The Prison's Professors: A Special Report

Published: Dec. 21, 2015 at 6:27 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 23, 2015 at 3:32 AM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - I've been covering Alabama's prison crisis for close to four years and it's felt a little like rooting around in the sewer.

Yes, many of the people we lock up have done terrible things, but the real yuck factor hasn't come from them.

I've been astonished at the way we warehouse people in horrific conditions and have been saddened by the apathy and contempt many people on the outside feel toward our prison population.

Alabama prisons house more than 30,000 people; they are people who have broken the law, but they are also husbands and wives, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers.

I sympathize with crime victims and would never want to downplay the hurt, anger, pain and suffering that crime forces onto innocent people.

I also believe examining the system we have to correct criminals is equally important.

Some of you are offended by our coverage of prison conditions, admonishing us for giving the time and consideration to a population of people who are locked up for breaking the law.

"If you don't like the conditions, don't commit crimes," goes the drumbeat of criticism that has become ubiquitous with our prison coverage.

Honoring innocent victims and considering the difficult lives of felons do not have to be mutually exclusive.

You may have seen the reports about the overcrowding and violence, along with our state's efforts to finally begin to reform a woefully dangerous system.

It is not only dangerous for the felons serving time, it is dangerous for the prison staff and it is dangerous for you. 98% of all prisoners in Alabama will get out one day.

That's why their prison experience matters.

Pictured above: Cornelius Bridges is serving a 20-year sentence.

Reforming prison conditions may not be politically popular in Alabama, but it is a true matter of public safety.

As the architect of Alabama's prison reform bill, Senator Cam Ward told me, "Do you want them to be a productive member or do you want them to be somebody who's going to harm somebody?"

I began reporting on the stories told in this documentary over one year ago when I first heard about a unique educational program UAB has provided at Donaldson Prison in Bessemer for almost three decades.

Every other week, a different faculty or staff member from UAB volunteers to drive out to the prison and lecture a select group of prisoners on an academic topic.

Prisoners who attend the lectures listen intently, ask meaningful questions and leave the lectures with a head full of new knowledge.

Educational opportunities like this have a calming effect on inmates: They are less violent and disruptive while incarcerated and up to 43% less likely to re-offend once they get out.

Donaldson Warden Cedric Specks wishes they could provide more opportunities like this program.

"Even when they leave the class," he said, "they can go back to the dormitory, spread that knowledge to the other inmates and it just helps the institution as a whole."

In The Prison's Professors, we examine this unusual program and why it matters. So much of what we cover in our prisons is terrible, but this is a rare success story.

I hope it gives more context and understanding about why prison reform is important.

We also get an opportunity to meet some of the men served by this program and hear their stories, filled with mistakes and regrets that can serve as a cautionary tale about crime.

Ron McKeithen is one of those men, serving life without parole for a series of crimes he committed in the 1980's, including robbery, burglary and credit card fraud.

Pictured above: Ron McKeithen is serving a life sentence.

Under Alabama's habitual offender law, a mandatory life sentence was imposed on McKeithen and he's been locked up for 33 years.

"My story isn't one of heinous deeds, only foolish decisions," McKeithen explained to me in a letter.

I was able to speak to him in person several times about educational opportunities like the UAB Lecture Series and how it can open up new possibilities for prisoners who want to change their lives.

"You have to do things to direct your mind in a constructive, positive way," explained McKeithen. "A lot of the guys want to change, and to change you need options."

Perhaps this piece can also be a call to action, that in hearing about the profound effect this program has, some may be inspired to serve this population of people that sadly, many feel should just be thrown away.

One felon I know refers to his prison as "the monster factory," a place where stabbings, rapes, drugs, corruption, and waste are so pervasive that it washes over everyone inside, compounding the difficulties already faced by convicts who so often have histories of addictions, mental illness, and abuse. He also laments the lack of programs and constructive things to do at his prison; he and his fellow inmates are starving for intellectual enrichment, personal development opportunities and any avenue they can take to atone for what they've done.

Is this really what we want in Alabama?

The lives of prisoners matter to public safety and I believe, they matter to humanity.

They are our fellow Alabamians, whether we like it or not.

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