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Teaching Creative Writing to Incarcerated Fathers May Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

“We want to harness the power that education has to engage all who need it to establish productive, responsible lives.”

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter J for “Jail”.


Is it possible to put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline by teaching creative writing to incarcerated fathers? The Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin State Prison believes it might be, and has excellent evidence to bolster their faith. PUP believes in educating incarcerated people for education’s own sake, but studies show that education dramatically improves the recidivism rate. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) the recidivism rate for new offenses is 19 percent for all prisoners released in California, compared with a 4 percent recidivism rate for PUP graduates. Over the past decade, roughly 1,000 students at San Quentin State Prison have gone through PUP.

San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest correctional institution, established in 1852. There are about 4,000 men currently incarcerated there. Some might ask why people convicted of crimes should receive a free college education. PUP’s response to this: “We refuse to accept the idea that higher education should be a scarce resource and available only to a few. The lack of educational opportunity has denied too many people the chance to succeed; we want to harness the power that education has to engage all who need it to establish productive, responsible lives.” (You can read their students’ responses to this question here.)

Amy Jamgochian, PUP’s Academic Program Director, describes the solid documentation that education reduces recidivism, but she stresses that education is also good for prisoners who will never get out of prison. “We don’t screen whether or when any of our students are getting out of prison. It’s so common for prisoners to be dehumanized; rights of citizenship are taken away to a great degree, but we believe our students are humans and deserve human rights, and education is one of those,” she says. She’s heard from a huge number of students that PUP has changed their lives and their perspective on life, whether they were ever getting out or not. “They’re able to show their families they were doing something positive; they’re able to be role models as parents and as children,” Jamgochian says.

2016 Prison University Project graduating class

Allie Wollner taught English 101 and pre-college English at PUP from 2011 to 2013 and felt gratified that she could offer her students a way to feel powerful and competent without using violence. “A lot of men, like all of us, wanted to feel powerful in their lives; and the ways that were available to them to feel powerful were through violence and dominance and hyper-masculinity which resulted in them in prison. What I loved about PUP was that it offered a way to be powerful by being good students, by achieving in this very different setting, by feeling good about themselves; like they’d done something praiseworthy and not damaging to themselves and others.”

Illiteracy rates in prison can be shockingly high. Some PUP students taught themselves how to read in prison and PUP prides itself on its academically rigorous programs. Classes are taught by professors who volunteer from Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and other local schools, and offer the same courses they teach at their home schools. PUP has a paid staff of 13, another 100 teachers volunteer each semester to teach 350 students, and the school runs three trimesters per year. “There are about 25 students per classroom,” Jamgochian explains. “Our average student age is 48, the oldest at 75, and youngest at 23.” 50% percent of PUP students are black, 20% white, with lower percentages of minorities from there. PUP is privately funded by foundations and individuals.

Jamgochian believes writing classes are a particularly important part of the PUP curriculum—which also includes math, science, humanities, and social sciences—because critical thinking, reading, and writing are crucial skills for living in a democracy. “Listening to different opinions and thinking independently are hugely important. One graduate said that before this program, he never would have spoken to me because I was white. It was only in the college program he started speaking to people not in his race.”

Last year, PUP ran a creative writing class for the incarcerated fathers. At the end of the trimester, the class produced a reading and the incredibly moving publication, Reflections on Fatherhood. For example, in his piece, “Born Again,” Emile DeWeaver, who has been in prison since 1998, wrote:

Fatherhood is rebirth. My angel was born, and her birth baptized me. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I couldn’t see through any eyes but hers. I couldn’t feel with any heart but hers.

Fatherhood is fraternity. On October 19, 1998, I looked at my father and saw a man who’d failed me. On October 20, 1999, my daughter entered the world squalling for a father who was in prison, and the common ground of fatherhood made my dad and me brothers. As she grew, the hard edges of my father’s failures softened because I saw a reflection of my father’s love for me in my love for my daughter.

I’m serving a life sentence. I’ve failed my child – not in every way but in enough ways – and my failure mirrors my dad’s pain. It binds us in brotherhood. Fatherhood is hope. However my life ends, the future will be bright because she’s in it.

In her introduction to Reflections on Fatherhood, PUP Executive Director Jody Lewen wrote, “Parenting is a form of teaching; at its best, education is a deeply relational experience that teaches us not just how to think but how to trust; how to depend, and how to take healthy risks.”

Jamgochian agrees, “Our students have had rocky educational pasts and little trust in education. They’re also currently dealing with structure of authority not conducive to trust, so to be in an environment where that trust is rebuilt and where the teachers and authority figures really care of what they think and are very happy to be teaching them...there’s no overestimating the value of that.”

Articles
via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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Culture
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Communities
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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Politics
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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