Teaching History Within the Carceral State


Prion to Pipeline

Patrick Alexander (far left) and Otis Pickett (far right) with the 2015 graduation class of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program at Parchman Prison in Mississippi. (Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Dept. of Corrections

The reports from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians continue to roll into The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  In this installment Otis W. Pickett of Mississippi College writes about a session on Mississippi’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.  –JF

On Saturday, April 8, 2017, members of the Prison-to College-Pipeline Program (PTCPP) teaching team gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a panel at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting entitled “Teaching History within the Carceral State: A Panel Discussion on Mississippi’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.”

The panel featured the founder of the PTCPP (Patrick Alexander, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at The University of Mississippi) and its co-founder (Otis W. Pickett, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi College), as well as two history faculty who have been course instructors in the program since its creation (Stephanie Rolph, Assistant Professor of History at Millsaps and Robby Luckett, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University). The panel “moved beyond the call for new scholarship” and examined “the role of historians who teach in and about the prison [industrial] complex in Mississippi – a state that numbers among the top in imprisonment.”[1]

Patrick Alexander, serving both as panelist and chairman, began the discussion by taking the audience back to the roots of the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program, which involved his prison education work in Durham, North Carolina. As a graduate student at Duke University, Alexander established an academic enrichment program called Stepping Stones for incarcerated students at Orange Correctional Center (OCC). These students, many of whom were working on degrees at neighboring University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lacked the opportunities for office hours, a writing center, email correspondence with professors, and tutoring opportunities that UNC students in free society could easily access in order to ensure academic success. Alexander created Stepping Stones to fill in these gaps, better prepare OCC students for college-level coursework, and also sharpen their skills in critical thinking, academic writing, creative writing, and public speaking. Alexander knew he would want to continue this work wherever he received a teaching appointment after graduation. He stated, “I knew from research and life experience that higher education programs in prison drastically reduce recidivism and radically affirm the humanity of imprisoned people, so I felt compelled to persist in establishing prison education opportunities in any community in which I lived and worked.”

Otis W. Pickett then shared about his journey in prison education. Pickett’s expedition also began in Durham. At the time, he was finishing a Ph.D. in history at The University of Mississippi and was asked by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to attend the Reconciliation Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School in the summer of 2012. One of the panels at the conference proposed “what are Christians doing to serve incarcerated Christians and others in incarcerated spaces?” When scholars mentioned that Mississippi had the second highest incarceration rate in the country, many of the eyes in the room shifted to Pickett. Pickett noted, “I was clueless. I had no idea what was happening within the carceral state in Mississippi. However, I knew when I got home that I had to do something.”

Little did they know what was in store for them, but both Alexander and Pickett accepted assistant professorships at the University of Mississippi and met during faculty orientation. Glenn Hopkins, then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, mentioned on three occasions at that meeting “if you want to teach in prison, like Patrick, let me know because we have funding in the College to support you.” Pickett recalled, “I made a beeline for Patrick. I told him I wanted to meet with him and talk about what we could do to address mass incarceration and especially teaching incarcerated students.” Hopkins became a tremendous supporter of Alexander and Pickett. The College of Liberal Arts funded Pickett and Alexander’s pilot course for a prison education program at Parchman/Mississippi State Penitentiary in the summer of 2014.  It was then that they taught their first interdisciplinary course on African American literature and Civil Rights history at Parchman entitled “Justice Everywhere: The Civil Rights Stories of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Barack Obama.”

Pickett and Alexander had also launched the course and the PTCPP as the chief initiative of the University of Mississippi’s very first “Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South” conference, which was held in April 2014.  This is a biannual interdisciplinary conference that focuses on mass incarceration and is hosted at the University of Mississippi Law School. After a long summer of teaching and learning, Pickett and Alexander’s first seventeen students at Parchman successfully finished their course, earned certificates of completion, and received a sentence reduction of one month. One student, because of his outstanding work in the course, earned three hours of M.A. History credit at Mississippi College.  Pickett and Alexander redeveloped their “Justice Everywhere” course at Parchman in summers 2015 and 2016, which resulted in many more students earning college credit in History from Mississippi College and in English from the University of Mississippi (UM).  Alexander also taught a course on African American literature creative writing with fellow UM professor Ann Fisher-Wirth in fall 2016 that yielded 10 more students from Parchman earning credit from UM.

In Spring 2015, just prior to Pickett and Alexander offering their second course at Parchman, Pickett met Stephanie Rolph at the OAH annual meeting in St. Louis, MO, as Pickett recalled during the panel discussion:  “It is appropriate that we are having this conversation at the OAH. The idea for teaching incarcerated students in central Mississippi was born in conversations I had with Stephanie at the OAH in St. Louis.”  Pickett later joked, “Stephanie and I teach about 10 minutes from each other, but we had to go to St. Louis to meet.” Rolph was preparing to teach a course with a colleague at the Federal Prison in Yazoo City, MS. At the Spring 2015 meeting of the OAH, she and Pickett began to talk about education needs for imprisoned communities in central Mississippi. “I was incredibly passionate about creating higher education opportunities for incarcerated women in Mississippi,” said Rolph. Pickett and Rolph reached out to the Mississippi Department of Corrections and found that many women at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) were very interested in taking courses for college credit. “We wanted to teach them, but we needed funding,” Pickett remembered. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council (MHC) offered to partner with the Prison-to College Pipeline Program.

The MHC funded Picket and Rolph’s summer 2016 course at CMCF entitled “‘Turning Oppression into Opportunity’: Understanding Justice, Human Rights, and Gender through the Lens of Southern Women’s Experiences from the Indigenous Era to the Modern Civil Rights Era.” Rolph noted that the women loved the class and “really connected with the material especially on issues related to maternity, labor and family. They all had children and family members with whom they wanted to share what they were reading and writing.” Each student finished the course, and many earned college credit through Mississippi College.  This was the first time in the history of the state of Mississippi that incarcerated women had earned college credit from a Mississippi institution of higher learning.[2]

Robby Luckett closed out the panel discussion by sharing about his experiences working as a guest lecturer for the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program ever since its inaugural class in 2014. Luckett is excited that he will be serving as a full-time instructor for a PTCPP course this summer at CMCF. “The guest teaching day at Parchman or CMCF is always my favorite day of the year,” he said, adding that, “when I get to go into the prison space and interact with students there, it always reminds me of what teaching is really about.” Luckett then described how the history of social control in Mississippi from the convict lease system, to the constitution of 1890, to the state’s continued underfunding of education today contributes to the contemporary system of mass incarceration in Mississippi. In Luckett’s words, the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program is “dealing with the consequences of over one hundred years of failed state policy toward the poor and disfranchised, which, in Mississippi, usually means African Americans.” Luckett also noted the racial and gender diversity of panelists, and the wide variety of institutions that they represent. “Today, the PTCPP has a black guy who teaches at Ole Miss, a white guy who teaches at an HBCU, a faculty member from a private Christian university, and another from a traditional liberal arts college. This is an amazingly diverse group of professors going into prison spaces across the state and doing social justice work.”

The panel closed with questions from the audience ranging from the future of the program to nuts and bolts questions about how the program got off of its feet.

For more on the Prison-to-College Pipeline check out the following pieces:

“Teaching Behind Bars”

“Prison-to-College Pipeline Program Takes Humanities Behind Bars”

“Professors Make Investments in the Future”


[1] Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting 2017 Conference Program, page 73.

[2] The work at CMCF has since expanded and will offer three new core curriculum classes in the Spring and Summer of 2017: American Literature, Interpersonal Communications and First Half U.S. History.