Lectures Behind Bars

Posted by .

 ======= Old =========1479148222 
1423785600

Few people normally go to Donaldson Correctional Facility, a state prison in far western Jefferson County. But twice a month UAB faculty travel to this maximum security prison to lecture to inmates. It’s been happening for almost three decades.

Inside a large cinderblock hall, 36 men sit in quiet rows as UAB English Professor Nicole Lariscy begins this session of the Donaldson Prison lecture series.

“What I was hoping to try tonight is just do some stories with you,” Lariscy tells the class. “Are you willing to try that?”

All the men are in white uniforms stamped with Alabama Department of Corrections. Some have pens in their front pockets and thin notebooks on their laps.

Lariscy prompts a discussion with the question, “What’s the difference between not true and made up?”

An inmate in the front row answers that sometimes things that are made up have certain elements of truth in them.

It could almost be a college class, except three guards walk a quiet line around the inmates. And the classroom’s doors stay locked.

Ronald McKeithen has been in prison for 31 years and is serving life without parole for various robbery charges. When McKeithen first came to prison, he hadn’t even finished high school. Now he attends every lecture he can.

“I just like learning new things,” McKeithen said. “It makes me feel alive, like I am not dying in here.”

The reason McKeithen’s able to take in these lectures is because of an unfortunate turn of events 27 year ago.

Ada Long was the dean of the UAB Honors College at the time. She heard about a smart student who had been accepted into the Honors College. But the summer before, he had also been charged with murder. Instead of enrolling as a freshman, he went to Donaldson to begin a life sentence.

In response, Long started a lecture series, where UAB faculty and staff teach classes on whatever they want — for instance, Milton’s Paradise Lost, exploring caves or HIV and sexual health. The lectures aren’t for credit, but only inmates with good behavior are allowed to attend.

“We don’t want to lock them up and have them forget how to behave and how to function as a person,” explains Cheryl Price, the warden of Donaldson. Price is responsible for Donaldson’s 1,600 inmates, and she says the lectures remind inmates what life is like outside, both the privileges and what will be expected of them. That’s important, because 97 percent of inmates in the U.S. prisons are eventually released.

“It gives [the inmates] some dignity,” Price said. “Education is the one thing that you can’t lose, no one can take from you.”

Libba Vaughn, who runs the program now, says UAB faculty constantly send her emails about how much they enjoyed the experience and how the lecture series reminded them of why they love teaching.

“Because they are speaking about what they are passionate about to a group of people who are, for the most part, very curious and willing to be there and listen and learn,” says Vaughn. “And that doesn’t always happen in the regular classroom.”

Back in the prison classroom, UAB Professor Nicole Lariscy prompts the students to reflect on their own lives.

“Tell me a story,” Lariscy says, “that shows me what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning.”

Slowly, men start raising their hands. One man describes his mother’s leaky roof and how he wants to get home to fix it.

Ronald McKeithen, the man serving a life sentence, tells a story about when he transferred to Donaldson. He was lying in the prison infirmary and saw a dead body being wheeled out on a stretcher. All he could see of the man was a toe tag identifying the body.

“And I am thinking, ‘I don’t want to be like that.’ You don’t know who he is or what he has done,” said McKeithen. “So it motivates me to get up in the mornings…just don’t be a number. Any opportunity I get to learn something new, a class come up, I want to take it. I don’t want to be just a number that you barely even notice.”

The lecture ends, but not in the way college classes normally do. The men applaud loudly and thank Lariscy.

Then they slowly file back to their cells. Lariscy says she’ll be back.

Senate Committee Approves Prison Consolidation Plan
03-17-2016

A Senate budget committee approved a prison construction bill Wednesday. The bill would close  14 state prisons and build four large regional facilities. Senator Cam Ward was among the bill’s supporters, citing prison overcrowding issues. “Everyone says well you can’t build — and I’ve said this before — you can’t build your way out of the […]

Bentley Calls Tutwiler Settlement ‘Positive Step’ For State
05-29-2015

Governor Robert Bentley is praising a settlement between the state and the U.S. Justice Department over conditions at Alabama’s only prison for women. Bentley says the agreement announced Thursday is a “positive step forward” for the corrections agency.

What’s In Alabama’s Prison Reform Bill?
04-2-2015

Alabama’s prison reform bill was approved today by a 31-2 vote in the Alabama Senate. The bill contains major changes to the state’s sentencing and probation rules with the goal of reducing prison over-crowding. Alabama’s prisons are currently at almost 200 percent capacity. The bill was crafted by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force with the help of The Council of State Governments, a nonprofit that works with policymakers across the country. WBHM’s Rachel Osier Lindley spoke with Andy Barbee, research manager with The Council of State Governments about some of the most important policy changes in the Alabama Justice Reinvestment Act and how Alabama’s challenges rank nationally.

The 2015 Alabama Legislative Session Kicks off on Tuesday
02-27-2015

The 2015 Alabama legislative session kicks off on Tuesday. From prisons to the state’s budget deficit to education, this year’s session will be full of important — and even controversial — issues. Here to give us a preview of what to expect is Don Dailey, host of Alabama Public Television’s Capital Journal.

Alabama’s Prison Reform Task Force Readies Bill For 2015 Legislative Session
02-24-2015

Alabama’s overcrowded prison system has been under close scrutiny since the Justice Department started investigating it last year. If big changes aren’t made during the upcoming legislative session, the state risks a federal takeover. Alabama’s Prison Reform Task Force is working to draft legislation to improve the prison system. State Senator Cam Ward of Alabaster is the task force’s chairman. Ward sat down with WBHM’s Rachel Osier Lindley to talk about the proposed legislation, and who has been involved in the process.