prisons” and Hawkins put them in touch with Ingram State Technical College, where he is chairman of the foundation board.
“So Troy and I were on the same page. Then I approached the Alabama Humanities Foundation, and they came aboard and suddenly we had backing,” Kaylor said. “And when this materialized, the governor came on board.”
The grant coincides with the governor’s plan for prison reform within the state.
“It is the Department of Corrections, not punishment,” Kaylor said. “You don’t lock people up; you put them in a position for constructive corrections, and that includes education. Education is the key to correction.”
Now that the grant has shown success and garnered interest statewide, they will be reapplying for the fall and spring of the 2016-2017 school year, as it is too late to apply for next spring.
“This is brand new, so we’ve got to try to keep from losing momentum,” Kaylor said.
“I feel that this is a great way — a tiny way — to give back to the community that has given me so much,” Menon said. “It’s been very rewarding for me on a personal level.
“I got to discover the fact that just because one is in the prison system doesn’t mean that there is no hope for that individual. They all have that element of hope; they all want to improve themselves.”
“To be involved in a program sincerely dedicated to the proposition that all human beings are worthy of inclusion to all the benefits that society can provide is a new experience to me, and I am so grateful,” Kaylor said.
The professors are due to complete this class in early December and have plans for a full year of classes at Tutwiler for the 2016-2017 school year.