Inmates at Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center are using the works of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky to get on the road to academia, and ultimately a better life.
They’re part of classes taught by UAS Professor Sol Neely, who brings college students behind bars with him each semester to learn writing skills alongside convicted felons.
Death, blood, despair — this is how Marcos Galindo describes prison gang life in a poem he wrote while incarcerated at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in the fall of 2013.
The 29-year-old is now a senior studying political science at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“Education opened my eyes to leaving old ideas in the past and adapting to a new, meaningful fulfilling idea which is critical thinking and being able to help others,” Galindo says.
Galindo says courses in philosophy and literature that he took while in prison gave him an escape. After serving two years for second-degree assault, he decided to abandon the gang lifestyle he’d been living since childhood and enroll at UAS.
Professor Sol Neely teaches the classes that inspired Galindo. He began teaching at the prison in 2012. Early on in the process, Neely says an inmate asked him point-blank why he was there.
“My response was I’ve done some things in my past and I have been fortunate not to land in jail, so I go in there because it could have been me,” Neely says.
Neely brings in a group of UAS students each semester to take a 10-week course alongside inmates. He says it’s important his UAS students not treat the program as a field trip — where they observe the prisoners at a distance.
“We’re not here to go in and to help these guys,” Neely says. “We’re to go in and learn from and co-study. It’s mutual.”
Neely teaches students to dissect the philosophical writings of Havel, Levinas and Dostoyevsky—writers who all at one point spent time in jail. Neely says the restrictive atmosphere of the prison is an appropriate place to discuss the themes of these authors.
Nathan Block is another UAS student and former Lemon Creek inmate. After serving in the Iraq War, he say ended up in prison after using skills the Army taught him in a negative way. Block says he immediately wanted to enroll at UAS after serving two years for armed robbery.
“I see education as a means to utopia in this world,” Block says. “Education leads to better things for everybody.”
Block writes about his military experiences in a poem titled “Bombs Under Freedom.” It was published with the works by 14 other current and former Lemon Creek inmates this month in a literary journal titled “Flying in Shackles.” Stories of rage, race and romance fill the pages, and Neely says it captures the individual, unique story of each prisoner.
“As you read the poems and the literature in this journal I think you have to listen for that story. If you want to access the existential depth, you’ve got to sit down with this book in your hand and you have to listen,” Neely says.
The journal was paid for by a grant from the university’s Undergraduate Research, Experiential & Creative Activities program. Neely says UAS faculty and staff have been supportive with students transitioning over from Lemon Creek.
Former inmates attending UAS joined together to form an on-campus club named The Flying University—an homage to the underground philosophy popular in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion of the 1960s.
Galindo is the club’s founder and says their objectives are to promote social justice and recruit Lemon Creek offenders to enroll at UAS. Galindo says the transition is usually difficult for ex-convicts, but can be made easier thanks to Neely’s courses.
“There’s no reason why I can’t get a degree as well…If I could handle Sol’s classes I could handle any of these classes here,” Galindo says.
Shakespeare is the next topic Neely will be teaching at Lemon Creek. He says he’s excited to see how the inmates deconstruct the villainous personalities of the playwright’s famous works.