Mississippi College | Beacon Magazine

Teaching Behind Bars

Teaching Behind Bars

Professor Otis Pickett and the prison-to-college pipeline program

It's not surprising that Otis Pickett has a passion for American history.

Pickett grew up on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, an idyllic coastal community in the shadow of Ft. Sumter, where the Civil War began. When Pickett’s family home was swept away by Hurricane Hugo, he lived for a time with his grandfather, a caring community physician who received the Palmetto Award, South Carolina’s highest recognition for civilian service to others. Years later, Pickett’s fascination with history, his grandfather’s model of compassion, and a chance meeting at a faculty orientation led him to an unexpected ministry, an unlikely group of students, and a summer spent at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.

Pickett’s love of history and his desire to serve are reflected in his educational background. He holds bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in history from Clemson University, the College of Charleston, and the University of Mississippi, as well as a master’s degree in theological studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Following a calling to teach, Pickett joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi. At a new faculty orientation, Pickett met Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies Patrick Alexander, an Ohio native and Duke University graduate who spoke about his previous experiences with critical prison studies and community-based education. As a graduate student at Duke, Alexander taught college preparatory courses at Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

“I saw education as a component of the prison ministry I was a part of at Orange Correctional Center,” Alexander says. “I kept in touch with some of the men who had completed the class, and more than one of them told me, ‘The job and the life I have today go back to that class I took in prison.’ Just the fact that someone had believed in them had made a difference. I wanted to continue working in prison education in Mississippi.”

Drawn to the idea of using his teaching skills to minister to the often-forgotten men in prison, Pickett approached Alexander before the orientation ended.

Patrick Alexander and Otis Pickett

“Otis came up to me and said, ‘Brother, I want to applaud you for the work you do, and I want to give you my phone number because I don’t want this moment to pass,’” Alexander recalls. “We became friends and prayer partners, and realized that not only were we going to build a relationship, but that some good work was going to come out of it.”

Pickett and Alexander began meeting and praying together once a week, then began connecting with others experienced in prison ministries and prison education.

“It’s easy for academics to sit around and talk about issues related to incarceration, but Patrick and I wanted to actually do something,” Pickett says. “We had heard a lot about the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ in Mississippi. Our thought was, why not create a prison-to-college pipeline?”

Pickett and Alexander’s vision was a college-level course for prisoners who held high school diplomas or GEDs that would be designed around the inmates’ interests. Prisoners who participated in the course would have the opportunity to earn college credit, and to prove to themselves that they had the ability and the intelligence needed to pursue a college education after their release. The two presented their plan for the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program to the University of Mississippi, and received a grant from the College of Liberal Arts to implement the program at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Shortly after the grant was awarded, Pickett left the University of Mississippi to join the Mississippi College faculty, but his partnership with Alexander and his participation in the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program continued with the blessings of Mississippi College.

In June of 2014, the pilot course for the program launched at Parchman. The professors’ first students were the inmates of Unit 25, a pre-release unit that included prisoners incarcerated for murder, armed robbery, and drug-related offenses.

“I was incredibly fearful of going into the prison,” Pickett says. “These are places that are very unpredictable. If there’s any violence across the state, the whole system goes on lockdown. The first time Patrick and I went to the prison, we sat in his car outside and prayed that the Holy Spirit would be with us, that we would not have fear. Then we walked into Parchman. I have never felt safer anywhere than in that classroom. The men knew we were there for them. They knew that we cared about them. They were warm and genial, and they didn’t take the opportunity to learn for granted. After that first experience, I never felt fear again. Instead, when we left after classes, I missed them.”

The first step in the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program was an interest inventory, which gave the students an opportunity to recommend topics they would be interested in studying. Based on their responses, Pickett and Alexander created a history and literature-based course they titled, “Justice Everywhere,” which focused on the Civil Rights Movement, race relations, and the justice system. The class met every Monday for 10 weeks. The course included not only lectures by Pickett and Alexander, but also guest speakers they recruited from Jackson State University and the University of Mississippi.

“When you’re in prison, visitors are very important,” Pickett says. “Having visitors means someone in the outside world is thinking of you and values you enough to come and spend their time with you.”

The course also involved classroom discussions and presentations by the 11 African American and six white students. Pickett, who is white, and Alexander, who is African American, found their different races to be an asset to teaching a class on race relations and justice.

“Otis and I wanted to emblemize what it meant to have an interracial coalition for social justice,” Alexander says. “The classroom brought these men together in a way they never would have come together otherwise in a prison space, and the conversations we had included black and white students speaking in ways in which I don’t know they would have spoken had we not been teaching the class. The students had candid discussions with each other and with us, and they supported each other even when their perspectives were different.”

“It enhanced the class experience to have a white man and a black man not only working together, but also praying together,” Pickett agrees. “It would have been a different dynamic if either of us had taught the course alone.”

As the students rose to meet new challenges in the Parchman classroom, they also challenged their professors. A student asked Pickett what role he might have played had he been an adult living in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I’d like to think I would have risked my life, but I don’t know,” Pickett replied honestly. “I’d like to think my presence here with you today reflects my heart and what I would have done then.”

The students’ deep engagement in the course was never more clear than when a prison lockdown resulted in a cancelled class that was to have featured the students reading their original poetry aloud.

“They came to the next class saying, ‘I worked very hard on my poem. We are going to get to read them today, aren’t we?’” Pickett says. “This was a prison lockdown they had just experienced, not a snow day, but all they could talk about was their eagerness to share their work. When they read their poems, there was so much excitement and so much pride in each other as a community. When they read, we heard their versions of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Barack Obama.”

In addition to potential college credit after their releases, participation in Pickett and Alexander’s course earned the students respect inside the prison walls. Students shared some of what they learned with their fellow inmates, telling them, “Maybe in the future, you’ll have the opportunity to take this class.”

In August 2014, the 17 scholars graduated from the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program. At the commencement ceremony at Parchman, several of the students again read aloud from their work. The audience of college professors and administrators and prison staff gave the graduates a prolonged standing ovation.

Program graduate Robert Lindsey summed up the feeling of all the graduates when he said, “The most important lesson I learned in this class is that my mind is brighter than I thought it was.”

Upon their release, former inmates must make a new life within a 50-mile radius of the location where they were arrested. For many, this means leaving prison only to return to the same difficult situations that led to their criminal behavior.

“That’s what this class was about – changing the students’ mindset from ‘I have no options,’ to ‘I have these options. By writing or speaking my mind, I can be an instrument of change.’”

-Otis Pickett

“We told the students, ‘When you get home, it is incumbent upon you to teach others,’” Pickett says. “One of the students said, ‘I never thought of myself as a teacher.’ That’s what this class was about – changing the students’ mindset from ‘I have no options,’ to ‘I have these options. By writing or speaking my mind, I can be an instrument of change.’” 

Eight of the pilot course students have since been released from Parchman. 

“Recidivism was one thing we wanted to change,” Pickett says. “We wanted these men to see themselves as scholars, and have the confidence to believe they could go on to college.” 

Pickett points out that an average cost of around $17,000 per year to house an inmate, the state would save some $289,000 a year if these 17 students never returned to prison. 

Pickett is committed to prison education for the long term. He and Alexander hope to teach another course at Parchman in 2015, and Pickett is also exploring the possibility of developing a course for Mississippi College students that would include visits to the prison for joint classes with the inmates. Pickett sees his work in prison education not only as a way to minister to the incarcerated, but also as a way to carry on his grandfather’s legacy. 

“My grandfather made suffering in this world a little easier to bear,” Pickett says. “For me, I can honor his legacy by teaching. I can bring hope into a place where there is very little hope.” 

A photograph of the proud 2014 Prison-to-College Pipeline Program graduates hangs on the wall in Pickett’s office at Mississippi College. 

“The photo reminds me how powerful this experience was,” Pickett says. “I pray for those men every time I see that picture. I miss them, and I hope to see them again someday outside the prison walls. My experience at Parchman was what every teacher wants. It was true teaching, the reason I was put on this earth.”