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Keith Giroux of Turners Falls, an inmate, participated in a political science class last week at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction.
Keith Giroux of Turners Falls, an inmate, participated in a political science class last week at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)

Unlearning preconceptions

Program offers joint classes to college students, inmates

NORTHAMPTON -- Anthony Jack and Jude Mischke took vastly different paths to get to their Amherst College political science course this semester.

Jack -- a 22-year-old senior toting paper, pen, and textbooks -- boarded a school van with classmates last week for the final class and chatted about exams and summer plans.

Mischke, 38, wrapped up recreation time in the prison yard at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. He showered, dressed in dark, prison-provided blue shirt and pants, and grabbed his schoolwork from his cell.

He and Jack met in the jail's visiting room, where inmates and students from three area colleges sat in alternate chairs. Their professor was Kristin Bumiller of Amherst College , who was teaching one of two courses in the Pioneer Valley to bring together the colleges' students and inmates as equals.

At a time when prisons across the state lack federal or state funding for college-degree programs, Bumiller and Simone Davis, an English professor at Mount Holyoke College, are establishing several courses involving inmates and students in the region's five colleges, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, and Hampshire.

They are a part of a three-year-old national effort in 30 colleges to run joint classes that include traditional college students and inmates. A Temple University instructor began the program to try to remove the boundaries created by classism, racism, and the stigma attached to incarceration.

"Book learning and street sense are asked to pull their weight equally in the classroom," said Davis, who taught a literature course at a correctional facility in Springfield.

The formal educational level of the nine inmates in Bumiller's class ranges from high school dropout to college and often fails to match the preparation of their nonincarcerated peers. But those differences were proven irrelevant during the class.

All the students were screened before they were allowed to take the course. Among the college students, the professors said they were looking for a heterogeneous and emotionally mature group prepared to go to the jail every week for class.

At the all-male facility in Northampton, Melinda Cady, assistant deputy superintendent, evaluated the inmates' academic ability and whether they were active in a treatment program. The jail chose 11 inmates, ranging in age between 20 and mid-40s, with charges stemming mostly from substance abuse and domestic violence. Two inmates were forced to drop the course because of discipline problems in the jail.

The students were prohibited from contacting each other outside class and knew each other only on a first-name basis.

"In some ways, it leveled the playing field," Mischke said. "You don't know where everybody's coming from."

Unlike most of his college classmates, Jack, who grew up in Miami, said he had been inside a jail before to visit family members. Mischke, who has served two years of a three-year sentence for stealing a motorcycle and drinking and driving, has spent time in several facilities.

Mischke, whose father was a potter, grew up in Putney, Vt., and attended Castleton State College for two years, before moving to Northampton. He said he was attracted to the bustling drug trade in nearby Holyoke.

Before classes began, Jack and Mischke thought they knew what to expect of the other.

"I was always under the impression that Amherst was a very conservative college," Mischke said. "I thought they'd come in wearing blue blazers and button-down shirts."

Jack said he expected the inmates to offer a shallower analysis of readings. He also thought they had an abundance of free time to finish their work.

But he learned the inmates maintain a strict schedule and devote just as much time to their schoolwork as he does.

By the third week, Jack had a moment of reflection. "Do you hold on to these stereotypes in the face of all that you're seeing?" he asked himself.

The transition for both groups did not happen overnight. Before their first shared class, each group met separately to ask Bumiller questions about what to expect without having to worry about offend ing the other group.

The college students were given an orientation at the jail, which 21-year-old Sam Guzzardi, an Amherst senior, described as "bizarre" and "voyeuristic."

"I felt like I was at a zoo, like I was watching people inside cages," Guzzardi said. "It was very nonhuman."

From the jail and the campuses, the view is the same: the rolling green expanse of the Mount Holyoke range. Inside the jail, the college students registered in a sterile waiting room and left their jewelry, purses, and backpacks in orange lockers along cream- colored cement walls. They entered a trap door and were for a moment totally confined before a guard opened a second door. The guard did not open the door until he was sure the students could safely enter the visiting room.

In class, the students have struggled together through "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau and "Discipline and Punishment" by Michel Foucault, which prompted 32-year-old Teddy, an inmate who grew up in Leverett, to say, "This Foucault guy has never been to prison." He did not want his last name used.

The students all identified with the lead character in the "Life and Times of Michael K.," by J.M. Coetzee, a novel about a man struggling to define himself outside the politics of war-torn South Africa. Both sets of students learned that they could compete academically despite varying educational backgrounds.

"I do think of a lot of them as friends at this point," said Carly Levenson, a sophomore from Richmond, Va. "And I wasn't sure that would happen,"

For the inmates, the class was a respite from their daily routines.

"It's like being out of jail for a couple of hours," Mischke said. "A couple of hours of freedom."

At the last class, as they did on their first class, the students took part in a wagon wheel icebreaker. The inmates sat in an outer circle facing the college students in an inner circle.

The students asked each other questions such as, "Have you ever recognized yourself in a Kafkaesque situation," such as waiting?

"I'm constantly waiting; I want to go home," said Keith Giroux, a 20-year-old inmate from Turners Falls who expects to be released in 60 days. "It's coming real soon. I'm getting real antsy."

"Are you counting the days?" asked Sara Nelson, a 20-year-old junior at Amherst.

"It's the worst part, the last bit," Giroux said.

Nelson, an English major, has formed friendships with some of the inmates, but the students will not be allowed to keep in touch once the program ends.

As the semester drew to a close, Nelson said she never felt entirely comfortable entering or leaving the facility.

"It's always sad to leave class, knowing that we're walking out to freedom, so to speak, and they're going to be sitting in their cells," Nelson said.

After class, the students and inmates always lingered for a moment before they were ushered through two separate doors.

April Simpson can be reached at