Professors face mass incarceration with education
Biology sophomore Kevin “The Killa” Abanilla, right, faces off against Marco “The Gecko” Reyes at Friday Night Fights on Sept. 16. ELIZABETH KUNZIG/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
In the city with one of the highest levels of incarceration, a team of professors is trying to inject humanities into prison, one poem at a time.
Mark Yakich, a Loyola University English professor, is part of the team that works with Nik De Dominic, a Delgado Community College professor, in a program aimed at teaching English to inmates in Orleans Parish Prison.
The Orleans Parish Prison English Program hopes to serve the massive prison population in New Orleans.
According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States is the mass incarceration leader of the world.
In Louisiana, one out of every 86 adults is serving a prison sentence, and the inmate population in the state has more than doubled in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"OPP in theory is a temporary holding facility. That said, people will spend a significant amount of time there," De Dominic said.
Because inmates' time in Orleans Parish Prison is longer than projected, De Dominic believes this program is vital.
De Dominic said when he moved to New Orleans in 2009, he initially worked with Bard Early College, and he chose to create a similar program after their program could not continue in the prison.
"Seeing students work through their confidence and develop self-confidence in their writing and developments of their voice keeps me doing it every semester," De Dominic said.
De Dominic has seen issues at Orleans Parish Prison first-hand, and he draws on whoever wants to come in to teach.
Yakich contributes one poetry class to the 16-week program.
Although the program does not offer college credit, Yakich said his efforts target a different principle - a person's opportunity to learn and grow.
"They seem to give you a different take on literature," Yakich said. "The guys are certainly on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, but they are certainly not on the lower end of intelligence. Moreover, their intelligence is both cerebral and street-smart."
Yakich said his student-inmates respond to works like Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in unexpected ways.
"Whitman's poem includes things most of us avert our eyes to - homelessness, the poverty, being down-and-out. Because many of the inmates have witnessed these things first-hand, the poem speaks to them clearer than to most readers," Yakich said.
Sometimes class turns personal. Yakich described an encounter with a 19-year-old student, and how the student was able to talk about his background through a poem the student had written.
"From 12 to 13, he'd had to take care of his mom and sister, try to be the bread-winner of the family because his father was gone," Yakich said. "The content of the poems sounds clichÃ©, but it was his delivery in a clear, vibrant baritone and the obvious effort he'd put into the poem. I could tell that he'd practiced it hundreds of times just to get the right word in the right order."
Yakich said he believes his most successful students share similar qualities, whether they learn in a prison or at Loyola University.
"The best students at OPP are similar to my best students at Loyola: curious, hard-working, critical thinkers who want to improve their lives," Yakich said.
The importance and accessibility to education is behind the efforts of the Orleans Parish Prison English Program.
De Dominic said he believes his students may not be the average poet or writer, but they demonstrate progress during the classes.
"You don't have to have a higher level of literacy to tell a good story," De Dominic said.
Lauren Cutuli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucy Dieckhaus can be reached at email@example.com
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