BUSO performs Shostakovich and Beethoven at Symphony Hall on November 20,
8 p.m.

Vol. IV No. 14   ·   17 November 2000   

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The inside story
Inmates and faculty find joint fulfillment in
MET prison course

By David J. Craig

Standing in front of the blackboard in a Norfolk Prison classroom, Danny Lawton is trying to describe to his classmates the elusiveness of the "essence of freedom," and he’s getting excited. "Now I know how Socrates was hated," says Lawton (names of prisoners have been changed), gesticulating feverishly. "I walked up and down my cell block the other day, asking everybody what freedom is. I didn’t get many answers. The guys who took the time to think about it just gave me examples of types of freedom, like economic, political, or religious. The concept means something different to everyone."

Paule Verdet, a CAS professor emerita of sociology (center), Bob Cadigan, a MET adjunct assistant professor of sociology and academic counselor (left), and Jay Halfond, MET associate dean of academic affairs (right), are teaching an interdisciplinary course about freedom in Norfolk and Bay State prisons this semester, as part of the BU Prison Education Program. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky  

Lawton, 47, has had ample time to ponder what freedom is -- or more poignantly, what it is not. He’s serving a life sentence at Norfolk for second-degree murder and has been incarcerated for 20 years.

But Lawton isn’t a typical lifer. In 1995, he graduated from Metropolitan College with a bachelor of liberal studies degree in interdisciplinary studies, one of 184 such degrees MET has awarded to Massachusetts inmates since 1972, when John Silber, who was then the University’s president, approved BU’s unique Prison Education Program (PEP). In 1991, Lawton earned a master of liberal arts degree from MET, which offered a master’s program in the prisons until 1995.

This semester Lawton is auditing the program’s newest offering, an interdisciplinary seminar about freedom, which combines history, philosophy, sociology, and political science. The ideas for his final paper are flowing, and he’s sharing them with nine other members of the class. After Lawton makes some sophisticated observations about the work of Bertrand Russell, Socrates, and Plato, the inmates, who have been listening intently, dish up some hardball questions -- "Is the nature of physical freedom the same as that of spiritual freedom?" and "Does one stem from the other?"

Lawton, who has a jovial demeanor and is highly articulate, shuffles his feet and shakes his head anxiously while absorbing the comments.

"I don’t know, I don’t know," he responds rapidly. "I do know that I can’t jump over that wall and go see my family. But do I have a type of freedom that’s higher than that? That’s what I’m confused about. And that’s what I’m after, to know the immutable, the exact, the common thread."

Growing behind bars

For nearly three decades, PEP has been providing inmates like Lawton a form of intellectual stimulation that’s rare in prison, and through it, a sense of dignity and personal liberation.

Originally coordinated by Elizabeth Barker, a CAS associate professor emerita of English, and a small group of BU faculty members, the program now offers some 36 courses every year, at Norfolk, Bay State, and Framingham state prisons. Inmates must earn at least a 2.5 grade point average in three prerequisite college-level courses to be eligible, and through PEP can earn a bachelor’s degree.

There are currently 57 students enrolled in the program, which is supported entirely by an annual $100,000 out-of-pocket contribution from BU. BU is the only institution that provides college-level instruction for Massachusetts prisoners, and does so tuition-free, according to Jay Halfond, associate dean of academic affairs at MET, who oversees the program and coteaches the new interdisciplinary course.

It’s a gift the prisoners appreciate. They’re engaged and passionate students, instructors say, and although their views tend to be extreme, during classroom discussions they treat one another with respect.

"The level of civility is unlike what I’ve seen in any other college class, and it extends across races," says Paule Verdet, a CAS professor emerita of sociology, who since 1991 has been braving security searches and forbidding treks through bustling prison yards to teach inmates. She is coteaching the freedom course with Halfond and Bob Cadigan, an academic counselor and adjunct assistant professor of sociology at MET.

Part of the reason for that civility, say the teachers, is that the inmates consider the classroom an intellectual safe haven, where they can freely express views that might get them ostracized in the prison yard.

"There’s a great deal of reticence about expressing unpopular opinions around other inmates," says Cadigan, who has been teaching in PEP since 1995. "But in class, anything goes. I’ve heard guys say things like, ‘Oh, get off it, fellas. We’re here because we did things that are wrong.’ That’s definitely not something a prisoner would say in a bull session."

Because of the prisoners’ emotional investment in the BU courses, the dozen or so faculty members who volunteer to teach them for a small stipend each semester reap immeasurable rewards. "In a sense, this is teaching at its most stripped-down and intense," says Halfond. "You have teachers who want to be teaching and students who are here because they want to learn, and we’re never simply going through the motions."

Freedom of mind

Teaching prisoners about the nature of freedom is, of course, ripe with irony. That irony isn’t lost on the students in the new seminar, which was funded by a $33,500 grant from the John Templeton Foundation’s Freedom Project, of Fairfax, Va., one of 14 awarded nationally.

The 14 inmates taking the course, offered at both Norfolk and Bay State prisons, have sunk their teeth into the subject, often drawing on their personal experiences to fuel fiery debates on topics such as the nature of freedom in a capitalist society, drug legalization, and the efficacy of using slavery as metaphor.

A popular discussion topic, according to Verdet, has been what many inmates feel is the manner in which U.S. prisons have been used "as a way of getting rid of the ‘black problem,’" especially through tough sentences for drug-related crimes.

When updating the class on his final paper, for instance, Theo Roland warns his classmates that pondering freedom’s idealized forms is less important than understanding how political powers impinge on the freedom of the downtrodden.

"As a realist, once again, I can hardly believe some of the stuff I’m hearing in this class," says Roland, an African-American who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. "When I hear some of these philosophical ideas about freedom, I just can’t relate. The fact is that people of color in the United States are still subjugated. They’re living in freedom’s shadow, and no one admits it."

Cadigan suggests that Roland consider the difference between freedom and social equality. Halfond then tells Roland privately that he will need to firm up his thesis, which is too broad and polemic.

Moments later, a guard announces that due to a disturbance in the prison, all inmates must return to their cell blocks. The class, which meets for 3 hours every Thursday morning, is cut short by 90 minutes. From the window of the classroom, which looks like any classroom except for a backdrop of barbed wire outside, ambulances can be seen arriving at the prison gates.

"We do allow the prison experience and the inmates’ backgrounds to seep into the course," says Halfond later, "but the prisoners tend to be extremely contemplative and self-referential, and as teachers, our challenge is to hone their analytical skills and make sure they really defend their point of view."

Lonesome crusade

During the 1980s, when rehabilitation was still popularly considered an important aspect of incarceration, several Massachusetts community colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts and Curry College taught courses to inmates, serving partly as feeder programs for PEP. Their efforts were supported by federal Pell Grants, which were available to prisoners.

But soon after Congress decided to end Pell Grants for prisoners, in 1995, BU was the only institution left offering courses for college credit in Massachusetts prisons.

As a result, inmates have no means of attaining the prerequisite college courses for the BU program, and the number of eligible inmates is falling. BU recently reduced the number of courses from six to three, allowing those inmates with the minimum number to enter on a probationary basis. "The inmates are constantly lobbying us to fill that gap," says Halfond, "and it’s not clear yet exactly how it will be resolved."

For prisoners in the Norfolk, Bay Sate, and Framingham prisons, the BU program, which sustains itself with no government aid, has never been a more precious commodity. Inmates in each prison currently have access to a small library, but there are no instructional resources besides the Department of Correction’s schools, which extend only to 12th grade. Nor do prisoners have access to the Internet.

"If we didn’t have these classes, we could still read books," says Lawton, "but organized, directed instruction makes the option to study a lot more compelling. If it was a matter of going to the library to study only when there wasn’t a baseball game going in the yard, I don’t know if many of us would be who we are today.

"I know I’m a different person because of the classes," he continues. "When I came here I wasn’t dumb. But I was civilly illiterate, just an observer, unknowledgeable. And that, I’m sure, is part of the reason I ended up here."


17 November 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations