As Deborah Appleman enters the maximum security prison where she teaches prisoners, she hands off her license, jewelry, shoes — all the talismans of her identity – and walks through the metal detector; one that she says puts airport security scanners to shame. Her materials are in a clear plastic book bag and her right hand is stamped with invisible ink, which will be scanned with a fluorescent light on her way out to make sure that a cross-dressing imposter is not trying to escape. This is the opening scene in Deborah Appleman’s WORDS NO BARS CAN HOLD. It is a sobering scene. You can hear the door locking behind her as she enters her classroom – locked in with her students, without a guard. All these safeguards reinforce an important dynamic of working in a prison: they are in control; she is not. In order to continue teaching she must carefully follow all the rules.
Many of the men that Appleman teaches are lifers, but when she began teaching she made a decision not to learn anything about their offenses. Though it would be easy for her to look them up on the online database, she chooses not to; she doesn’t want her teaching to be muddied by this knowledge. She has made a commitment to know them as students, not as criminals. She firmly believes that education is a vehicle for rehumanization; that it allows students to rewrite their narratives. The goal of the prison classroom is not unlike the goal at the private university where she teaches – intellectual growth, self-efficacy, and intellectual freedom. Their bodies can be incarcerated, but their minds cannot.
Appleman looks at the school to prison pipeline. Of the four students she profiles in her book, each of them demonstrate a desire to learn, yet high school failed to engage them. None of them were classified as special-needs learners, but school failed to capture their interests. School disciplinary systems in the United States, she writes, disproportionately marginalize youth of color and other underserved populations. “These policies have sent hundreds of thousands of children down life paths that lead to arrest, conviction, and incarceration resulting in the so-called pipeline that some have argued is a modern form of resegregation that echoes the Jim Crow laws of our recent past.”
Appleman shares, with permission, the writing of her students. She does not wish the focus to be on her, but on the importance of education in prison and her students’ writing. One of her students, Zeke, writes:
“Writing gave me a voice. It made me a writer, a student, a man, an individual outside statistics hidden somewhere. It made me a better son; able to replant seeds over the things I tore down a long time ago.”
Though many of Appleman’s students are serving life sentences, some are released after serving their time and education is a key factor in preventing recidivism. “If as a society, we choose to keep alive those who commit series crimes, then we need to keep them human. The humanities are well named. Through education, through reading, and through writing, the incarcerated can reclaim their humanity, learn empathy, and find creative and constructive ways of expressing and facing the pain that was a part of their journey to their crimes. They can also learn to acknowledge the pain their actions caused others and to articulate the redemption they seek. They do it through their words, words no bars can hold.”
Listen to my interview with Deborah Appleman on Superior Reads, December 26 at 7:00 pm and on the WTIP webpage. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.