BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER— Kit Heintschel doesn’t Worry about showering or combing her hair when getting ready for work. Instead, she puts on loose-fitting clothes and loads her books into a clear backpack before making the trip to Toledo Correctional Institution every Tuesday.
She enters the secure front gate, passes through a metal detector and is handed a “man down” button by a guard who warns her, “Be careful, English.” Flanked by four burly guards, she walks past the chow area and up to the prison library, where she is met by an aide.
As an Ashland University professor teaching Begin-ning College Writing, English 100 to a group of incarcerated individuals, the Waterville woman has a vastly different experience – in some ways – from her years of teaching students in grades 7-12 how to do research papers with citations.
“I had 11 students, now down to eight. Two got into a fight with each other. One wanted to say he was a college dropout. The other one just simply stopped coming,” she said. “The other eight consistently attend. They are my students, just like high school. When I am in the library, teaching writing, I am not at all afraid of these men.”
The men wear blue short-sleeved shirts, elastic-waist blue pants and all are tattooed. She doesn’t ask what the tattoos mean.
To protect her students’ identities, Heintschel gives them fictional names as she describes some of them in her own writing:
Wilson went into “the hole” and missed three weeks of class. He returned and made up all of his work, earning an 85 percent. Marcus is a young poet, intelligent and creative. Jake is a 65-year-old drug addict who is “whip smart and consistently earns 96 percent in every class he takes.” Mo, the prison barber, is paid for his services with toothpaste or food commodities. James, a former Marine, is very bright and funny but goes to dark places in his head and has to be cajoled into finishing his work. Hector’s profile mirrors Jabba the Hutt. He failed the course. Evan is missing his front teeth but asks good questions and is empathetic to the characters in George Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men. Sherwood fibs about finishing his work. At the end of the semester he writes, “I know I have been disrespectful, but you were here every week and tried to help us every time. I take responsibility for my bad behavior.” She realizes that he might be manipulating her.
Heintschel’s journey to teaching in prisons began after she retired from Anthony Wayne Local Schools in 2015. With a goal of earning a Ph.D., she discovered Ashland Univer-sity’s master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing – a Ph.D. equivalent.
“I had an excellent professor and really started seeing what creative writing could be,” she recounted. “It was a paradigm shift.”
With her degree, Heintschel is able to teach college-level creative and expository writing. She also discovered that Ashland University has been offering college-level courses to incarcerated individuals since 1964.
James Cox, business manager for Ashland’s correctional education program, said that while Pell Grant funding was removed in 1990, Ohio continued to provide funding for several universities to provide credit-bearing courses, but until the introduction of the Second Chance Pell by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016, students weren’t allowed to use those courses toward a degree.
A 2015 Rand Corpora-tion study showed that the cost of education is far less than the cost of incarceration. While tracking how many incarcerated individuals go on to earn degrees is difficult once they’ve left prison, programs such as From Prison Cells to Ph.D. help people with criminal convictions obtain a college education.
Ashland has been blessed with the quality and quantity of instructors, Cox said. The teacher-student relationship is vital, whether the instruction is online or in person.
“These individuals have a life experience that those of us who haven’t gone to prison haven’t had,” Cox explained. “Their perspective is profound. I’ve heard many stories where instructors have helped these students be able to see things in different ways. We’ve had notes from students thanking us, telling us that Dr. So-and-So was an inspiration. Instructors love to teach in our prison program and a great majority can’t wait to pick it up.”
While Heintschel was wary when she first began teaching in the prison, she now describes it as “the best job I’ve ever had.”
For her students, writing can be a challenge, requiring giving up entertainment or exercise time to take the three-hour class. While studying and writing on their own, her students have to tune out loud noises or ridicule from other inmates. Getting them to share can be a challenge because they’re afraid to show their true selves to their classmates. For English 100, Heintschel didn’t ask her students to read their work aloud, knowing about their lack of trust in one another. Now, she sees the students are creating a community amongst themselves and finding an outlet they didn’t have before.
“They don’t always see what they can do. Writing is perfect. Nobody is going to tell them what they can’t write,” said Heintschel, adding that writing can help her students get published, meet their educational goals and process their thoughts.
“Suddenly, it’s liberating and empowering,” she added.
Heintschel told of a 23-year-old who finally wrote the truth about the reason behind his conviction.
“I feel I made a breakthrough with that guy. I told him that he’s smart enough to go to law school,” she said. “It gives them a goal and a reason to excel. For me, it’s really gratifying.”
When she was teaching women online several semesters ago, one Ashland student wrote a beautiful essay about being the mother of a son with autism.
“It was wrenching. At my encouragement, she entered it into an essay contest at Tufts University,” Heint-schel recalled. “She sent me a message through one of her friends to tell me she won and that she wanted to be a writer because of me.”
Heintschel has mostly worked online and started face-to-face instruction earlier this year. Seeing her students in person is more productive, she said
As she’s gotten to know the men, she’s able to ask them questions and learn about life behind bars. Visiting family members aren’t allowed to bring in anything, she learned, but inmates can receive items from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. On commissary days – when they can order microwaveable mac and cheese or ramen noodles – her students asked to leave class early to be first in line.
On the last day of class, she brought in certificates that she made, writing her students’ names in Ashland’s purple color and adding gold stickers. Their joy was contagious.
“One man asked me, ‘You could teach anywhere you want to. Why would you want to teach here? This isn’t a very nice place for someone like you.”
Her answer was simple: “I want to see you guys succeed.”