Category Archives: prison

Learning from the Lifers

freedom from withinMy friends and collaborators in the Lifers’ Unlimited Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary are putting together a book  of essays, poems, and art by their members and fellow prisoners.  They are planning to self-publish the book and sell copies to men inside the prison and their friends/families to raise money for the Angels in the Outfield, a community organization that works with children impacted by crime or child abuse. They gave me the honor of writing the foreword to the book; since the book will likely have a limited, local audience, I am sharing a lengthy excerpt of my piece and my thoughts here:

My journey into correctional facilities weaves through universities and has allowed me to spend considerable time in both state youth correctional facilities and state prisons. I consider the Oregon State Penitentiary my home base off of campus, and I feel very fortunate to work closely with the men inside. I began working with men in the Penitentiary in 2006 and started teaching college classes in the facility in January 2007. The men who chose to participate in this new program did so with no promise of incentives, rewards, or college credit. They did it simply for the experience and the novelty of stepping out of their comfort zones to try something different and to potentially bring something of value to others in the prison. The Lifers, particularly, adopted the college program and used their influence to help it gain a foothold and flourish in the institution.

In many ways, I was adopted by the Lifers, as well, and my relationship with the men and the club has only deepened over time. My friends and collaborators in the Lifers’ Club are involved in many of the positive programs, activities, and clubs available in the Penitentiary, and they consistently work to “give back” and to improve the community both inside and outside of the prison walls.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I was born a white female at a time when race and gender have a large impact on one’s life chances. I had a supportive family – parents and older siblings who loved me and instilled strong working class values. During the risky teenage years, I was fortunate to be surrounded by protective friends who worked to keep me out of trouble rather than pull me into bad situations. I had teachers who recognized my potential and treated me well. I was encouraged rather than discouraged. Like many others in the outside community, I do not have to face my regrets and shame and sorrow on a daily basis. I am privileged to be able to move on from past mistakes with few if any scars.

Many of the men in the Lifers’ Club did not have these same advantages. Whatever the circumstances that led them to the prison, they are faced with the hard reality that they can’t change their pasts. From this moment forward they can only work toward better futures. Many of the Lifers spend years diligently trying to make amends for their actions in an attempt to restore the debts they may owe and to add value to the world around them.

I bring my university students into the Penitentiary to meet with the Lifers as often as I am allowed to do so. Meeting these men and speaking with them even for a few minutes often changes the students’ perspectives on prisoners and possibility. Even in very brief interactions, they come to see Lifers as three-dimensional human beings with strengths and flaws, regrets and passion. They learn that Lifers are sons, fathers, brothers, and friends, and they are valuable community members looking for ways to contribute to the larger society.

…I believe that on a personal level, change is inevitable. Changing into who you want to be takes work, focus, and commitment. Education is one powerful tool to open doors and help individuals move forward in the directions of their dreams, but there is no replacement for effort, grit, and a little humility. The men in the Lifers Club work tirelessly to improve themselves and to make a positive impact on the community in the ways that they can while limited by their circumstances. They inspire me to do better. For those of us without such limits, what are we doing to make the world a better place? What more can we do?

I am deeply grateful for all that the men in the Oregon State Penitentiary have taught me over the years. And because I believe that “the more you know, the more you owe,” I’ll continue working to share what I have learned.

A good day on campus

evan & friends_OSU 2015 (2)My Inside-Out students and I had the unique opportunity on Monday to welcome one of our inside students to the campus of Oregon State University.  E, the young man from the youth correctional facility, has been incarcerated for four years, and it was a very, very big deal for him to be able to come spend the day with us.

E is within a year of being released and he hopes to transfer his completed community college credits and attend OSU when he is free to do so.  E is on a high honor level at the youth facility, and he is one of the only youths to have permission to occasionally go outside of the fence.  Even so, he had to have special permission from two agencies to be allowed to visit OSU and two administrators/staff members from the facility accompanied him.

My wonderful outside OSU students were terrific hosts – meeting E and friends in the morning and giving him an insiders’ tour of the best parts of campus. Because E is a huge sports fan, in this photo we are standing on OSU’s basketball court in Gill Coliseum, and I have other pictures of us standing near home plate on OSU’s baseball field at Goss Stadium.  Unfortunately, because of agency rules, I can’t share any of the photos with E in them.  I’m in the pink sweater in this photo and E was on my left.  To my right are my lovely outside students, Emily, Claire, Jon, and Laura – I am happy to at least share this memory of the day and I was able to give all of the participants a copy of the full photo.

The staff members with E took him to lunch off campus so that he could decompress a bit.  I imagine he was completely overwhelmed by being on campus around so many unfamiliar people, sights, and sounds.  They came back in the afternoon to meet with a small group of OSU students for an hour, and then E, Laura, Jon, the staff members and I walked around campus giving away free chocolate chip cookies (that had been freshly baked in the youth correctional facility) and flyers with information on incarceration, the youth facility, and how OSU students and faculty might get involved.  It was a beautiful, sunny spring-like day, and we all had fun interacting with people on campus and giving out the cookies.  I should clarify that I didn’t really help, but I did eat 2 of the cookies, showing an implicit endorsement of the product.

It was a great day. We got to share a part of our lives with E, and I’m sure he went back to the youth facility and shared his experience with the other young men who were not allowed to go on this trip.  Perhaps it will make some of these incarcerated youth see that attending OSU or another college/university may be a viable option for them when they get out.  The administrators and staff at the youth facility and I hope that this will just be the first of many such visits to campus for youth from the facility over the coming years.  I send my OSU students into the facility as often as I can, and it was amazing to have one of our inside guys go the other direction and visit us at Oregon State University.  We all have a lot to learn from each other, and – working together – I really believe we can make our corner of the world a better place.

The 1 in 100 Continues to Grow

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Once again, my Inside-Out students from Oregon State University and Oregon State Penitentiary have contributed thoughtful, insightful, and sometimes painful submissions to the We are the 1 in 100 website, representing the 1 in 100 people in the United States who are currently behind bars, and the many, many more people in the community who care about them and are affected by mass incarceration.

I have a personal stake, here – I’m fond of these faces and proud of their work and their courage – but, if you check out the site (representing 3 years and 7 different college classes), I think you will find it a moving and educational experience, well worth your time.

Gender and the Meaning of Prison

hi-women-prison-852The title of this post may be a bit lofty for the content, but I want to share in this public forum an observation from my summer class that I have been reflecting on over the past several months.  One of my grad students and I co-taught a one-week course this summer (40 contact hours over 5 days) on “Inside Perspectives: Exploring Gender, Power, and Programs in Oregon Prisons.” Of our five class days, we were able to spend one full day in Oregon’s only prison for women and another full day in a medium-security prison for men.  In both cases, we spent a substantial amount of the day interacting with long-term prisoners, and we also spoke with correctional officers, counselors, and chaplains, and were able to tour both institutions.  We learned a lot about the available programming for men vs. women in state prisons, and we heard about both frustrations and small victories in each facility.

One of the things that was most striking to me was the conversation with a group of female lifers.  The women, the students, the chaplains, and the instructors (including me) were all sitting in a circle, coming together in the larger group to ask questions and hear different perspectives after spending time in the morning in small group discussions and sharing prison brown bag lunches.  The testimonials that have stuck with me came after the chaplain – who was clearly well-loved and respected  by the women in the group – gave a prompt: “Prison saved my life because…”

Approximately ten different women responded with their stories: “Prison saved my life because…”  As anyone who has studied gender and crime might suspect, many of these women were entangled in very abusive relationships when they were in the community, and the perception was that the violence they were experiencing would have only continued to escalate until they were killed by their partners/associates or possibly driven to take their own lives.  One of the older women succinctly – and honestly – rephrased the prompt to explain that her going to prison may or may not have saved her life, but it likely saved the lives of others in the community.

The thread of this conversation was striking to a number of us, made much more so by the fact that – even when given a similar prompt – not one of the men in the medium-security prison credited prison with saving his life.  I have heard men in prison make such assertions in other settings, but it was a stark contrast to have such a large percentage of the women claim that prison saved their lives, while not one of the men made this claim.

In all cases, there was consensus that prisons are overused and the sentences are much longer than is necessary for whatever growth and rehabilitation may take place in the prison setting.

It has now been several months since these conversations took place, and I remain intrigued and troubled by this gender difference in understanding the meaning(s) of prison for the women and men inside the walls.

The Best Days Inside are Family Days

field dayMy Spring 2014 Inside-Out class managed another first – my students were able to plan and host a Family Field Day for youth in the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility on Saturday.  As a service-learning project for our shared college class, students from Hillcrest and Oregon State University planned a day where youth and their families could be outside, play games together, and enjoy more freedom of movement than normal visits in the facility allow.

Family members were invited to either a morning session or an afternoon session, and students from the class and volunteers from OSU manned stations with the following activities: face painting; cookie decorating and eating; potato sack races; water balloon tosses; basketball; and soccer.  A lot of little kids – the children, siblings, or nieces and nephews of the young men of Hillcrest – were able to attend the event, and they seemed to have a great time playing and running around the facility’s front greens.

CIMG3536CIMG3534Students from the Inside-Out class also hosted a fundraiser during our Family Field Day, selling lunches of BBQ cheeseburgers, potato or macaroni salad, potato chips, and pink lemonade for $5 per person.  The students decided that the funds raised would be equally split between a Hillcrest College Scholarship Fund and a donation to a community group that works with at-risk youth in Portland, Oregon.  This fits perfectly with our class discussions on prevention and rehabilitation, and our guests seemed happy to support the cause.  I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but I think the BBQ fundraiser (also held during regular visiting hours on Sunday) raised in the neighborhood of $1000.  Amazing.

A related service-learning project that my students are continuing to work on is to create a child-friendly space for families visiting at Hillcrest.  The administrators have given us a fairly large room to work with, and my students are helping to clean it out, paint it (including the use of chalkboard paint so kids can draw on the walls), decorate it, and furnish it with toys so that kids visiting the young men of Hillcrest have a place to be active and play together.  We are planning a grand opening of the kids’ room on Father’s Day.  Stay tuned – I’ll try to post photos!

Obviously to make any and all of this possible, we have had – and continue to have – tremendous support from the administrators and staff at Hillcrest and from the larger Oregon Youth Authority.  The Hillcrest administrators are pretty wonderful in letting my students and I pursue our ideas and projects.  And, to their great credit, my students came with positive attitudes and enthusiasm all quarter long, and we accomplished a great deal in a 10-week class.

I’m sad to see this class ending, but I know our efforts have made a lasting impact at Hillcrest and on each of us who had the privilege of participating in this unique and fun experience.

More photos from We are the 1 in 100

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Representing the 1 in 100 Americans behind bars and those in the community who care about them and are affected by these incredible numbers, I ask my students in every Inside-Out course that I teach to share one key thought with the larger public.  I’ve shared photos from my previous Inside-Out classes on this Public Criminology blog, and will continue to do so as students put time and care into their messages.  This is the first time I’ve been able to put up photos of young men in the youth correctional facility.  I think the first photo here is all youth and vulnerability and this particular young man makes his case eloquently.  Please visit the We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site to see many more photos and sentiments of those inside and outside of correctional facilities.  I invite you also to submit your own photo.

Inside-Out Class in the Juvenile Facility

My first Inside-Out class in a juvenile correctional facility is quickly drawing to a close on our 10 week quarter system.  The word cloud featured here is how the students described the experience.  I asked each of the 27 students (from OSU and from the facility) to write three words that described our class, and this is what they came up with.  Fun, eye-opening, interesting, thought-provoking…I’ll take it!  Those are pretty good adjectives to describe any college class.

Along with Sarah Ferrer’s guest editorial in The Oregonian newspaper, there have been other interesting products from this short class.  First, we’ve added on to the We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site that was started in last fall’s class in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Next, several of this quarter’s outside students were featured in a story in Oregon State University’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer.  In the story, they share their enthusiasm for the experience and the group service-learning projects they are working on with the inside students.  The last lines of the story:

The students are all very grateful to have taken part in the class and encourage other students to take advantage of it in future terms. “This class is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Settelmeyer said. “It does a great job of sparking student interest in making a difference and walks us through starting to do just that.”

Finally, I’m working again the with the Think Out Loud crew from Oregon Public Radio.  They are going to be taping their hour-long show tonight in the youth facility with my class.  The show is scheduled to air tomorrow morning at 9:00.  It should be available on OPB’s website (to stream or download as a podcast) shortly after.  The major question that emerged from our pre-show interviews, “From inside Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility we ask inmates: what is happening in prison to make them better citizens when they are released?”  I’m hoping for a fun, eye-opening, interesting, thought-provoking (sound familiar?) and very positive show.

So, for one brief class, I think we’ve done our part for public criminology and bringing attention to issues surrounding prisons and juvenile correctional facilities and their impacts on both those inside the walls and on the larger community.  I’ll be sorry to see this class end, but I am looking forward to a long and rewarding relationship with Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility and the Oregon Youth Authority.

longing to get away

I spent part of my evening in a juvenile correctional facility last night with a group of smart, articulate young women serving time for a variety of offenses and literally growing up while behind bars.  I spend quite a bit of my time teaching and volunteering in prisons and juvenile facilities, and I always enjoy talking with incarcerated young people.  While most have made some very serious mistakes, I very often come away impressed with their thoughtfulness and their resilience.

What particularly struck me last night was when several of the girls spoke about their dreams and fantasies about flying.  In doing so, they evoked – and perfectly quoted – the line from Forrest Gump, where young Jenny is praying to God to help her escape her father’s house and his abuse: “Dear God, make me a bird so that I can fly far, far, far away from here…Dear God, make me a bird so that I can fly far, far, far away from here….”

I’d seen the movie years ago, but that line never held the same resonance for me.  Lucky me.  I was fortunate enough to grow up cared for and loved, and as a child I never had to worry about protecting myself or getting out of the way of harm.  I wonder how many incarcerated youth can say the same?  How many children have their innocence destroyed and are never able to find a legal escape?

I think part of the reason these issues of youth, pain, and longing are lingering in my mind is because one of my favorite songs at the moment is “Take Me Away” which shares some of the sentiment of the girls’ discussion and Jenny’s prayer.  Some of the lyrics (written by Scott Alan):

Let me climb to the top
Of the highest mountain peak
Let me scream at the top of my lungs
Until I can no longer speak

Can’t remember the last time
I said live and let things be
And it’s just been way too long
Since I felt alive and free

So I’ll sail away
Until I reach the sea
So I’ll soar the sky
Until I feel the breeze

I am ready to return
To the place I last felt stillness
To return to the heart
I had when I was five

Where the only thing that mattered
Was making colors I can paint with
I’m much too young
To let my life hang out to dry

So I’ll sail away
Until I reach the sea
And I’ll soar the sky
Until I feel the breeze

If you have not heard this song, do yourself a favor and take 4 minutes to listen to Hadley Fraser sing it – his performance is absolutely brilliant:

“Take Me Away”

Am I Troy Davis?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Georgia is set to execute a man that many people believe is innocent in a little less than an hour. I’ll leave the question of innocence to others, as the case has been widely detailed in numerous outlets, except to say that I think he has one of the better cases for reasonable doubt in the absence of DNA that I have seen. Putting that (important) question aside, I am struck by the ‘I Am Troy Davis’ campaign in support of clemency. On YouTube, in the media, at protests, on twitter and facebook, death penalty opponents (or Troy Davis supporters — it’s interesting to note how many death penalty advocates support clemency in this case) are shouting/wearing “I Am Troy Davis,” the implication being that this miscarriage of justice could happen to anyone. While I admire the organizations working on behalf of Mr. Davis, the simplicity of the campaign generally, and the empathy implied by its message, I wonder if it leads us away from a useful discussion. Some thoughts:

  • Let’s assume Davis is innocent. I am not Troy Davis and this would never happen to me — I am a white, highly educated woman who comes from a privileged background. There are few (none?) on death row who even remotely look like me. While I might post ‘I Am Troy’ on my facebook page, do I really believe that this could happen to me?
  • That a good predictor of eyewitness misidentification is whether or not the witness and suspect are of the same race seems relevant here (mistaken identification is the most common cause of convictions overturned with DNA evidence). Again, my race, class, and gender is an extremely good predictor not just of whether I will commit a crime but also of whether I will be erroneously convicted of one.
  • It is often the case that convicted innocents have lengthy prior criminal records (though not in the case of Troy Davis, which may have something to do with the attention his case has received). A friend of mine once said to me, regarding the recent execution of an arguably innocent man in Texas, “Well, he may not have done that but he certainly did a whole lot of other things.” I suppose (hope?) he was only half serious but it occurred to me that he had made a telling point — from his point of view, if you can demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior, it begins to matter less if the person being executed did the particular crime we’re killing him for and more if we can demonstrate a pattern of evil-doing. It also tends to get in the way of feeling empathy for a death row inmate, innocent or not.
  • Related to above, arguing that any one of us could be innocently caught up in the system is probably an unsuccessful strategy for the people whose minds you are trying to change. At the end of the day, very few of us are Troy Davis and those who are will rarely be in a position to offer clemency.

Perhaps I’m wrong on all of this but as I watch the discussion of the case, I think the  tougher long-term conversation to be had is why this happens to the Troy Davis’ of the world and not how it could happen to any of us.

Judging Change

I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  “determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is “rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…