Sacred Space: Literature Connects Inmates, Students at Penitentiary

Danyl Vonnahme and her Mount Mercy classmates didn’t know what it would be like the first time they walked into the maximum security prison in Anamosa, Iowa. Even though she would be walking out a free person later that evening, it did not lessen the emotions she felt when she saw the massive building and barbed wire.

“I had mixed feelings about the prison,” says Vonnahme, a senior nursing major from Arcadia, Iowa. “I was nervous and a little uneasy, but excited for the opportunity of a new experience.”

That “new experience” for Vonnahme and her classmates was a partnership venture between Mount Mercy and the Anamosa State Penitentiary (ASP). The pilot program, initiated in the fall semester 2008, gave Mount Mercy students the option to lead Book Club discussions with inmates at the penitentiary. Students who could be involved in the program were enrolled in courses taught by Associate Professor of English Carol Tyx and Professor of English Mary Vermillion.

The pilot program was the brainchild of Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Amanda Humphrey and ASP Deputy Warden John Fayram. They first discussed college-prison literature partnerships at a conference in November 2007. As they continued the conversation, Humphrey began to recruit Mount Mercy faculty interested in initiating the voluntary program within their courses. “John [Fayram] and the warden [Jerry Burt] were unconventionally receptive to Mount Mercy students coming in,” says Humphrey. “Normally there is some hesitation, but they couldn’t have been more accommodating.”

Fayram, in turn, credits Humphrey as the driving force of the burgeoning partnership. “During our time together at the conference, we were able to discuss the possibility of initiating a partnership,” says Fayram. “There was an already existing relationship between Dr. Humphrey and ASP, as she had previously scheduled students in her Criminal Justice Program for tours of Anamosa and accompanied the groups herself. Dr. Humphrey maintained the dialogue with ASP as she explored the potential for initiating the program with the faculty and administration at Mount Mercy. Through her diligence and the willingness of the Mount Mercy administration, faculty and students, we were able to make it a reality.”

Mount Mercy Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John P. Marsden recognized the unique opportunity that a college-prison literature partnership presented for students. “The pilot program with Anamosa State Penitentiary represented an incredible opportunity for our students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real-world setting,” says Marsden. “Their interaction with inmates at the prison challenged their thinking and preconceived notions about a ‘prison population,’ honed their skills to lead discussions, and represented a valuable opportunity to engage in service work.”

A ‘different’ type of service

Tyx and Vermillion were the first faculty members to commit to the project. They viewed the budding partnership as a form of service to the common good, a key tenet of Mount Mercy’s mission, and a way in which students would gain valuable teaching and leadership skills.

As she sought out faculty who would consider integrating this type of volunteer endeavor into their courses, Humphrey saw an obvious connection between the College’s founders and the mission of the program. “The Sisters of Mercy founded the College to help the disadvantaged,” says Humphrey. “Offenders are recognized legally as a disadvantaged group — although that doesn’t excuse their past behaviors — but it does recognize that we can teach our students to feel the need to help others, even inmates, for the common good.”

Helping those who are disadvantaged, even visiting a member of a prison population, is one of the Corporal Acts of Mercy to which the Sisters of Mercy strive and aspire. Tyx and Vermillion both viewed the outreach as a way to connect service and literature — a new experience for most of their students. “I wanted our students to know that sharing literature could be a form of service,” says Tyx. “The sharing of ideas and reactions to a book with a population that doesn’t have the opportunity for that kind of interaction is a different form of service to which our students are accustomed. In this instance, our students used their own education as a form of service to others.”

Humphrey, Tyx and Vermillion planned the logistics of the program in conjunction with prison leaders. To be eligible to participate in the Book Clubs, inmates were required to have obtained their GED (high school equivalent) and be of good standing in the prison. Mount Mercy students in three courses, African American Literature, Writing and Memoir, and Shakespeare were offered the option of volunteering to lead and participate in the discussions. In total, 15 Mount Mercy students led four independent Book Clubs on four different evenings at the prison, with each session lasting 90 minutes. The books the students presented for discussion were chosen by Tyx and Vermillion for their classes, and included The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Walkin’ the Dog by Walter Mosley, and the plays Othello and Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Prison stigma dissipates

Before the students and professors ventured into the prison classrooms, Humphrey offered guidance on responsible behavior while visiting a prison, and everyone received a tour of the facility.

Humphrey was interested in helping to educate Mount Mercy students and faculty on the myths of prisons and the stereotypes of inmates, and according to her colleagues, she succeeded. “Having Amanda’s expertise was vital,” says Vermillion. “I really felt like we could ask her questions and we had our own expert.” Tyx echoes that sentiment, stating, “Her familiarity with the procedures in prison helped me to feel more secure and took away the stigma. Amanda’s expertise paved the way to make this entire project possible.”

Vermillion and Tyx found that students expressed some fears about working with the inmates, but that most did not hold negative stereotypes about the prison population as a whole. “I think the fact that the prison invited us to come may have dispelled any negative concerns for our students,” says Vermillion.

Vonnahme, the junior nursing major, was able to overcome any initial concerns she had about interacting with the inmates. “I think the one circumstance that made me feel nervous about the whole idea of going to the prison was when our group walked past the inmates [during a tour] as they were in line for supper,” says Vonnahme. “It was a weird feeling in that I didn’t know whether I should make eye contact or just look away. I thought that when we did the actual book discussion, the prisoners would say unnecessary comments, but it was just the opposite.” Her reaction and subsequent experiences were representative of what the faculty expected, and they were pleased with the students’ ability to focus on the Book Club discussions.

Tyx compared the first Book Club to the first day of class at the beginning of a new semester. “I was less nervous about the security portion,” she says, “than about how the class dynamics would be.”

She needn’t have worried.

Once inside the penitentiary classroom, the students became the teachers, and flourished. Vermillion and Tyx, who were accompanied by Humphrey and a prison official, played a secondary role. The students, in order to become acquainted with the inmates, led “ice breaker” discussions and then delved into the material. “The program offered Mount Mercy students entrée into a world most of us do not have access to,” says Tyx. “They really saw it as a chance to learn about and experience ‘incarceration’ in a group setting.”

One of Tyx’s goals for her students, particularly those in their first year of college, was to gain confidence in leading a class discussion and to be introduced to service as a part of the Mount Mercy experience. She feels that the program was a success based on how students engaged in the process; in particular she was pleased with the conversations that students had with one another as they made the 45-minute drive to Anamosa, during which they discussed their emotions and expectations. “Our students were able to engage with the inmates and to find common ground,” she says, noting that as a criterion of success.

Building trust

Inside the prison walls, faculty members and students found a sense of shared community and trust with the inmates. “Our students were blown away by how thoughtfully the inmates had read the book,” says Tyx. “A sense of community and trust formed much faster than I had imagined. A few times I almost forgot we were in a prison setting.”

Vermillion noted that her students experienced and learned to respect the humanity of the inmates. “In their prewritings, most of my students didn’t evidence a lot of negative stereotypes about prisoners, but most of them, not surprisingly, were afraid of being ‘left alone’ with the inmates. This fear quickly dissipated. After some brief initial awkwardness, the atmosphere of the discussion was relaxed and lighthearted — no ‘us’ and ‘them’ — just a group of people discussing Othello.”

The Anamosa inmates and Mount Mercy students developed what Tyx dubbed “a sacred space” inside the classroom. “The perception is that men at Anamosa have few contacts with community or places where it’s ‘people to people,’” says Tyx. “One of the most valuable things we did was come together as equals to discuss the book and share human experiences. This is a true example of where literature connected groups and where human experiences could meet.”

Vermillion feels that her students gained valuable learning experiences and tools that will assist them later in life — outside the walls of the classroom. “The project helped my students see the transformative power of literature,” she says. “It helped them see that discussing literature is a safe and interesting way to connect with others, to build empathy, and to examine — and sometimes remake — our own lives.”

This feeling was echoed by Erin Jerome, a senior psychology and English major from Cedar Rapids. “The prisoners became fellow students, and in our mutual quest for understanding, we were united by the universality of the themes presented in Shakespeare’s play,” she says. “Though I had little in common with these prisoners beyond the book group, Othello provided a wonderful shared interest that allowed us to connect both with the play and with one another.”

Shannon Salmon, a junior majoring in secondary education from Cedar Rapids, discovered that the inmates had a unique perspective that was absent from her class discussions at Mount Mercy. “Their perspective allowed me to see things in a play that I wouldn’t have before,” says Salmon. “Shakespeare was a connection between us and them, and we are connected now.” She also sees a direct correlation between her experience at the penitentiary and her future career as an educator. “Through this project I was able to see the prisoners as people just like I am. It helped me practice what it’s going to be like when I’m a teacher and have different people and different education levels in my own classroom.”

A ‘gift of great importance’

Humphrey, Tyx and Vermillion are eager to grow the Anamosa-Mount Mercy partnership, but want to ensure that the program continues to develop in a mutually beneficial way for both institutions. “I want it to go where it goes naturally,” says Humphrey, who would like to ultimately include more Mount Mercy faculty in the program.

Officials at ASP also express interest in continuing the partnership. “Everyone involved in planning this program agreed that we need to start slowly, so that we could learn as we go and adjust or expand as it makes sense,” says Fayram. “As long as both entities continue to benefit from the experience, then it’s possible that it could expand considerably. I can envision it expanding to include offerings from other Mount Mercy departments. From our perspective, this allows us to expand educational opportunities for offenders in times when resources are very limited. Even though our population does not receive academic credit for participation, what they do gain is a positive learning experience and the knowledge that comes with it.” Fayram also notes that research has shown that education can have a positive impact on offender recidivism rates.

As a result of her participation in the pilot program Vermillion plans to research other prison literature programs and possibly develop a Capstone course centered on the Anamosa-Mount Mercy partnership within the new Mount Mercy Core Curriculum.

Mary Feeney-Wilfer, educational coordinator/instructor at ASP, helped to coordinate the student-inmate interaction during the Book Clubs, and was able to observe the teaching and discussions. “I saw the participating students [inmates] take more pride in what they were doing during the Book Club discussions,” says Feeney-Wilfer. “They had worked hard to earn their GEDs and this gave them an ‘extra’ for their hard work. They do not always see themselves as worthwhile or capable of doing educational type work out of the classroom. My goal was to prove to them that they are capable of reading a book or play and able to intelligently discuss the material. It was an excellent opportunity for them to enlighten their minds.”

One of the lynchpins of the program — the student volunteers who led the Book Clubs — have also been encouraged by the program and feel it has made a positive, lasting impact on their education and outlook.

“For many years I have taken for granted my freedom to participate in the most basic daily activities,” says Jerome. “And although I have worked hard to receive a rewarding educational experience, I was not faced with the challenges that the inmates in Anamosa State Penitentiary must endure to achieve the same education. I realized just how precious our time in this book group was. We had given the gift of learning and sharing in an academic setting, but we have also received a gift of great importance.”

Mickenzie Jensen, a junior English major from Cedar Rapids, touted the benefits of the hands-on experience. “My experience with the inmates was extremely beneficial and educational,” she says. “I discovered several things about preconceived notions, literature and myself that will stay with me for life. I truly believe that the time I spent with these inmates taught me more than hundreds of hours in a classroom ever could.”