|Deborah Adams, 44, joins a discussion in her American Literature class at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. The course is part of an associate degree program offered at the prison by Piedmont Virginia Community College. (Photo by John Robinson)|
At 2:30 p.m. last Monday, Piedmont Virginia Community College professor Ben Sloan’s American Literature class was deep in an analysis of feminist writer Marge Piercey’s poem “To Be of Use.”
The 13 students leaned forward over their books and papers, picking apart a few lines that held their attention: “The work of the world is common as mud,” Piercey wrote. “Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.”
The discussion that unfolded—work is universal, sure, but why “common,” and why mud?—could have taken place on any campus in the country. The classroom was standard, too, with a Voltaire quote scrawled on a whiteboard and identical copies of the Norton Anthology of American Literature open on desks.
But the students weren’t what you’d call typical: felons currently serving terms at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, a maximum security prison in Troy, half an hour east of Charlottesville. Some were in for robbery or drug offenses, others convicted murderers.
All of them were there to learn.
Virginia Manning, 31, said she wants to have something other than drugs and crime to return to when she gets out. In her rural southwestern Virginia community, sometimes it seems like those are the only options.
“I just want to be able to overcome that, and not have to go back to that and expect that’s all that I am and all that I can be,” she said. “I want to try and inspire other people, and show them, look, you screwed up, but it’s O.K. You can overcome that, and be better than this.”
“People make mistakes,” said John Donnelly, vice president for instruction and student services as Piedmont, which partners with the prison to provide a degree program to inmates. “Whatever the situation was that’s landed them here, we’re providing them with something that’s beneficial.”
Piedmont’s partnership with the prison began in 2004, when the college started offering classes taught by professors on site. The courses were popular, and since then, the prison and the school have developed a two-year general education associate degree program that allows inmates to transfer to four-year schools after their release. Next May, the two institutions will see their first class of graduates.
Jennifer Patteson, the prison’s college and vocational coordinator, said there’s stiff competition for a handful of scholarships provided by private foundations, and the rest of the inmates have to pay their own way. While imprisoned, they don’t qualify for Pell grants.* They know the deck is stacked against them, Patteson said, and they want to do something about it.
“A lot of the ladies we work with are very scared of going back out,” she said. “They don’t want to get back into the same habits. They’re afraid they’re going to end up back here.”
Others were locked up when they were 17 and have spent 10 or 20 years in prison, said Patteson. The world has moved on without them.
“They have no idea what’s out there,” she said, so whatever the system can offer, “I think it just helps them get prepared as best they can before they’re released.”
But the women in Sloan’s class said it does a lot more than that. Getting the chance to study biology, math and literature gives them a sense of worth that vocational classes—which used to be the only further education offered at Fluvanna—never did.
“Internally, it gives us a sense that we’re not being looked at just as, ‘Hey, you’re a felon, you can only be an electrician or a plumber or whatever’s offered here,’” said Candace Knott, 28. “It gives us a greater sense of what we can accomplish, instead of just being boxed in.”
The attitude is spreading, Knott said. She and her classmates have become ambassadors for higher education within the prison, encouraging other inmates to stay in line and study so they can qualify for the degree program. “I’ve seen unlikely people who never thought they could do this,” she said. “But you see it in their eyes. They start to believe, and say, ‘Maybe I can get a scholarship,’ or ‘I never thought to take this class.’”
For some students, helping others find their way is the beginning and end of the college experience.
Nancy Van Kluyve is effectively a lifer, sentenced in her 30s to 49 years in prison. She knows her chances of applying what she learns at Fluvanna to a job on the outside are slim, but she’s still taking classes, largely so she can set an example and guide other inmates. Tutoring has made her feel like an effective member of society for the first time, she said.
“I’d never really felt a real sense of accomplishment before,” Van Kluyve said. “It’s so easy to get lost when you first get here, because it’s a huge stress to be incarcerated. And there are losses all over the place. Depending on what your personality is, you can be picked up and herded off in the wrong direction or the right direction.” She’s happy to have helped point some women toward a future that doesn’t look bleak. “It’s been what’s given me quality of life while I’m in this institution,” she said.
She and her classmates have also had a profound effect on their teacher. Sloan said he always learns from his students, but the women he teaches at Fluvanna are an inspiration. “They’ve had some painful and difficult experiences, and they bring that to the literature,” he said. Through their eyes, “I see the poems and the stories in a new way—in a new light.”
Like the way inmate Denise Holsinger saw Piercey’s words. The poet speaks of mud, she pointed out during class, but also of pretty and useful items fashioned of it: amphoras, vases.
“All these things are made from clay, from mud,” Holsinger said. “If you do it right, it turns into this beautiful thing.”
*PVCC has noted that individuals with criminal records can qualify for Pell grants and other financial aid following release.