Writing in Jail: A Chance for Reflection

By Cowser, Robert | Adult Learning, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Writing in Jail: A Chance for Reflection


Cowser, Robert, Adult Learning


My first experience teaching in a correctional facility was in 1992. I made a 100-mile round trip each Thursday for one semester to reach the prison and then return to my home in Martin, Tenn. At the time, I was teaching in the English Department at The University of Tennessee at Martin.

The 10 prisoners in the upper-division class in Southern literature were all completing the work required for a bachelor's degree. The students were highly motivated; they had few, if any, distractions to interfere with their class preparation. Since I am now retired from full-time teaching, I recently decided to pursue a plan to organize a writing group in the county jail. I talked with the jail administrator by phone and made an appointment to visit him.

The following day I drove the 10 miles from my home to the jail. The new brick building sat on a hill outside the county seat. I had driven only a few hundred yards after I left a major state highway, yet I felt as if I were miles from the convenience store, the auto dealership, and the small factory I had just passed.

The administrator did not encourage me to begin the writing project, but after I told him about the class I taught at the state prison, he agreed that he would notify those inmates he deemed eligible that there would be an opportunity for them to attend a writing class. He said that Sunday afternoon was the only time the meetings could be worked into the inmates' schedules.

I neglected to ask to see a floor plan of the jail, and, even if I had asked, I am not certain the regulations would have allowed me to see it. Since the only room the administrator had mentioned that could possibly serve as a classroom was the room designated as the jail's library, I stated on the flyers I sent to the jail that those interested in writing essays, poetry, and memoirs should meet in the library Upon my arrival at the jail on the Sunday afternoon specified for the first meeting of the writing class, a corrections officer took me from the waiting room through a series of heavy metal doors. The doors were electronically controlled from a dispatcher's desk. After we passed through the first of the three doors blocking me from the jail's library, I realized that the train had left the station--there was no getting off.

When the officer pushed open the door to the library, I saw that the room was approximately 12' x 16'. There were no windows, and the room was bare of furniture except for two bookcases standing at shoulder height. I realized immediately that the inmates coming that day would not be able to write an introductory essay, for there were no desks or tables for them to use. …

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