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Hillsdale Professor Nicole Coonradt teaches inmates at Cotton Correctional Facility how to write. Pixabay

The syllabus is standard for an entry-level writing class: the students read memoirs and analyze George Orwell’s essay on the “6 Rules for Writers.” They write rhetorical analyses and personal essays, and they take midterms and finals. But they do all this in what is called the “fishbowl,” a cluster of classrooms with glass walls and a prison guard always on patrol. The students are inmates in Cotton Correctional Facility, and their professor is Hillsdale College’s adjunct professor of English Nicole Coonradt, who teaches Writing 131 as part of the Prison Education Initiative (PEI), a program run through Jackson College.

“I’ve been teaching through PEI since 2015,” Coonradt said. “I was nervous my first day. It’s scary for anyone, when you have to walk across the yard. That’s the part I like the least. But I’ve never felt threatened or worried about being in the classroom.”

PEI offers area inmates a chance to earn an associate degree while serving time at prison. For Coonradt’s students, the program has given them a written voice with which to express and transcend the struggles that brought them to her classroom — and to craft excellent writing in the process.

Jackson College has supported prison education programs since the early 1990s, PEI Director Bobby Beauchamp said. In 2012, the program was reborn in its current form, beginning at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. Since then, PEI has added four correctional facilities, which now serve more than 600 students.

Coonradt’s writing class is a requisite for all students pursuing associate degrees, whether in arts, applied science, or business, the most popular major. Students often take the class with little high school or college-level experience in writing or the humanities.

But before she could transform her students’ writing skills, Coonradt had to adjust to the classroom setting in the “fishbowl.” She is currently teaching more than 30 students in two class sections on Monday and Tuesday night, and she has to come prepared.

“The thing about teaching in the prison that has been good for me is that it forces me to be on top of my game,” Coonradt said. “I have to be prepared when I go in, because there’s no, ‘Oh, I’ll send you an email or post it in Blackboard later.’ There’s no option for that, so I have to be ready to go and take everything that I need.”

From within the classroom, life often looks normal, Coonradt said. But throughout her three years teaching at PEI, Coonradt has gradually pieced together glimpses of life beyond the fishbowl. Students will sometimes miss class, and when she asks about their whereabouts, the answer will be a matter-of-fact: “Oh, he got rode out,” which, as Coonradt soon discovered, meant the student got moved to a new facility.

And the way into the classroom isn’t always easy, either. Coonradt remembers a student who, for his final portfolio cover essay, wrote about the beating he had to endure for members of an in-house gang to allow him to take the class.

In general, however, the biggest differences between her previous teaching jobs and her PEI one are logistical: “There is no technology, so the students don’t have access to computers or the internet,” Coonradt said. “Some students have word processors so they can type their papers, but most have to hand-write their papers. And actually, most of the students have beautiful handwriting. They’re conscientious about that, probably because they write lots of letters.”

At every penitentiary she has taught, Coonradt said she has found her students eager and dedicated; they often ask to keep the textbook after the class, and she photocopies sections. They are often well-read, too, as reading is one of the few leisure activities allowed in the penitentiary. This, along with students’ surprising willingness to share their life experiences, Coonradt said, brings depth to the classroom discussions. Even when class was cut short one week for an emergency lockdown, her students remained focused on their coursework.

“Though we didn’t have the time to discuss the assignment beforehand, all but two had drafts ready for peer review the next week, based on the packet I had given them,” Coonradt said. “When I talked about this with friends later, I thought, ‘This would not happen elsewhere.’”

And she often discovers through her own writing assignments that Writing 131 was, for students, about much more than fixing comma splices and learning how to write a memoir.

Her student John (a pseudonym), wrote a cover essay in 2015 that revealed the general opinion on Coonradt’s classes. He said he jumped at the chance when, after 25 years of incarceration, he had the opportunity to participate in PEI.

“It’s one of life’s greatest ironies, instead of a Michigan State University, I ended up in a Michigan State Penitentiary,” John introduced himself, and then relived his choice to take Coonradt’s class: “Around the middle of my second semester I began to hear talk of an instructor named ‘Coonradt’ … The English 131 guys, specifically those in this Coonradt’s class seemed to be motivated by a level of urgency.”

John describes early struggles in the class: “‘My paper was called ‘P.K. the Great,’ but it should have been called ‘Thank Goodness for Peer Reviews,’ ’cause in retrospect it was terrible … But luckily someone who had taken Dr. Coonradt’s class a couple semesters earlier showed me what I needed to do. I cut out all of the unnecessary words and phrases (Orwell’s third rule) and ended up with a pretty decent paper.”

The most valuable experience in Writing 131, Coonradt said, is the peer review, which she said is a “humanizing experience, because it gives them a chance to give constructive criticism, which is strange to them at first.”

But she remembered one student wrote in an essay that the experience of learning together through the peer review helped them all grow: “More than the technical things, the value of the class was watching my fellow classmates turn into better men. Who would have thought that learning how to write better could teach you how to live better?”

The PEI writing program has developed some excellent writers as well, Coonradt said. Three of her students placed in the Jackson College campus-wide Lyman Fink Excellence in Writing Award, and three other winners (out of a total of eight) were from other PEI classes.

Coonradt may end up teaching in new fishbowls if her class continues to produce good writers.

The popularity and educational value of classes like Coonradt’s will allow PEI to expand to other facilities and expanded course offerings, Beauchamp said.

“PEI is optimistically striving to reach an enrollment of over 1300 students,” he said. “To accomplish this, we are partnering with MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections) to add three additional facilities to the program. Writing classes will definitely be added as the program grows.”

Regardless of where PEI goes next, Coonradt and the Prison Education Initiative have given inmates new direction and skills as they pursue an education that they can use now and later in life.

This dedication impressed Coonradt most when she learned how students were tutoring each other for PEI classes: The only available study spaces were picnic tables outside. It was winter. The tutors and their students sat outside in the snow and talked about ideas. Their pursuit of an education, a career, and a future kept them impervious to the cold.