College for the Incarcerated: 'Our Minds Are Free, Our Hearts Are Free'

Dec 9, 2019

Teaching Assistant Madison Zickgraf (left) looks on as Carly Mallard (right) searches for a passage in her most recent reading assignment.
Credit Katie Riordan

Rural Henning, Tenn. is home to the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center, a name that sounds like a weekend retreat. It’s actually a prison.

On a recent evening, 18 women at the center have their desks circled up, textbooks open as Professor Joe Jansen lectures on the writings of the Greek historian, Herodotus. 

Kenya Arroyo says even in prison, time management is a challenge for students.
Credit Katie Riordan

“According to Solan, prosperity is having children that love you and outlive you,” says one student, as the women—all dressed in light blue prison uniform shirts—discuss an ancient king’s treatment of his disabled son.

Their classroom is an hour away from Rhodes College in Memphis, where students are learning the same material. This is, after all, a Rhodes College course. Rhodes instructors and assistants drive here two days a week to teach at the center. 

It’s part of the college’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program, in which students take four humanities courses over four semesters. A passing grade comes with 12 college credits from a prestigious institution. 

Rhodes College Professor Steve Haynes started the program as a non-credit, great books reading course. Now students can earn 12 credit hours over four semesters.
Credit Katie Riordan

“The thing it will give them most of all is a sense that they can be successful at college,” says Dr. Steve Haynes, the program’s founder, noting that professors do not lower their standards for the class at the center. “We try to do everything we can to make them feel like college students.”

The women are referred to as residents and not prisoners.

They are admitted to the program through a competitive process that includes an in-person interview and a personal statement.   

“They don’t write an essay about how they got into prison," says Haynes. "They write an essay about how they’re going to help Rhodes fulfill its mission.”  

Their role in that mission differs from person to person. Some of these students are here for a few years; others are serving life sentences. 

Not all students have access to a computer so essays are often handwritten.
Credit Katie Riordan

For all their academic limitations—no Internet access, no office hours with professors and restrictive prison rules—Haynes says the residents still manage to keep up with their campus counterparts.

That has boosted the self-confidence of 27-year-old Carly Mallard. She intends to enroll in college full-time if she's paroled in February.  

“It’s been a long time since I’ve actually done school,” she says. “So the fact that I know I can do it now is just all the more [reason] for me to go out there and do it.”





Latasha Thomas was paroled in June after spending 25 years behind bars.
Credit Courtesy of Latasha Thomas

Mallard's short academic career has already faced adversity. When she was transferred to a facility in Nashville for six weeks to have her wisdom teeth removed, she thought she’d have to drop out of the class. Unable to bring her school books with her, a family member shipped them to her via Amazon and Rhodes let her make up the work.

“These texts are extremely difficult,” says Jansen, the professor specializing in Greek and Roman studies. “Even though maybe [the residents] lack the historical background...they are making connections that I just didn’t think they’d be able to make.”

The students read epic poetry, philosophy and portions of the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). The courses ask questions about values and universal truths and analyze what binds humanity together or tears it apart.

Jansen says the class, for all students, is about expanding worldviews.

“Just to have to listen to people talk, defend their positions in a kind of safe environment, does, I think, lead to a better citizenship,” he says.

For those without freedom, it also a kind of intellectual escape.

“That time that we are in that class is not prison time at all. We’re totally somewhere else,” says 49-year-old Kristi. Per prison policy, we can only identify some residents by their first names. 

“When I come out, I’m so elated,” she says. “Listen, no drug I’ve ever done compares to it.” 

Studies show that inmates in prison learning programs, vocational or otherwise, are around 30 to 40 percent less likely to reoffend after release. 

This is the first college course 24-year-old Denerra McTaggert has ever taken.
Credit Katie Riordan

For Latasha Thomas, payoff for her studies came this year, at a parole heaing, where she was asked to define success.

“I guess they thought that I was going to say money, cars, clothes, all these materialistic things,” the 43-year-old says. “No, success is measured by the ones that you love succeeding.”

She borrowed that from Herodotus, the Greek historian she learned about in class. 

After 25 years behind bars, Thomas won her freedom in June. Around 95 percent of state inmates will be released at some point, which is why Thomas says these programs benefit more than just the people inside.

The students get to keep their text books. The program is privately funded by Rhodes College and donations.

“Who do you want your neighbor to be?” she asks. “You want somebody that’s robbing and killing? You might wake up in the morning with a gun in your face. Or do you want somebody to be out there with a book, with education?” 

One current student, Stephanie, says she’ll be that person one day. 

“We’re not just sitting around twiddling our thumbs, using up the state's resources,” she says. “We actually want something for ourselves, and we’re going to get it.” 

Even those serving life sentences, who may never be able to use their Rhodes transcript on the outside, like 56-year-old Denice, say the class is invaluable. 

“When we’re in there, we’re free. Our minds are free, our hearts are free,” she says. “We’d stay in there all night and have discussions.”