I glance at myself in the mirror, and anxiously scrutinize my outfit. Long khaki pants and a plain, loose-fitting black shirt. It’s my first day of school, and the dress code is quite strict. No jeans. Nothing too revealing, nothing too form-fitting. No dresses, no skirts. Long pants. Sleeved shirts. No blue tops. The possible ways I could violate the code seem endless.
I glance down. My shoes may be a problem. Only closed toed shoes are allowed, and all I brought with me are sandals and running shoes. I wear the running shoes as they are the pair with the only chance of passing inspection, but they may prove to be too informal.
I grab my bag. It contains my wallet and cell phone, though I know already these items will be staying in the car. I will bring only my photo ID into the school building.
After about an hour commute, I arrive and approach the front desk. The woman behind the counter takes my ID, and is told that I should be on “The List.” She checks some documents, shuffling through several papers before tapping one with her finger.
“Madeline Wagar. All right, she’s on here. Cleared to enter. Please step through.” She gestures to a large walk-through metal detector.
I pass through without setting off the alarm. Once on the other side, I am patted down as they check for any unauthorized materials.
“Okay. On you go.”
This is it. I made it in. In a few minutes, I’ll be in class.
A heavy metal door is held open, and it slams and auto-locks behind me as I step into the courtyard of Lunenburg Correctional Facility. Lunenburg is a security level two all-male prison in rural Virginia.
The interior courtyard and barracks are enclosed by two rows of 30 foot tall chain link fencing lined on the top and bottom with sinister looking coils of razor wire. The hot Southern summer sun beats down on an arrangement of squat, white-walled buildings with bright turquoise tops.
One of these buildings contains the classrooms for the Southside Virginia Community College’s Campus Within Walls college program (SVCC CWW). The program provides classes to inmates on track for release. The incarcerated students can earn an accredited associate's degree in general studies (61 credits) or an IT certificate (35 credits). (Watch a video on the program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4oU_j6AEYE) I am here thanks to the President’s Summer Fellowship, interning and assisting with the CWW program, hoping to do a photojournalism project. I will begin by attending a few classes, allowing the students to become familiar with me, and perhaps identifying a few students who might be particularly interested in sharing their story with me.
The interior walls of the school, a small building with a few rooms, are decorated with educational posters featuring public figures such as President Obama, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, and Muhammad Ali. I enter the classroom with Dr. Anne Hayes, the Dean of Institutional Effectiveness at SVCC and a person who has been involved and invested in the CWW program for many years. Today she is teaching the first day of a college success class, a mandatory class for all CWW students that teaches research skills, study habits, and encourages self-reflection and improved self-understanding.
The classroom is already full when we enter. I am excited by the amount of diversity I can already see merely with the naked eye. So much more, I am sure, resides beneath the surface. The students are of all ages, and there seems to be about a 50/50 split between black and white students. So many opinions and perspectives are coalescing in this room.
I am introduced as Ms. Madeline Wagar (in prison, everyone goes by last names. I will be “Ms. Wagar” during my time here), from Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
“Portlandia!” One student comments.
I laugh. “That show is more accurate than you might think!” I tell him.
The students wave and smile and welcome me into their midst. I take a seat in the last row of seats. All other rows are filled.
It quickly becomes clear that the students are brilliant. They are engaged for the entire two and a half hour class. The respect they have for each other, and for the class, is evident. They listen with genuine interest whenever a peer speaks, with the attentiveness of a person who truly believes they can learn a great deal from what their fellow has to say. Their responses are unique and deeply thoughtful. They express themselves with pure sincerity and eloquence. A Reed professor would be hard pressed to find a better conference group.
I leave the class feeling accepted and inspired.
I don’t know how else to describe it than to say there was a feeling of kindness in that classroom. Kindness, and gentleness.
In the middle of a prison, a place that usually catalyzes violence and forges hard-edged exteriors, these students have been given a space to be openly themselves. They are free to be intelligent, sensitive, caring, passionate, and vulnerable. They are in a place where their minds, experiences, and opinions are powerful and celebrated.
I can think in terms of the big picture and be thrilled at the thought of all the wonderful changes education for inmates produces for society and communities. However, in this moment all that matters and all that is needed to show that this program is so vitally necessary, are the words and ideas emerging within the poster-covered walls of the small classroom, the light in the eyes of the students and the unveiled eagerness with which they share their perspectives.
After class, I am filled with a powerful want to know these students. Each and every one of them. I want to sit down and talk with them all, and hear what they have to say.
This program does more than make students of inmates. It makes humans of prisoners. And that is a reminder that is easy to overlook, and a lesson our society desperately needs to take to heart.