Alabama Issues Forums: Perspectives from Prison

Stephanie Grant (sophomore, pre-pharmacy) is a David Mathews Center for Civic Life community-based research intern in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University.  She and Dr. Mark Wilson, along with Ryan Browne of the Alabama Prison Arts & Education Project, convened and moderated forums in November 2010 on “Dropouts: What Should We Do?” in Elmore and Staton Correctional Facilities. The forum is a part of the Mathews Center’s Alabama Issues Forums project.

I have never been to a prison before, and when given the opportunity to visit two, I knew I had to take it. I have seen many prison movies and because of that, I had some ideas of what to expect. However, as we pulled up to the prison, I was overwhelmed with the beautiful landscaping in front of the facility. If it weren’t for the fifteen-foot fences with barbed wire on top, I would not have believed that it was a prison.

After we checked in, when I was told we were waiting for the warden to come get us, I expected, based on the tv shows I’ve seen, to meet a gruff man with a horrible attitude who probably treated inmates the same way. But I was proven wrong when a kind gentleman met us at the gate. He greeted us with a smile and a handshake and told us that the inmates were excited about our visit.  I was confused. How did he know that they were excited? I learned quickly that he was very invested in his people; he cared for them, knew them by face and name, and looked after them like a father. It showed that he cared when I saw him interacting with some of the guys whom we were there to talk with.

We began the forum explaining the rules and how it works. While this was going on I was looking around thinking, “this is NOTHING like the movies!” We were sitting in a big room, a little bigger than a normal size classroom, with long tables and lots of chairs. The room was filled to the brim with books of all sizes and shapes. I was expecting to see bars everywhere I looked. The forum started and I was equally surprised how insightful it was. The men there dug deep and gave some good—and sometimes personal—information and views. From previous conversations with high school students, I was used to students blaming the teachers for young people dropping out.

The attendees brought up many good points. Some said, “Parents need to be more responsible and present in their child’s life.” Others said, “Kids are just not motivated.” It was a great idea to go to the prisoners and ask how they felt about this issue, considering the statistics for those who drop out are more likely to go to jail than others. We were able to talk to the “statistics” and see what they had to say. And what they had to say was good. They knew what they were talking about, and they are living with the consequences that those who are dropping out today haven’t thought or experienced yet. The inmates hoped that their input in the discussion was heard and respected. They want to save people who still have the chance to get a good education, make a change in this world, and stay out of jail. They only wished someone would have warned them.

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