CARLISLE — The first time David P. Davis wrote a poem was from a prison cell in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle at the age of 38.
The poem was an assignment for English 219, a creative writing class he was taking through Indiana State University’s Corrections Education Program. Never having written creatively before, no one was more surprised than Davis when he was told that his poem, “Ode to the Man,” was selected for publication in “Tonic,” the literary magazine of Arion, ISU’s student writing club.
“I would have never in a million years thought that I had any type of a talent for writing. This is all news to me,” Davis said. “I’ve always been intimidated by writing an essay or a poem. We were given the parameters and I just went ahead with it to try to fulfill the requirements of the assignment.”
Davis is one of about 350 place-bound students at correctional facilities in Carlisle, Plainfield, Putnamville and Rockville, who are earning their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees through ISU’s program.
With 50 instructors; 12 to 16 proctors; and about 120 sections, or class periods, every semester, Kathleen White, interim director of ISU’s Corrections Education Program, has seen what a difference the program makes in the lives of the students.
“We see our students going from individuals who have anger issues, no self-esteem and never had success or very little success; who now are graduating with self-confidence, realizing what it takes to get along with their fellow man,” White said. “In addition to picking up academic knowledge, in many cases, their educational accomplishments have helped them stay out of prison after they re-enter society.”
Statistics from the Indiana Department of Correction show that this is true. About 40 percent of prison inmates in Indiana are back behind bars within three years of their release, but this is not true of inmates who earn college degrees.
According to the department’s Planning & Research Division, the overall recidivism rate for Indiana in 2002 was 39.3 percent. For those offenders who received a time cut for achieving an associate’s degree, however, the recidivism rate in 2002 was 18.4 percent. For those who earned a bachelor’s degree, it was 18 percent.
Commissioner J. David Donahue says that ISU’s Corrections Education Program is benefiting the state by helping the Department of Correction in its mission to return offenders to the community as law-abiding citizens.
“The educational programs and opportunities for advanced degrees provided by Indiana State University to our offenders are an important component in our campaign to reduce the recidivism rate in Indiana,” Donahue said. “Offenders who participate in these ISU programs not only improve their minds and chances for employment when they are released, but their whole attitude and outlook on life is healthier.”
The degrees offered through the program are an associate’s and a bachelor’s in liberal studies, with a concentration in human interaction, community health and dietary management.
While a liberal studies degree is a good fit with a place-bound program, there are still many challenges instructors face.
“Videos and reading materials have to be pre-screened and approved,” White said. “We don’t have the availability of some of the technology that we would have on campus. We can’t get on the Internet, so a computer course is probably not going to go very far, although we are working on one that uses the Internet within the institutions. Not having access to the Internet also can make research difficult.”
There are prison-based research tools such as Encarta and Incolsa, however, through which the students can receive sources related to their research topic, White says.
Laboratory courses also pose a difficulty.
“You can’t take chemicals in,” she said, “so we have to look at this program a little differently than we do our campus-based programs.
But we do keep it as close to campus classes as we can, because some of our students do come back into a campus situation once they are released.”
In the bachelor’s program, which is available at the Carlisle and Putnamville facilities, courses also are taught via teleconference, where the instructor teaches from a classroom on ISU’s campus, using the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System.
The majority of classes are taught face-to-face, however, in about two-hour blocs, from 4:30 to 9:30 in the evening.
“Normally our students will take between 15 and 18 credit hours per term,” White said, “because we want them to graduate as quickly and economically as possible because of their financial aid or because they are self-paying.”
New federal pilot program launched
With 18 years of successful degree programs in the corrections environment at the state level under its belt, ISU was approached by the federal Bureau of Prisons to bring an associate’s degree program to the minimum-security work camp at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute.
“The Bureau asked us to assist them with their goal of providing higher-level educational opportunities to the offender population,” White said, “thus better preparing the population for the ‘outside’ upon release.”
The university and the Bureau signed a standard memo of understanding for a two-year pilot program, and the first students were enrolled this fall.
“The pilot calls for a two-year associate of arts degree program, majoring in liberal studies with a concentration in human interaction,” White said. “We began with 22 students taking courses in English, nutrition, music, criminology, art appreciation, psychology and University 101.”
Classes are held during both day and evening hours in a face-to-face teaching arrangement in the education building at the camp, which holds non-violent offenders.
“Our Corrections Education Program has utilized the most experienced adjunct faculty in each of the academic disciplines to get off on the right foot,” White said. “The results of the fall term do indicate that while we lost six students due to transfers, illness and conduct issues, the remaining 16 persons all did quite well.”
An assessment of the pilot program is scheduled for summer 2008, and depending on the success of the program, as determined by the Bureau, ISU could be asked to take the associate of arts degree program into the regular prison population beginning that fall, White said. A bachelor of science degree program also may be introduced at that time.
Persevering no matter what
Davis’ poetry being published in “Tonic” was not just a first for him, it was a first for the magazine as well. Davis is the only Corrections Education Program student to have a work published in “Tonic.”
“The poems for ‘Tonic’ are judged anonymously by a student panel,” said Jessica Dyer, senior journalism major and president of Arion. “Each submission, including those from the place-bound students, was read by our group and given a rating. Davis’ poem was good enough to get 4s and 5s from our student judges.”
It was in a creative writing class taught by Mary Wright, an instructor of English and psychology in the Corrections Education Program, that Davis penned not only his first poem, but several short stories as well. Wright was impressed with the writing he produced for his assignments.
“It was a total delight to have him in class,” Wright said. “I always couldn’t wait to see what he was going to turn in the next week.”
To affirm her students in their creative writing efforts and share their work with others, Wright compiled their best short stories and poems into a booklet, which ended up being 90 pages.
“I gave copies to each of the students in the class, put some in the facility’s library, and sent a copy to the governor and the Department of Correction director,” Wright said. “Their names weren’t listed in the booklet, but they knew what was theirs. I wanted them to have something which reflected all the hard work they’ve done.”
After looking at the booklet of writings, one of Wright’s students told her, “It’s good to see that what I’m writing is as good as everybody else’s.”
“They think they’re not creative and that they don’t have any talent,” Wright said. “When I read their short stories and poems, I feel the pain and see the hurt. I tell them that writing is a wonderful way for them to express themselves, and realize that there is something in there that needs to come out and can, in such beautiful ways.”
Several of Davis’ writings were published in the booklet, including three short stories and two poems.
“Mrs. Wright encouraged us to make our writing as vivid as possible,” Davis said. “I’m interested in fine arts, painting and drawing, so that may have helped me to be descriptive with my writing.”
Although Davis’ earliest possible release date is March 2017, he is not letting his situation stand in the way of completing his degree. He was awarded his associate’s degree in 2005 through ISU’s Corrections Education Program, and is in his third semester working toward his bachelor’s, which he is scheduled to receive this coming December.
“In addition to keeping your mind occupied, which is definitely helpful, the college experience has been much more than that,” Davis said. “You grow up with a lot of self-doubt, and being able to succeed in college is kind of like an affirmation that you do have some sort of value. That’s what I’ve gotten out of it. I feel a sense of success maybe for the first time ever really. It’s exciting.”