Ed Wiltse, G98
The Crime and Detective Fiction course Ed Wiltse, G98, taught each spring at
Nazareth College was a success by almost any measure. Each year, students would
race to register for it, often settling for the waiting list, and end-of-semester
evaluations were usually good. Wiltse also believed the course was meeting its
educational goals, helping his students critically examine how crime had been
defined and understood at various points in history. But, despite its apparent
success, Wiltse was troubled. He saw a fundamental flaw with the course and in
2000 realized that something needed to change.
"I was increasingly dissatisfied by the possibility that it was reinforcing
the notion, all too available on television cop shows and the nightly news, that
identification and incarceration was the end of the story," says Wiltse, an
associate professor and chair of the Department of English at Nazareth College of
Rochester, New York. "Television programs like CSI and Law &
Order end with the slamming of the cell door, but do not address the question
of what happens after the trial and conviction."
Wiltse had a choice to make. He could take the conventional route of just
adding more books, articles, and movies about jail and prison life to the syllabus,
hoping his students would develop a deeper understanding of what happened after
the legal process concluded, or he could do something more daring. He could go
where the media rarely does. He could travel into the heart of the corrections
system. And if he did, he reasoned, maybe his students would too.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF STUDENT
It's a summer morning at Nazareth College. The campus is mostly empty, save
for a few faculty members and students who walk by. It's an idyllic place,
featuring large, well-manicured lawns and stately buildings, at the far corner of
which sits a massive, four story brick building. This is the home of the college's
Department of English. It's where we find Ed Wiltse.
A couple of things come to mind upon meeting Wiltse for the first time. The
first is that he's a collector, evidenced by the assortment of books that crowd
the bookcase in his office. The second is that he looks like an English professor,
right down to his closely trimmed beard, glasses, conservative haircut, and
casual clothing. He would seem, if one were going by appearances alone, like the
last person who would travel into a jail bearing books. But that's just what he did.
"I wanted to put some literature into my course about jails and prisons,
but I also wanted to pair it with a project where students could go into a jail or
prison and work with the inmates," says Wiltse, who earned a Ph.D. in English
from Tufts in 1998. "But before I could, in good conscience, ask my students
to go sit in a jail
classroom with a group of inmates to discuss literature, I had to do it myself."
Wiltse vividly recalls his first visits to Monroe Correctional Facility
(MCF) in Rochester in 2001.
Jail Project participants read, among other books, Doing
Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing and A Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest Gaines.
"The first time I went to Monroe, and every time that followed, I had to
go through a heavy metal door which led to the inmates," he says.
"Every time the guard opened the door, it buzzed and the sound of it made me
jump. The first few times I sat down in the classroom, after having dragged the
plastic tables and chairs into a square so we could sit facing each other, I
could feel the sweat of fear on myself. I would ask myself, 'why the heck was I
Monroe is a jail, not a prison facility. While some inmates are waiting for their
day in court, the majority are serving sentences of anywhere from a few weeks up to
a year for a range of offenses including drug possession, driving under the influence
(DUI), burglary, robbery, and prostitution. In more ways than one, these were not
your average students.
"The energy level was like nothing I'd experienced in any classroom anywhere,
and I've taught in a lot of different settings," says Wiltse. "The classes
were edgy, raucous, profane, personal, funny, rancorous, and contemplative, all in
the space of an hour."
Despite his initial trepidation, Wiltse says, "By the third meeting at
Monroe, I was hooked."
Wiltse chose the jail rather than one of the prisons in the area primarily because
of its close proximity to the Nazareth College campus—and for another reason too.
"Beyond the simple convenience factor, I wanted my students to understand
that the incarcerated are everywhere among us," he says. "There are 2.4
million people behind bars in America right now and they are not somewhere else.
They're right here."
The next step was to involve his students in the jail work. After meeting
with administrators at Nazareth and MCF, gaining clearance to bring students into
the facility, Wiltse made some significant alterations to his Crime and Detective
Fiction course. He changed the name of it to Crime and Punishment in the USA and,
along with including novels and short stories about jail and prison life in the
syllabus, added a service-learning component. As part of this component, which later
became known as the Jail Project, groups of Nazareth students could visit Monroe six
times during the semester in lieu of writing a final paper for the class. While at
Monroe, they would meet with inmates in small groups and discuss a series of books
and the questions they raised about crime and criminals, the criminal justice system,
incarceration, and rehabilitation.
Outside of class, the Nazareth students were required to keep a journal in which
they documented their experiences at the jail. They were also required to complete a
second, albeit smaller, project that either benefited the inmates at Monroe or raised
awareness about jail or prison issues.
"In the past, students have submitted articles to campus, local, or hometown
papers about their experiences at Monroe, have coordinated community forums around jail
and prison-related issues, and have held book drives for the MCF library," says
Wiltse, commenting on this outreach work. "I also encourage students to donate
the books they have used for the course back to the project. As much as I would like
to believe that they are retaining their books and lining the walls of their dorms
and apartments with them, I know that many are selling them back to the bookstore at
the end of the semester. So, I encourage the students to donate them and, as a result,
the number of new books that I have to buy each semester for the inmates gets smaller
The inmates at Monroe, who are male and female and range in age from 16 and up, had
to fulfill a series of requirements as well when the program started. They agreed to
read six selections from the syllabus, attend each meeting and, like the Nazareth
students, keep a journal.
The format of the Jail Project, which is supported by the Nazareth College Center
for Service Learning, has remained the same since the first students began visiting
Monroe in 2002, as has the unique role that Wiltse plays.
"Typically, I set up the groups, which consist of around a half dozen students
and a half dozen inmates in each," he says. "I attend the first meeting of
each group. I help the students through security and then stay for the first few
minutes of the meeting to help break the ice. I give the students and the inmates
an overview of the project, set some ground rules, and then I leave. The rest of the
time my role is to be constantly in touch with both the students who are doing the
project and the educational coordinator at the jail to make sure that everything is
running smoothly and that everyone is feeling like the project is productive. One
thing I do not want to do is give everyone, the students and inmates alike, the sense
that I'm looking over their shoulders. I want things to grow and develop organically."
A typical session might cover topics ranging from how a book does or does not
capture life in jail to how the inmates themselves feel about being incarcerated.
BREAKING DOWN WALLS
It only takes fifteen minutes to get from the Nazareth College campus to the Monroe
Correctional Facility. Once there, one is met by an anonymous red brick building, which
houses 350-400 inmates locked away not in cells but in "pods," or communal
living spaces. But the building does not tell the story of Monroe. There are no bars
on the windows. No razor wire fence encircling it. Once inside, though, the purpose of
the space becomes clear. There is a large, gray metal detector, uniformed guards, and
visitors wearing identification tags around their necks that read "The Bearer May
Travel to Designated Areas of the Monroe Correctional Facility."
As one travels deeper into the jail, through the large door that separates the inmates
from the outside world, he or she enters a long hall which features a series of closed
doors—the "pods." Further down, an open door comes into view. This
room is not a pod, but rather a classroom that holds bookcases, tables and chairs.
It's in this place, Classroom #4, where the work of the Jail Project takes place.
It's the place where walls are broken down.
"I'm from Rochester originally, so I would drive past the jail a lot,"
says Aaron Civalier, a former student in Wiltse's class. "I never thought I
would set foot in the jail. But getting to know the inmates made me open up my eyes.
I know a lot of people look down on people who are incarcerated, but doing this
project made me see that they were just normal people."
Adds Jessica Reilly, a recent Nazareth graduate who took the course last spring,
"I was raised in a family that stressed punishment more than rehabilitation. I
felt that if you did something wrong you should know what's going to happen and
be punished for it. But this class helped me broaden my horizons. There are
often extenuating circumstances and just because someone did something that got
them into jail, it doesn't mean they're a bad person. People sometimes make bad
choices, but they are still people."
For the inmates, the Jail Project has helped alleviate both the monotony of life
in jail and has provided them with another means, beyond visitors and phone calls,
of interacting with the world beyond it.
"This class was like opening a door and you have a little crack of light
coming into a dark room," says one inmate. "You can't open the door, but
you can open it enough so you get a little of the light in. This class was like
opening up that little bit of outside society into our life in here. We looked
forward to that."
"It was really great to come and talk with the students and get to know
their views," adds a fellow inmate. "I think they were probably interested
to see what brought us to jail and why we were here. I was feeling kind of nervous
about meeting them, that they would look down on us because well, you know, here we
are in jail. I was glad to see that they didn't."
The Jail Project may affect the inmates at Monroe in another way. In 1994, the
Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a
report linking reduced prisoner recidivism to participation in prison education
programs. While the report focused on prisons, these findings may be applicable to
jail populations as well.
Therefore, Wiltse's program may help the inmates at Monroe avoid returning
there following their release.
Professor Wiltse with Sabra "Twig" Hickam (second
from the left), the education coordinator at Monroe Correctional
"A project like this really develops the self-esteem of the participants,"
says Sabra "Twig" Hickam, the education coordinator at Monroe. "They
feel good about the discussions they have with the Nazareth students. It's stimulating
their minds and gets them out of the mindset of getting back out there and doing
drugs or participating in some other criminal behavior."
Wiltse echoes these sentiments when talking about the goals he has for the inmates
in his program.
"The most important thing that I hope the inmates will take away is a sense
of themselves as thinking beings whose ideas and opinions are valued," he says.
"This is something that they may not have experienced anywhere else in the
criminal justice system."
And there's another thing the inmates at Monroe, and in other correctional facilities
across the country, may not have experienced.
"Higher education programs in jails and prisons have been drastically cut since
Congress eliminated Pell Grants and other support for inmates in 1995," says Wiltse,
who continues to lead discussions with inmates at Monroe each fall. "Because of this,
there is a scarcity of educational opportunities beyond GED classes in jails and prisons
in the United States. I hope that the Jail Project, at least at Monroe, can help fill
some of the void left by these cuts."
Back in his office, Ed Wiltse is feeling troubled again. But not by his Crime and
Punishment in the USA course or by the work being done at Monroe. What's weighing on
him is more about volume than anything else. Wiltse recognizes that there are scores
of jails and prisons across the country that not only keep inmates in, but keep people
like him and his students out, and he hopes that someday his Jail Project will not be
unique. That no one will think twice about a professor bringing his or her students
deep into the corrections system, with notepads in hand, to talk about books with the
Professor Wiltse has been working with inmates at MCF since 2001.
"This work has given me the opportunity to work with an amazing group of
people," says Wiltse of the inmates. "I never would have expected that
they would challenge me and enlighten me in the ways that they have, and I'd love
to see other people take up similar projects not only with literary texts, but
with other kinds. It seems to me that one could easily work in jails and prisons
with a range of other college or university classes and disciplines."
But regardless of what happens in the future, Ed Wiltse will continue his work
at Monroe. He will still leave his office a few days a week, get into his car, and
drive. Along the way, he will pass convenience stores and joggers, malls and fields
crowded with children at play. When he reaches his destination, he will enter a jail
that doesn't look anything like one. He will pass by a metal detector and slip his
visitor's pass around his neck.
And then he will disappear, swallowed whole by the door that leads to the long
hallway where Classroom #4 and his other students wait.
Article by Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications
manager, Office of Graduate Studies
Photos by Alex Shukoff
This article originally appeared in the fall 2007 edition of
Matters, the magazine for arts, sciences, and engineering graduate alumni.