The PTCPP provides college-level courses to incarcerated men and women across the state of Mississippi. The program was founded by Patrick Alexander of the University of Mississippi and Otis Pickett of Mississippi College. The students are able to earn credit from both universities upon completing their work in these courses.
“The energy starts [with] the professors, greeting us with a professional handshake, friendly smile, courteous eye contact, and saying our names. It continues as the class begins with an enthusiastic ‘Good Afternoon!’ The energy continues to build, and transfer to us, as the ordinary learning environment transforms into a dynamic learning environment,” said Michael Ritter, a student who has taken two courses in the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.
This past summer at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, 17 men from the pre-release program enrolled in an interdisciplinary history and literature class entitled “Mississippi: Then and Now.” The course focuses on the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, beginning in the antebellum era and tracing historical continuity and change through present times, while also drawing attention to some of Mississippi’s dominant literary voices of each era, such as Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ralph Eubanks.
Kelvin Todd, when reflecting on his experiences in the class, said, “I’ve been introduced to something I hadn’t been exposed to and at times it’s difficult to understand and I don’t know the right questions to ask.”
Several students expressed surprise or shock at the course material. Cimetrio Davis, a student in the program, said, “I feel so much has been hidden over the course of my school years.”
Mario Primer, another PTCPP student, felt as though the class meetings were an eye-opening experience for him, as he was previously unaware of the pervasive violence and systems of social control that limited African Americans’ access to education.
PTCPP student Edward Berdine was stunned to learn that slavery was the primary motivating factor for the Civil War, as he had been told in previous educational experiences that the war was motivated by disagreements about state’s rights. Berdine appreciated Pickett bringing the text of the Mississippi Articles of Secession to class, allowing him and his classmates to see the facts for themselves.
“I have lived in Mississippi all my life, and I am still amazed how much there is to learn about Mississippi,” Ritter said.
While some aspects of the course offered students new information, other parts helped them to re-frame and contextualize anew some of their previous experiences. Alger Retherford, another student who has taken two courses with the PTCPP, recalled visual narratives of civil rights struggle from the 1960s and said, “The images on television across our nation have never been so cogently explained to me until now.”
When discussing his reactions to the readings, James Allen “Rabbit” Colton, another student in the program this summer, said, “A lot of it will make you upset because you can relate.”
Keith “KG” Kimmons spoke directly to this tension, remarking that some aspects of the Jim Crow system remind him of the prison system. He elaborated that, in many ways, incarcerated people, once released, are not truly given the chance to rejoin society, since they are subject to probation fines, restricted in the places they can travel, and often struggle to find work with a criminal record.
“Once you have served your time, you should be able to completely re-enter society,” he said.
Colton explained that he used to harbor a lot of anger, but that this class has helped him move forward and lose some of the animosity about things he lived through now that he understands the historical context for his experiences.
Every student interviewed has expressed a deep gratitude for the opportunity to take this course. “It’s so beneficial to me as in living as a man,” Primer said.
Davis described the experience saying, “There’s funny moments, trivial moments, close-reading essay moments, tons of reading moments, transportation of books without backpacks moments, but every moment fulfilling. No one could convince me I’m not: a student, a teacher, a scholar, and capable!”
Several students credit the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program with helping them believe that they can succeed or see new opportunities post-release. Some hope to pursue college degrees, and others would like to become published writers.
“The [PTCPP instructors and] staff…[are] very enthusiastic about what they are doing. It does not feel like I am under the guidance of men and women who consider the task [of teaching] to be a chore, which is how most of my experiences with education have been up to this point,” said “Dillon” Davis.
Berdine said that the three hours of class time each week are his fastest hours in prison.
Support for Prison-to-College Pipeline Program courses has come from grants from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts and the Mississippi Humanities Council, which awarded the Program its 2018 Humanities Educator Award. The books that students receive in PTCPP courses are theirs to keep, enhancing their appreciation for the civil rights activists whose lives and works they study.
“I possess the typed DNA of some of the greatest leaders to ever vouch for me,” said Cimetrio Davis.
Several students are excited to use these books as a way to share what they learned with others. Jeremy Hicks, who presented his writings during the class meetings, uses his books to teach other incarcerated men the things he’s learning now that he feels like he missed in high school. Kimmons said that he will use his books to “teach my kids about their history and where we come from.”
“I can be more help to myself and those around me by utilizing what I know and teaching them as well,” Davis said.
Some students who have taken a PTCPP class before were active recruiters for this past summer’s course, making the class one of the largest PTCPP classes at Parchman to date. Numerous students expressed a desire to share their experiences in these classes with other incarcerated men, and have said that they would encourage other eligible men to take future PTCPP courses.
“[This class] helps you understand your civil duties as an American. It helps you understand where we come from and what we’ve been through as a nation. It exposes truths that must be addressed so that the healing process begins. It offers inspiring stories of courage and sacrifice, knowledge that I can pass on,” said Dwayne O’Quinn.
Julia James is a sophomore Public Policy Leadership and Journalism double-major at the University of Mississippi. She is a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. Julia is from Mandeville, Louisiana.