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.