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Unlocking the Mind

When Robert Heard attended Boston University in 1983, he went to class on a regular basis during the day and returned to his 9-by-12 room in the evening.

No, he was not a freshman living in Warren Towers. Heard was an inmate at Norfolk Prison.

Now he has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from BU.

Since 1972, inmates like Heard have been able to take classes taught by BU professors and adjuncts at Norfolk Prison. Working toward completing both their degrees and their sentences at the same time, 188 prisoners have graduated from the program.

“I liked all the history classes, how they traced justice through society,” Heard says. “They and the religion classes gave me perspective, a place to see myself in the world.”

Since the initial Norfolk Prison program, Bay State Prison was added to the program in 1991, and Framingham Women’s Prison in 1993.

“It’s a tremendous continuing history,” says program counselor and educator Robert Cadigan. “It’s a developing culture in the prisons.”

According to Heard, this evolving culture is the bright light in a dim prison life.

“The education program gives prisoners very valuable things,” Heard says. “It gives them self-esteem — they never dreamt of taking and passing college courses. It also gives them a sense of freedom. Studying took us away from prison life.”

College of Arts and Sciences creative writing lecturer and prison program professor, Jill McDonough agrees.

“The students are really motivated to continue their studies,” she says. “When someone has been in prison for a while, walking into a room and being able to talk about poetry is like a breath of fresh air, a breath they never thought they’d have. It opens up a whole other perspective to them.”

While Heard was serving time at Norfolk for manslaughter, he heard about the education program and made a conscious decision to take advantage of it — a decision he says changed his life.

Heard was not only a student in the program, he also was its inmate coordinator from 1983-86. He helped select programs, counsel and register inmates, as well as other administrative duties.

“I had an office at the school I could go to get away from my 9-by-12 cell,” he says. “The people running the program always took care to make the school a school, and the people who attended it students.”

Despite his and other students’ success in the program, Heard thinks education programs in prisons are in danger. He sees the cancellation of government Pell grants to prisons and the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation as things that hurt prisoners’ chances in the outside world.

“Most prisoners come back out of prison,” Heard says. “As a society, who do we want to come back out? Hopefully they’ll see that just punishment doesn’t work, that they have to treat people with respect or damaged goods will come out.”

According to Heard, the Department of Corrections didn’t even want to offer inmates the chance to earn a degree.

“They just saw the classes as a way to keep inmates busy,” he says. “It took an inmate suing them before they allowed prisoners to pursue a degree instead of just classes.”

However, now that inmates have shown they are up to the challenge, BU is holding them to it.

The qualifications for the program are similar to those for the Metropolitan College, according to Cadigan.

Students have to take EN 104 and maintain a 2.5 GPA. Then they can choose from four to six other classes offered each semester.

Cadigan says one of the challenges faced by professors is dealing with many levels of aptitude in the classes.

“We have a tremendous range of math ability, from basic algebra to calculus,” he says. “The students just need structure in order to fully advance to their capabilities.”

Cadigan adds that all of the classes offered at Norfolk are comparable in content and levels of difficulty to those offered by BU’s Charles River campus.

And professors and administrators say students are up to the challenge of the courses.

“The classes have a surprising diversity within the classroom,” Cadigan says. “One class had one of the best discussions I’ve ever heard on freedom. There were people approaching the subject from the angles of Islam, libertarianism — one student was versed in Plato and approached the discussion from that viewpoint.”

BU professors who are part of the program take a cut in pay to teach prison classes. However, this drawback does not deter them.

“We have very solid teachers,” Cadigan says. “The program attracts people who love to teach adults. They’re very willing to participate; they see the value of the program. We also get good guests — one time, [former Poet Laureate] Robert Pinsky visited a poetry class.”

While many BU students are earning a degree for practical reasons such as getting a job and earning a living, Cadigan says the program also benefits those who are not leaving prison anytime soon.

“We don’t get involved in how long people are in for or how old they are,” he says. “Some people in the program are in prison for life, but they’re very influential within the institution. They’re good role models. Other prisoners see them respecting people active in education and it impels them to get involved.”

Cadigan says community members have shown support for the program.

“Many prisoners also have families,” Cadigan says. “And it’s powerful for a child to see their parent continuing their education.”

Classes for the current spring semester range from Introductory Biology for Health Sciences to Principles of Sociology to 20th Century American Poetry.

McDonough has taught 20th Century American Poetry for two years.

“Poetry gives them time to focus and improves their writing in other classes,” she says. “They get focused attention from classmates and the teacher. It’s a very articulate opportunity to express themselves, where their work and opinions are being paid attention to.”

And even toughened prison inmates need a forum for expression and a way to confront new ideas.

“One class I had was struggling with Shakespeare,” McDonough recalls. “These big, tough guys were coming up to me and saying ‘I’m scared of Shakespeare.’ But then they confronted it and understood it. It’s the most satisfying teaching experience I’ve ever had.”

McDonough has recently compiled some of the best inmate poetry into the fourth volume of an ongoing series. “Forgotten Eyes: Poetry from Prison” contains ruminations on prison, missing loved ones and war, as well as playful experiments with the language: “So as your aged agent / Enjoying my own agenda / I must leave you with a question / Why do we spell it Cajun?” by George “Pat” Davis, “The ‘Age’ of English.”

A reading of the poems by various poets is planned for April 27 in Marsh Chapel.

McDonough is proud of the poems the inmates have written.

“They have such intense life experiences that they focus and bring to the page,” he says. “After they learn meter and restraint, they write even better.”

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