Class Forms Book Club with Inmates at Dayton Correctional

May 24, 2018
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Hands-On Learning Opportunity Counters Inmate Stereotypes

Books often take readers on journeys to new worlds and introduce them to realities infinitely beyond their own existence. For the incarcerated, reading offers an especially welcomed escape from their confinement.

PICTURED: An inmate explores other worlds through reading.

A Wilmington College class fostered that diversion for female inmates at Dayton Correctional Institution this spring by facilitating a reading club in which five WC students visited the facility weekly for eight weeks to discuss books read by both entities.

Dr. Ursula McTaggart, associate professor of English, instructed the one-credit course titled Engaging with Learners in Prison. She wanted her students to experience some of the humanity present in an often-dehumanized segment of society.

“I hope they will realize that the incarcerated people they interact with are humans who have made mistakes, but who still have future potential,” she said. “In a Quaker sense, I want them to understand the notion of there being a light in all people.”

As with any literature course, the goal also is for students to gain skills in reading and thinking critically.

McTaggart, who has taught the course three times, recalled their first day at the correctional institution.

“The students were nervous and felt that the prison was a scary place,” she said, noting that, as the weeks passed, they viewed the inmates more as fellow learners who offered astute insight into such books as The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

“By the end, they felt much more comfortable interacting with their classmates and came to see them as people — smart people — just like them,” McTaggart added.

The course initially attracted Angela Hutsenpiller, a senior from Galloway majoring in psychology with an interest in criminal justice, as an opportunity to interact with incarcerated persons.

“This hands-on learning experience in a correctional facility confirmed my career choice in law enforcement and helped me narrow down my interests,” she said, noting that one of those interests is a career as a correctional officer counselor.

Hutsenpiller noted the inmates’ reactions to the students — three male and two female — were not what she expected and admitted that her attitudes evolved throughout the course of the book club discussions.

“They were very welcoming and treated us with respect while we were there, and they were definitely excited to be able to interact with others from the outside in a casual and intellectual way,” she added. “They really enjoyed having discussions about the three books we read and would always be chatty with a lot to say.”

Hutsenpiller sensed the incarcerated learners appreciated being treated “with kindness and respect like everyone else” albeit for only a short time before they reverted to being inmate # whatever.

“What a great experience this was for me to see this and look into ways I could help such a population (in my career),” she said.

McTaggart added that the activity provided an opportunity to learn more about the problems related to mass incarceration in the United States, which incarcerates a much higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized country — “and the system hasn’t been proven to be effective.”

It also reiterated how fortunate the students are to have access to higher education.

“I think they came to appreciate the value of education more because the women in the prison are so eager to read the books, talk about them and gain knowledge.”

Engaging with Learners in Prison is a course in WC’s WISE (Wilmington Institute for Stewardship and Engagement) program, WISE is an infusion of curricular and extra-curricular courses, work and internship, plus a two-hour capstone, and is featured in student’s official transcripts. WISE students can qualify for up to $3,000 in grants.

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