Liberal arts courses in area prisons offer inmates hope, a second chance
Seated in her office in Karpen Hall, Elaine Fox, director of Extension and Distance Education, scrolls through a Web site featuring portraits created by students. She clicks each one to show an enlarged version. “This one is so telling in terms of attitude,” she says, stopping at a likeness of a young man wearing a ball cap, head tilted to the side, a slight smile on his face. While the artistic talent is obvious, there is unique depth to the facial expressions. The drawings portray people who have endured much, yet remain strong and proud. There is a parallel to the work and the artists. Traditional students did not create these images. They were drawn by people spending time behind bars.
Fox established UNC Asheville’s Correctional Education Program in 1998, after she was contacted by UNC Chapel Hill. One of about eight higher education institutions in the state to offer these courses, UNC Asheville sends faculty members to four facilities—Avery-Mitchell and Mountain View correctional institutions
in Spruce Pine, and Foothills and Western correctional centers in Morganton. After orientation, faculty arrive armed with books, handouts and syllabuses in subjects such as sociology, psychology, math, Spanish, art, drama, literature and language. Current courses include Introduction to Meteorology, Public Speaking, Racial and Ethnic Relations as well as five others. The federally funded program allows inmates to earn college credits and begin building a transcript, and to date 1,700 inmates have taken classes. To participate, they must be 25 or younger, within five years of release, have a high school diploma or a minimum GED score, a 10th-grade reading level, and they must not have committed such crimes as murder or rape.
“There is a lot of talent—not just artistically, but intellectually,” says Fox. “One surprise to faculty is how bright some of these students are. Faculty members have asked me, ‘Do you have to dumb these classes down or score them differently?’ I tell them no—the work has to be equivalent.” Upon successful completion, inmates receive a certificate showing the course name, when they took it, and credit earned.
Learning is not limited to inmates. Fox recalls a semester when a Shakespeare course was offered, and at the same time As You Like It was in production on campus. The students took a scene from the play to the prison, and afterward gathered for discussion. The undergraduates were amazed at the prisoners’ insights, Fox says. “Their perspective, because of their life experiences, is very different than students on campus.”
The program’s goal is to aid inmates in transforming their lives and rebuilding their self-esteem. “We succeed in reaching many students,
although I would consider it a success if we reached one,” says Volker Frank, chair of the Sociology Department, who’s taught in the program since its inception. “We reach them and connect with them, and they realize society has not given up on them. They need to know that not everyone has written them off. I am proud UNC Asheville is giving them a chance to move on with their lives.”
Fox says, “If we believe in liberal arts and liberating mind and spirit, then what better institution is there to do this than UNC Asheville?”