Water Finds a Way

When entering a correctional facility, you are first required to remove your shoes and pass a body scan. Bags must be see-through and undergo a trip through an x-ray machine. This process is one Victoria Bryan has gone through countless times. Bryan’s not a repeat offender; she’s there to teach. Her day job is professor at a community college, where she can walk into her classroom without thinking about what she’s wearing or what pens to carry. In prison, skirts are prohibited, and pens can’t have inner spring mechanisms.

On campus at Cleveland State Community College, Dr. Bryan teaches literature and composition classes, but at Silverdale Detention Center, she works to bring education to inmates by way of reading discussion groups and creative writing courses. Bryan’s not working solo—she’s there on behalf of Turn the Page, an initiative run by Chattanooga-based nonprofit the Southern Literary Alliance. It is because of Bryan that Turn the Page, founded in 2015, exists.

The program’s website explains that, “In a system that concentrates on punishment rather than rehabilitation, educational programs such as this have been shown to help men and women as they reenter society.”  Since its inception, it “has served hundreds of incarcerated men and women, offering respite from the day-to-day struggle of serving time and creating opportunities for growth and transformation through literacy.”

Bryan’s efforts have become increasingly focused on women since she began working with Turn the Page. Though fewer women than men are imprisoned, women are the fastest-growing demographic among the incarcerated, and programs like Turn the Page are working to address this trend. Federal research shows that incarcerated individuals who participate in educational programs during their detainment have a 29% lower recidivism rate than those who do not.

Prison education initiatives exist throughout the South. One leading example is the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit founded in 2004 by English professor Katy Ryan. As of 2019, inmates in six states (West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland) have received over 30,000 donated books through the mail. The most popular books requested by prisoners include dictionaries, almanacs, GED prep materials, how-to guides for trades, arts, and hobbies, and information about Wicca. Recipients of these donations send thank you letters, sharing their appreciation for books that serve as entertainment, education, and ultimately, an escape from the reality of imprisonment.

Giving inmates mental distance from their incarceration is one benefit of programs like these, and Turn the Page has peers in other states. Across the border from Chattanooga, in Georgia, a similar nonprofit named Reforming Arts was founded in 2009 by Wende Ballew. The organization brings volunteers into Lee Arrendale State Prison in Northeast Georgia to teach creative writing and theater classes, for which students earn college credit. Reforming Arts has had a positive effect on both educational outcomes for its students and on recidivism. Reforming Arts’ focus, like Bryan’s, is on helping female prisoners.

Nearly all correctional facilities exist to serve men. Female inmates have different concerns, though, which often go unaddressed. These concerns are dominated by family obligations. Most women in prison are parents, according to Dr. Natalie Johnson, a criminal justice professor at Dalton State College. When mothers are jailed, families are broken up. This takes a toll on the children, who are separated from their mothers, and shuffled into unfamiliar environments, living with family members or foster families. It’s hard for the women, too. Johnson describes one inmate whose request during calls home was for an open phone line to be maintained while her children played, so she could listen to them and imagine that she was nearby.

Though Johnson is a criminal justice professor, she admits she doesn’t have a comprehensive understanding of the law. She says that for women with lower levels of educational attainment and socioeconomic class (characteristics of the incarcerated population), the legal system is confusing and overwhelming. Johnson acknowledges that even police officers don’t have it down, telling me that law enforcement officers carry a pocket book of codes while on duty.

Dryly, Johnson points out that the name we’ve given the system, corrections, isn’t quite accurate. Imprisonment’s three basic functions are punishment, public safety, and rehabilitation, and the last often seems to go unaddressed. If Johnson had a say, public safety and rehabilitation would be equally important, followed by punishment.

“Most prisoners don’t spend their lives in detention. They’re going to get out,” Johnson tells me. She thinks education for inmates is a great idea. Inmates have “nothing but time,” she says. Programs like Turn the Page give prisoners a way to fill it and work to contribute to their eventual way out.

Support for women adjusting to life once released is increasingly central to Bryan’s work. In recent years, she has begun to coordinate with reentry organizations Love’s Arm, which helps former sex workers and victims of trafficking, and The Next Door, a transitional housing facility for recovering addicts. Bryan explains why she chose to expand her efforts from incarcerated women to helping those transitioning out by saying, “Water finds a way,” meaning her efforts have followed the needs she’s seen.

While participants in her classes have benefitted, so has Bryan. Teaching in prison, she says, challenges her as a professor and as an individual. Being part of this work, explains Bryan, “changed who I am as a teacher—and as a person—in a big way.”

Information about Turn the Page is available online at www.southernlitalliance.org/turn-the-page. The website for Love’s Arm can be found at www.lovesarmoutreach.org, and The Next Door, which serves women in two Tennessee cities, has a website at thenextdoor.org.

Amy Burger is an academic librarian and a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in English with a concentration in rhetoric and professional writing from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She lives in Northwest Georgia with her husband Ross, several cats, and a dog named Lucy.