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November 11, 1988 - Image 20

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-11-11
Note:
This is a tabloid page

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w V

:

w w w U

One University student's account:

Women

prisoners in

ichigan

can finally

get

an educ

By Joyce Dixson
I t wasn't until my mid-20s that I realized I had been
living in a box for most of my life. Even though I had
been the first child in four generations of my family to
graduate from high school, my thoughts about life were
limited (as were those of the rest of my household). My
family was proud I had graduated from high school, and it
didn't seem to matter to them that I hadn't learned very much
or that I had had a child during my junior year. It only mattered
that I had graduated. To this dayI believe that the only reason
I graduated was because I went to school most of the time and
did the work some of the time. It wasn't that I couldn't do all
of the work, I could. But I was never motivated to do it. I found
no reason to be. The dream of going to college was reserved for
the most special people: the kids whose parents had the money,
the kids who understood at an early age that going to college
was automatically expected of them, or the kids with the
athletic scholarships. In any case, I was left out. My grand-
mother and mother always told me that I could be anything I
wanted to be, but the people in the neighborhood said other-
wise. They said I would never amount to anything. They shut
me out because I never knew who my father was. They were
cruel, and that stayed with me. The thought of me ever being
a part of the University of Michigan was as far removed from
me as the sun. That was, until 1977.
In May of that year, the female prisoners at Huron Valley
Women's Correctional Facility filed a class action suit
(Glover vs. Johnson) in the United States District Court,
alleging that women inmates in Michigan prisons were de-
nied educational and training opportunities afforded to male
inmates. Male prisoners were eligible to pursue two-year
associate degree and four-year baccalaureate degree programs,
but the women were not. In April of 1981, the court decided
that while the state was not obligated to provide a four-year
baccalaureate program at Huron Valley, it shall assist and
cooperate in the establishment and operation of a
baccalaureate program which any four-year college may de-
sire to offer women inmates. And in no way shall the state's
assistance be less than that provided to colleges offering
baccalaureate programs at men's prisons. In 1980 Eastern
Michigan University began intermittently offering third and
fourth year baccalaureate programs at Huron Valley. This
was a victory for the women, but only partially so.
In April 1985, the Department of Corrections opened the
Florence Crane Correctional Facility for women in Coldwa-
ter, and during the next several months, approximately 340
women were transferred to Crane from Huron Valley; I was
among them. In October 1986, another session of classes
was started at Huron Valley, but none were available nor, as
things stood then, could be available at Crane. Four inmates
at Crane, including myself, were eligible to participate in
the four-year degree program since we had already obtained
two-year degrees. We were told that if we wanted to partici-
pate in the classes, we would have to return to Huron Val-
ley, a higher security level prison. The four of us declined to
be transferred and through attorneys filed a motion in federal
court mandating that a four-year program be instituted here
at Crane.
At that time, the state took the position that since Crane
had opened after the final decision in the Glover case had
been handed down, the orders given in the case only applied
to the women at Huron Valley. But on August 22, 1988,
the United States Court of appeals ruled that Florence Crane
clearly fell under the Glover decision and that the women
here had to be treated in the same regard. Through the power
of the court and a compassionate University professor, Dick
Meisler, three women prisoners, including myself, were
given the opportunity to take classes through the University
of Michigan, a dream come true.
Dixson is an LSA junior.

Although it has been very difficult for me to take classes
from behind the walls of a prison, it has been worth every
anxiety I've felt and every tear I've shed.
Unlike my classmate, Mary Glover - who is taking
University classes as an inmate at Huron Valley only a few
minutes away from Ann Arbor, I am housed at Florence
Crane about a hundred miles away from the University and
all help. Consequently I have to rely on students to drive all
the way out here to make sure I get all the materials I need.
This term, one classmate, who I am privileged to call a
friend, arranged every single one of my classes. She went to
each professor, spoke to the students, and literally pled my
case in order to get my books, course packs, and other
materials. So far I have been fortunate enough to meet a few
of my classmates who genuinely care about my struggle and
have taken the time to drive to Coldwater to tutor me or just
to see how I'm getting along. I still can't get over how
amazing that is. People whom I had never known before;
people I've never done anything for, drive all the way down
here just because they care about me and about how I'm do-
ing. I've never known that before. Where I came from, if
you don't have anything to give or exchange for something
you've got nothing coming.
Once all the materials are gathered, someone, usually my
friend Betsy, takes them to the dean's office and has them
mailed to me here at the facility. When they get here, the
prison officials examine them, check to make sure no one is
trying to smuggle contraband to me, and then they give
them to me. In most cases, my books arrive before class
notes and syllabuses so I have trouble organizing. Conse-
quently, I am always weeks behind the rest of the class.
The fact that lights are out here at 11 p.m. doesn't help
much either. There were a lot of nights when I laid on the
floor beneath a tiny night light to study. I am not
complaining because I am just happy to be able to study.
However, it wasn't the most comfortable position to be
studying in. One of my greatest thrills was receiving a little
battery-operated book light from Betsy. It took a while be-
fore the prison officials would approve it, but they finally
let me have it, and it was truly worth the wait. It just clips
right on the book and shines away. As a matter of fact I am
using it now, as I write this story. It is 12:33 a.m., and all
the lights in the unit are out, and I can see. What a joy.
There are many occasions when I don't know what I am
doing at all. During those times, I constantly have to talk
my way through my studies. I get frustrated and afraid, then
I freeze. It's really hard to explain. I guess anyone reading
this would have to have been in a similar situation in the
past to fully appreciate how I feel. I will try to explain. I
haven't been in school in a long time, and now to suddenly
be in it scares me to death. At first I didn't know if I was
going to make it. I don't have the benefit of the visual aides
in the classrooms. Sometimes, while listening to the lecture
tapes, I hear the professor writing something on the board
and I just sit back and wonder what it says. You can't ask
questions; you're just out here on your own, and it's scary.
It's hard to contact professors. Sometimes when I write to
them, they just don't get back to me right away. It can be
weeks sometimes before I get anything back, and that's hard.
Also, it can be really noisy here, and that makes it hard to
study. The units are set up in little cubicles divided by
partitions, and something is always going on. There are 40
to 50 women running around and there are constant disrup-
tions.
Many people think that since I'm in prison, I have all the
time in the world to devote to my studies, but it's not true. I
work full-time as a paralegal which is a very demanding job.
If some one has a legal question, she'll just come up and ask
me at any time regardless of what I'm doing. And when I'm
not working the prison makes sure you have as little idle
time as possible.
I am a Black woman and a convicted felon, who has been

Photos by John Munson
blessed with an opportunity to gain an education from one
of the greatest schools in the country. I've never had an op-
portunity like this before. If I don't make it, not only do I
lose, but I might be shutting the door on the next woman
behind me. The one who sits across from me while I study
and asks me if I think she'll ever have a chance to be a part
of the same program. I think of all the bright young minds
fresh out of the best high schools and the competition that
goes along with being a part of such a great school, and I
get scared to death. There is an enormous amount of pres-
sure.
Before I became a student at Michigan I didn't think much
about the rest of the world. I didn't think too much about
anything except what was going on with my family at
home, how soon I could get out of here, and what was going

,I've never had an
opportunity like this
before. If I don't
make it, not only do I
lose, but I might be
shutting the door on
the next woman
behind me'

recognized and been cons
ing mental flashes of the
poor health care, and the
suddenly became clear is
and effects of these thing
derstand them. Now I do
uct of a lot of these socia
My grandfather, my gi
all lived in the same hous
up. My grandfather could
made her living scrubbi
families who lived acros
always on welfare. The r
realized how little I real
sion, and racism. Now th
text, I realize I have gair
things and am in a better
As a child growing u
light-skinned for the Blac
white kids. I just didn't f
prejudiced against for be
was never able to see th
trum. I hated my light
"brown." The oppressior
seem like oppressions to
we lived. I never knew an
I never took an interes
was all about. I wasn't co
care to decipher the mean
was Black and held the a
big deal?" I never felt tha
I held feelings of inferic
saying that any person or
those feelings. What con
ous thought to any of tho
I know how hard it is
derstand. The more my c
I broadened my ability to
but I am so happy to kno
thought, there would not 1
Being a student at Mic
that could have happened
that. My professors have
the students. Betsy has b
done everything she poss
tion. All the running she
getting materials for me,
moves me to no end. W
job within itself, and she
keep up with her own stud
I only wish that more
with the program. I don'
the University of Michig
has been opened to me. I
box. I can see it as it re
that.

on in the institution. I had completed everything that I could
get here academically like my associates degree and my par-
alegal certification. After that, doing my time began to get
really hard because I knew that I was just wasting away.
When I discovered that there was a possibility that I might
be enrolled at Michigan, I was ecstatic. At the same time I
was afraid - afraid that it would never happen. When it did,
I would sometimes sit for hours in awe and think about how
wonderfully unbelievable it truly was. Everyday I wondered,
"Will I get books today?" And at last when my first books
came, I held them, cried, and went and showed them to my
friend Susan.
I started to read them, and a whole new world of thought
opened up to me. I started to think about the way other peo-
ple were forced to live in other parts of the world. I began
thinking about this nation's economy and the society as a
whole. I started thinking about the trees and deforestation.
All of a sudden I was seeing things that I should have

Dixson is incarcerated at Florence Crane Women's Facility in Coldwater.

Joyce Dixson has been a University student since last fall.

PAGE 8 WEEKEND/NOVEMBER 11, 1988

WEEKEND/NOVEMBER 11, 1988

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