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Teacher Describes 25 Years of Classroom Service at Federal Prison in Milan, Michigan
close-up of the corner of a jail cell

February 22, 2024, Adrian, Michigan – A recent presentation offered by the Adrian Dominican Sisters Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion explored the lives of a population often cast aside or derided by the mainstream culture: prison inmates.

The February 7, 2024, presentation, Light from the Cage, also touched upon racism. “Culturally, we know that Black males are overrepresented in prison,” said Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion, in his introduction to the presentation. He challenged the audience to consider how their culture views prisons and prison inmates.

Judy Wenzel, author of the 2017 book Light from the Cage: 25 Years in a Prison Classroom, spoke of her experience as an adult educator who, seeking a substitute teaching job with Milan [Michigan] Area Schools, was called upon instead to fill an immediate opening as a teacher in the Milan Federal Correctional Institution. “That short walk across the hall totally changed my life,” she said.

Judy noted the diversity of inmates in federal prisons and her challenge as a white woman teaching them. “So a federal prison has people from all over the world, and when I [first] got there, my students were mostly white – and then the mass incarceration really kicked in,” she said. “So then what I had in the early ’90s were young Black men from Detroit, Flint, Chicago, Cleveland – young, in their ’20s. They just got swept up.” 

She ultimately learned how to reach her diverse group of students when a student told her they were uninterested in Van Gogh or Shakespeare. She reached them with Black spirituals, Black literature, and poetry.

But Judy soon came to realize the creativity of her students. One student in her a history class suggested that they create and perform a play. She invited others to attend the “Breakfast Theater,” which the audience loved. “Then we were off and running, so we did all kinds of plays the whole time I was there,” Judy recalled. “It was so much fun.” 

Through the years, Judy learned from her students: from one who took all of her classes and included a paragraph of wisdom in each assignment, from a group of students who held a mock election in 2008, and from the way many of them lived through long prison sentences for drug violations. “How do you come in and face 33 years?” she asked. “There are saints who live there.”

Judy also experienced the kindness of the men – to each other, as they faced years together in prison, and to herself when her father died, and later when she broke her ankle. When she finally returned to teach at the prison, she said, the men provided her with a table so she could teach while sitting down. “They flanked me down the hall so I wouldn’t fall,” Judy recalled. “They were nursing me back to health.”

Judy also spoke of the damage that prison does to inmates and society. “We have a terrible idea of who’s in prison,” she said. “Prisons do two things really well: they keep people in, and they keep the rest of us out, so we can’t get near them.” The system also devastates the inmates, taking away their agency and their ability to figure out how to lead a good life, and family members who suffer from the lack of their loved one’s presence in their daily lives. 

Watch the video of Light from the Cage.

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Avatar  John Meehan 3 weeks agoReply

God bless all the good sisters from Adrian Michigan and all their good work! You are angels and role models for all of us!

Avatar  tiny fishing last monthReply

The men she meets are so kind. I want to know more about them. Thank you for sharing it.

Avatar  connections game last monthReply

I appreciate your thoughtful selection of this. It sheds light on the profound impact of the prison system on both inmates and society, highlighting the barriers it creates between individuals and the challenges faced by those within the system and their families.

Avatar  suika watermelon game last monthReply

We hope that prisoners will be treated like human beings, they commit crimes and they pay the price by going to prison, but they should not be treated excessively.



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