Life Sentences in Tennessee: A plea from an incarcerated student

Southern Collective Blog Guest Writer – Dolwin Cormiá

Currently pursuing an Associate’s Degree with Roane State Community College. Participant with Tennessee Higher Education Initiative.

It is a well known fact that the state of Tennessee has the harshest life sentence law in the United States. A person who has been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole must complete fifty-one calendar years of incarceration just to be eligible for parole, and parole isn’t a guarantee then. In essence, there is no difference between life with parole or life without parole in the state of Tennessee. Life with and life without parole are both equal to a death sentence, as you can’t be expected to live up to or beyond the fifty-one years to become eligible for parole.

Studies have been done and show that the average life expectancy of a man in the United States, who is not in prison, is sixty-nine years of age. Compared to an incarcerated man who receives inadequate health care, food that barely passes FDA standards, commissary foods that are high in salt content, stressors of the world outside of prison that are beyond our control, and guards who are indifferent, brutal in their treatment and tactics, and racist – the life expectance of a man in prison drops significantly to sixty years old. All of the above factors, plus others, make it impossible for a man/woman to complete fifty-one calendar years of incarceration, in order to become eligible for parole. The state of Tennessee would have to start convicting children as young as ten or twelve years old just to come close to completed those fifty-one years.

David Raybin, a lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee was one of the people who helped to draft the fifty-one year life sentence law. Now, Mr. Raybin has come to the realization that fifty-one calendar years of incarceration is an impossible feat for a person convicted of life with the possibility of parole, and is now fighting to reverse the life sentence law to something reasonable, along with other lawyers, politicians, and everyday citizens.

There are one thousand plus persons who have been convicted and given a life sentence with the possibility of parole in Tennessee, and more are being convicted on a weekly basis. This makes prison a very dangerous environment, not just incarcerated peoples, but for staff and employees. As all hope has been taken away from the persons who have been convicted of life with the possibility of parole. The mindset of the convicted persons is at a loss, there are no incentives for them to do the right thing or to try to become a better person, because they can not see any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

In a normal society, things change every five years and society adapts to the changes and continue to grow. In prison, people who have done extended amounts of time and sentences, have changed on their own or through various programs that are available to them. I, myself, am such a person as I will be graduating with an associates of science degree in 2023 from Roane State Community College.

People grow and change for the better in prison when there is hope for the future. I am pleading with whomever is reading this letter, help to reduce the life sentence law in Tennessee from fifty-one to twenty-five years. Give us a chance to show you that we are not the same people who committed our crimes, that we are better people than we were before, and that we can be productive citizens in society upon our release.

Negotiating Technology in HEP

Southern Collective Guest Writer(s) 2 – Katie Owens Murphy and Chloe Allen, Restorative Justice Lab @ UNA

As news about the predatory practices of for-profit tech companies circulates, many higher education in prison (HEP) programs— including ours— have been trying to find tech solutions that allow them to remain autonomous from providers that have become notorious for hidden fees, sudden price hikes, and inefficient tech support. In this blog entry, we would like to offer the ways in which we have negotiated technology for our program so that it might benefit others who are navigating similar challenges.

The prison where we facilitate our programming was a “pilot” site for Securus, a company that disseminated “free” tablets in 2020, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was causing institutions— including this prison— to shut its doors for two years. These tablets contain a number of additional fees, including a $5/month charge to individualize it, or “make it mine” — a necessity for saving any stored or purchased data— as well as “content delivery fees” of $.99 per purchase. Securus promoted its tablet by emphasizing its library catalog, which was free of charge, but the content of this library was obscure and outdated, consisting mostly of 18th and 19th century texts.

Because our university contracts with Dell, we opted to circumvent the tablets and order a class set of laptops. Our ITS department was able to customize our order in accordance with prison policy, including disabling the cameras on each laptop and loading them with software specific to our needs. The laptops will be stored in a lockable charging station in a supply closet at the prison. While this was a pricey choice, we see it as an investment in the sustainability and autonomy of our program– and in our students. Laptops, which feature full keyboards and screens, are important for computer literacy and will allow students to gain some familiarity with technology in advance of their release. Students in our program will practice navigating these laptops during lengthy study hall sessions that we are holding every other week for the same duration as our class time (2.5 hours). 

We’ve also had to find creative solutions for learning management systems given the prison’s lack of internet access. We wanted to develop something that would mimic our on-campus system, Canvas. Our university’s Educational Technology Services (ETS) department introduced us to BlueGriffon, an HTML editor that is available for free. The BlueGriffon software allows us to build a series of static web pages that can be downloaded to an external hard-drive and then accessed later without needing the internet. These static web pages allow students to access course materials–including videos–offline. And although building web pages may sound complicated, the BlueGriffon software is relatively user-friendly. It allows the user to choose between manually coding the pages using HTML or using the Wysiwyg feature. Wysiwyg, or “What you see is what you get,” isn’t as exact as writing and editing the HTML code, but it is a lot easier for those with little to no coding experience, and we have found it to be sufficient for creating the static web pages. We then worked with our university’s Open Educational Resource (OER) team to build a BlueGriffon page that had open access content– free educational material that does not violate copyright law– for our HEP program, which is focused on restorative justice. The result is accessible multimedia content that includes close-captioned videos demonstrating circle processes as well as graphics that visually represent the more complex and theoretical topics that organize the course. 

We also asked our university library for help with a solution for library and research access given our inside students’ inability to access the internet. Our library liaison quickly located JSTOR’s “Access in Prison Initiative” and put us in touch with project manager Stacy Burnett. JSTOR offers three options for prisons that do not allow internet access; we opted for their third option, a thumb drive that contains all of JSTOR’s article abstracts cataloged in a way that is searchable. The thumb drive can be downloaded onto each of our laptops. Best of all, this initiative is free of charge to participating programs.

Technology is often seen as a barrier in HEP programs– and it certainly can be. But it also makes possible programs such as our new Zoom course on restorative circles, which we are able to offer at the women’s prison for the first time. Because the women’s prison is on the opposite side of the state from our university, we have never been able to deliver in-person programming there; but we have partnered with a nonprofit organization supporting mothers at the prison that has agreed to co-sponsor our circle workshops by lending us the use of their Zoom equipment. Circles are challenging to conduct virtually and raise, once again, problems that require solutions. We’ve ordered conference microphones, for example, to be placed in the center of the room so that we can hear each participant. We also rely on graphic seating charts that simulate where and how we should be sitting in circle formation, were we meeting face-to-face. Still, we are receiving very positive feedback about the workshops and are able to reach a facility that is too geographically distant for in-person facilitation. 

Technology can be harnessed in ways that enhance or enable rather than frustrate our programs if we work with intentional partners who help us to increase access to HEP in ways that are inclusive, ethical, and sustainable. We would like to thank the Laughing Gull Foundation for the grant support that paid for our program’s laptops as well as the University of North Alabama’s library, OER, and ETS/ITS departments for helping us to develop solutions for our program’s unique tech needs.

Program Highlight #3: The Rhodes College Liberal Arts in Prison Program

The Rhodes College Liberal Arts in Prison Program was launched in 2016 at the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center (WTRC), a 1200-bed state facility in Henning, TN. Between 2016 and 2019 Rhodes offered a Great Books Reading Group at WTRC which brought Rhodes professors to the prison in two-week stints to teach texts of their choice. In 2019 Rhodes began offering a for-credit certificate program called “Culture & Values” that was modeled on the “Search for Values” that has been a signature feature of the Rhodes curriculum since 1946.

At WTRC, the 4-course “Culture & Values” sequence begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh (a Sumerian poem from the 3rd millennium BCE) and ends with 20th century texts from authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Elie Wiesel and Toni Morrison. Highlights of the two-year program include works by Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Plato, Vergil, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Luther, Machiavelli, Milton, Adam Smith, Mary Shelley, and Frederick Douglass.” Culture & Values” is team-taught by Rhodes professors who have expertise in teaching them and have often made them subjects of their scholarly work. The first cohort of 5 graduates received their certificates in 2021; a second cohort of 7 graduates finished in 2022.

Since 2019 the Rhodes Liberal Arts in Prison Program has involved on-campus undergraduates as tutors, with between 10 and 20 students active in a given semester. Many of these students volunteer while taking a course titled “Mass Incarceration: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives,” which prepares them for visiting the prison and aids them in interpreting their experiences with our incarcerated students.

During the summer of 2022 Rhodes offered an elective course for graduates of the Culture & Values program, a 5-week intensive class on the Holocaust with Prof. Stephen Haynes, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program. Rhodes plans to continue to expand its offerings at WTRC going forward. Since the beginning, the success of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program has been made possible with the support of prison and corrections staff, especially Dr. Damien Hodge, Post-Secondary Education Liaison for TDOC, and Dr. Heather Bonds, Principal at WTRC.

Program Highlight #2: Prison Education Partnership Program (PEPP)

Mississippi Valley State University, an HBCU located in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta, recently unveiled its HEP program, the Prison Education Partnership Program (PEPP), in which classes are anticipated to start in the Fall 2022 semester at two men’s carceral facilities. A team of two administrators and three faculty members (two in criminal justice and one in history degree programs) worked for some time to identify area prisons that would be most receptive to starting a program and to ascertain the interest of MVSU faculty in participating as program instructors. We enjoy tremendous support from our partnering institutions: in one, the warden is a criminal justice alumna who is extremely supportive of the effort. In the other, the warden and other staff members are also MVSU alumni who are anxious for us to start.  

Furthermore, all of the faculty members and administrators who worked on this team have taught or volunteered in prison courses and/or been active in restorative justice and research in incarceration policies for years before this effort. Participation in the Southern Higher Education in Prison Collective and the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison Zoom meetings and conferences was extremely helpful in preparing staff to deliver the program, which is providing a path to bachelor’s degree success – at this time the only institution in the state offering this opportunity. Moreover, the articulation agreement between MVSU, a SACS accredited institution, and the other higher education institutions in the state will assure full transfer of any credits earned in our program to any other institution should a student elect to study at a different university in this state or beyond when he leaves. 

We are now in the process of determining which students are set to continue their education with us, collecting their transcripts and assisting them with their financial aid applications. This involves bringing in our University College, Financial Aid and Admissions Offices, who are all working over this summer to get us started. We are also preparing training sessions for our prospective faculty, who will be teaching face-to-face courses supported by other instructional methods (Zoom, pre-recorded lectures, etc.) that will work best for our students inside.

While working on our successful Second Chance Pell application over this past year, we met on several occasions in person with staff and prospective students at the two selected institutions. During these meetings, prospective students also filled out surveys regarding their educational backgrounds and ideas for program emphases, leading us to offer business administration, computer science, and engineering technology as our inaugural degree programs. (We will also offer general education courses toward any bachelor’s degree.) The students asked many questions during these meetings; they are excited to get started, as are we! As one prospective student shared, “we’ve been hoping and waiting for something like this!”

We look forward to sharing more about our program’s eventual successes!

This Program Highlight was written by Kathryn Green, a member of the Southern Collective and a Professor of History of Mississippi Valley State University.

Concerns of an incarcerated student and why we have to connect with and inform people on the outside that the ones who’ve made the commitment to stay out rarely get a chance at getting out

Southern Collective Blog, Guest Writer 1 – Tut M. Tut.

Buisness Administration Major. Graduate of Dyersburg State Community College. Currently pursuing a Bachelor’s with Lane College. Participant with the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative.

In the course of living, we all hear the statement “the only thing that’s constant is change.” While doing time and striving to take advantage of the things that are considered to be avenues of rehabilitation – i.e, programs, vocational classes, higher education, etc. -, one of the many psychological/emotional struggles that you encounter is the reality that the general public has very little faith in the ideas that change and growth applies to incarcerated people just as it applies to them. In here, your day to day reality is plagued by the possibility that irrespective of what you do now and have done consistently for years, the state and all of its constituents receive you according to who you are in the midst of criminal patterns or a single criminal act. When it comes to incarcerated people it’s as if natural development, maturity, and moral growth are not on the table.

Consider the parole board; in the course of my time in prison, I’ve made it a point to speak with dozens of people who’ve had their cases reviewed by the board although I personally don’t have a date. In certain instances, I’ve seen that a man goes up for parole with no violent extensive disciplinary history, an active record of participation in rehabilitative programs, a record of being college education, no ties to security threat groups, and decades work of time served on his sentence coupled with family and community support. On the other hand, I’ve seen someone go up with a recent violent disciplinary history, as an active member of a security threat group, with no education or trade skills beyond a G.E.D., very little time served in the Department of Correction, and no record of participation in rehabilitative programs.

Lo and behold, to the wonder of the incarcerated population, the man who is seemingly destined for recidivism is subsequently given the opportunity to go home to his family and live within a society that records indicate he’ll clash with. I write of this not to express disdain for the blessing certain people receive, but in contrast I wish to highlight that worthy people are being denied blessing that they would truly appreciate in word and deed. In the state of Tennessee, there is no set standard or criteria for who’s granted parole. It literally hinges upon the emotion state of the parole board members at the time that they make their decision. I’m certain that they would deny this claim, but I dare someone to investigate the hearings they they conduct just to ascertain the resistance that is put up and therein will lie your answer to the truth of my claim. I’m also sure that the seriousness of the charges will be put forth to counter my claim, but I’ve seen drastically different decisions applied to individuals with the same changes. At times a more serious offender who shows a more acute lack of rehabilitation is granted parole as opposed to a lesser offender. All of the things I’ve seen show that parole and the method that the board applies when considering offenders is botched.

Unfortunate is the fact that the state has yet to recognize that the best course of action for determining who needs a chance at release or sentence commutation is through the development of an agency with learned professionals who can apply expertise in the identification of offenders who have rehabilitated to the extent of having a very high likelihood of maintaining in society without conflict with the law. Furthermore, the actual nature of a person – character, natural disposition, and beliefs – must be ascertained by way of reliable individuals who’ve been in constant close contact with an offender. The judging of incarcerated people by those who’ve never set foot within a correctional institution needs to be stopped. The making of criminal justice laws without input or communication with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is also just flat out stupid. If lawmakers want to know how to stop crime they must humble themselves and begin to interact with those who fully understand the worldview of one who has carried out criminal patterns to the extent of being caught.

Program Highlight #1: Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI)

The Southern Higher Education in Prison Collective blog will feature regular posts highlighting key terms in HEP work, writing by guest bloggers, and stories about member organizations within the collective and their work. This post looks specifically at the member organization, THEI. 

The Southern Collective is composed of thirteen states with several partners in each state. One of those states, Tennessee, has three collective member organizations: Lipscomb Life Program, Rhodes College, and Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI). A primary goal of this blog is to highlight specific programs and amplify the work each does. This post takes us to Nashville, Tennessee, home to THEI. 

Founded in 2011, THEI has a mission to disrupt systems of harm, and create opportunities for autonomy and success through education, support and advocacy with and for justice impacted individuals.THEI realizes its mission through three portfolios:  Academic Programs, Student Success and Re-Entry Services, and Policy and Practice.

Academic Programs

THEI partners with three prisons across the state, and five degree-granting colleges. 

LocationFacility Institute of Higher EducationDegree Program 
East TennesseeMorgan County Correctional ComplexRoane StateTransfer Program (A.S.), General Humanities
Middle TennesseeTurney Center Industrial Complex (TCIX) Nashville State Community College (NCSS)

Belmont University
A.S., Business Administration OR Political Science

B.B.A., Business Administration
West TennesseeNorthwest Correctional Complex (NWCX)Dyersburg State

Lane College
A.S., Business Administration

B.A., General Business

Student Success & Re-Entry Services (SSRS)

The SSRS portfolio provides opportunities for students to receive support and engage in education beyond academics. SSRS seeks to provide incarcerated students and free world alumni with opportunities for self discovery, skill-building, access to information, and civic engagement through workshops like financial literacy, entrepreneurship, digital literacy, and through community groups like our Student Leadership Council and our Alumni Network.

Additionally, the re-entry team supports students prior to and post-release, including re-entry planning, parole preparation, service provider referrals, advocacy, student loan rehabilitation, and providing tangible resources post-release like laptop computers and gift cards. Communication with students starts a year prior to release to plan and prepare for the transition from incarceration, and continues post-release through follow up case management and the THEI alumni Network.

Policy & Practice

The Policy & Practice Portfolio advances THEI’s mission by engaging in systems change aimed at impacting policy & practice in the state of Tennessee and the southern region. We do this by centering the expertise of currently and formerly impacted students & HEP program providers in our analysis of state, regional, and federal policy efforts. In 2019, THEI launched the Tennessee Prison College Coalition (TPCC) with support from ECMC Foundation & the Laughing Gull Foundation to build infrastructure with a statewide collective of agencies and organizations representing higher education, workforce development, and corrections committed to widening the path to postsecondary access for all incarcerated Tennesseans.TPCC is currently working to create a program quality indicator tool for HEP programming, develop a plan to aggregate and disseminate data relative to HEP program effectiveness, and create a HEP-focused professional learning community. The goal of TPCC is to build infrastructure with a statewide collective of agencies and organizations representing higher education, workforce development, and corrections committed to widening the path to postsecondary access for all incarcerated Tennesseans.

It should be noted this post is not an exhaustive list of the work THEI does. It is meant to give a snapshot of the organization. If you are interested in learning more about THEI, you can access their website here