Minnesota State University students are wrapping up their spring semester, including those who attend from behind bars.
MSU’s Scholars Serving Time program allows incarcerated people in Minnesota the opportunity to earn an Associate of Arts Degree during their incarceration. Faculty instructors and two former students presented poems, essays and artwork created by the students on their behalf and spoke about the program’s significance.
Currently, only Associate Degrees are offered through this program. Program Coordinator Vicki Hunter does an information session for anyone in the facility who is interested in doing coursework during their sentence. Then they go through an application process to determine their skill level and whether they will be successful in college.
“They don’t have to have perfect grammar or anything like that. It’s more for us, we’re really looking at how excited they are about being in this program because we want people who are driven, highly motivated and ready for this experience,” Hunter said.
Former student Johnny McCallum, a transgender woman who served time in a male corrections facility, took a variety of courses during her time in the program from August 2021 through September 2022, including a Women’s Studies course with her fellow male inmates.
According to her, many inmates were resistant to the material at first but “came to understand that it wasn’t just about women’s issues” and it was “interesting seeing people develop and grow their own perspectives.”
McCallum said this and other sociology courses helped her understand her own gender.
“A lot of that was really helpful, to be able to get engaged in the discussion of gender identity and stuff inside the prison environment. Even though they really weren’t aware that I am transgender. So it was enlightening to engage in those conversations without having to expose myself,” McCallum said.
She and the prison staff kept her transgender identity from the other inmates due to safety concerns. McCallum plans to get a Ph.D in sociology to better advocate for incarcerated people and transgender issues, a path she said, had she not been incarcerated, she likely would not have chosen.
“Just because I wouldn’t have seen the need,” McCallum said. “Until you’re actually incarcerated, you don’t see how prevalent the oppression and division is in that environment, and experiencing that myself kind of gives me a lot of empathy for other people that are going through it.”
Carol Glasser, organizer of this showcase and other speeches in the Sociology Department’s Social Justice Lecture Series, teaches Animals and Society in the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.
Although hers and other courses are MSU standard courses, this format requires restructuring as the students are not allowed the same access as on-campus students. According to Glasser, her students cannot access the internet, including the library databases, and she must go through “a lengthy process of approval” with the facility to access certain resources.
She chooses to show documentaries on DVD rather than MSU’s Kanopy service, which also requires an approval process from film distributors and assistance from the library faculty.
“It’s frustrating in a sense, but everyone in the program is very dedicated to making sure the educational experience is the same, that the students will have the exact same degree with the same amount of rigor,” Glasser said. “You can teach the same class online as in person, and you might teach it differently to students in that way. It’s interesting pedagogically to put something together, but one of the things that makes it not frustrating is that the students are more interested in being students as a whole than your average person on campus.”
Glasser said part of this is because incarcerated students do not have other obligations to distract them from doing their work or completing readings before class.
Glasser read an essay written by her student, Amanda Peltier, titled “Caged: Taking Animals and Society While Incarcerated,” in which she said, “Had I taken this class outside of this setting, having not had the experience of imprisonment, I wouldn’t have the power to reach the depth of empathy that I currently have for non-human animals.”
Sociology doctoral student Justice Greene said she would “love to” teach in a program like this.
“I think that it’s incredible. I think it’s really beneficial to students in this setting.”
None of the current students from the Scholars Serving Time program could come to campus to present their own work because Minnesota correctional facilities only allow inmates to leave for court dates.
Hunter said the Department of Corrections “kind of laughed at us” for the idea of allowing their graduating students to attend commencement under officer supervision, as some other states allow.
“Incarcerated people can’t even go out for funerals, even if it’s a child or a parent, they won’t let them out,” Hunter said. “I think what might be possible at some point would be maybe to have them read their poetry and be recorded, like a video or audio recording, but that’s probably as good as it’s going to get, at least for now.”
According to McCallum, the biggest challenges after being released from prison are finding employment and housing.
“You can apply anywhere you want, and you don’t have to check the box anymore if you’re a felon, but places still do background checks and have requirements,” McCallum said. “I think it’s an important thing for people to realize that if you don’t inform yourself on your laws and the justice system, you’re endangering yourself to become a victim of it.”
Glasser prefaced the “Caged” essay with a message to on-campus students:
“If you are a student right now, be really happy that you can go to a library. Be really happy that you can access the internet. Be really happy that you can go to a tutoring center,” Glasser said. “Be really happy that you can meet with other students in the class to work on your classes, because students who are incarcerated do not get all of those benefits so they really are working twice as hard sometimes to get the same education. They have the same access to professors, but they don’t have access to all those other resources that you all have.”
Those who wish to donate to the program can do so through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences website.
Header photo: Scholars Serving Time students presented poems, artwork and essays on Tuesday and spoke about the program’s significance. (Carly Bahr/The Reporter)
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