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KPBS Midday Edition

SDSU Professor, Students Teach Inmates To Write About Themselves In New Film

A San Diego State University student works with an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility as part of a writing program run by former professor Paul Sutton in an undated photo.
Paul Sutton
A San Diego State University student works with an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility as part of a writing program run by former professor Paul Sutton in an undated photo.
SDSU Professor, Students Teach Inmates To Write About Themselves In New Film
SDSU Professor, Students Teach Inmates To Write About Themselves In New Film GUESTS: Paul Sutton, co-director, "Straight From the Pen" Robert Gullett, former inmate, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility

THIS IS KPBS MIDDAY EDITION. FORMER SAN DIEGO STATE CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROFESSOR PAUL SUTTON LED HIS STUDENTS ON DOZENS OF PRESENT WORDS. BUT IN 2011 HE WENT INTO THIS CORRECTIONAL FACILITY TO OBSERVE AND HELP TEACH INMATES HOW TO WRITE ABOUT THEIR LIVES. HE CODIRECTED A FILM ABOUT THE PROGRAM CALLED STRAIGHT FROM THE PEN WHICH CLAIM OUT -- CAME OUT THIS YEAR. WE SPOKE WITH SUTTON AND A FORMER INMATE. Reporter: SO PAUL CREATED THIS PROGRAM, WERE SOME OF HIS STUDENTS FROM SDSU WERE TUTORS ALONG WITH A PROFESSIONAL WRITER. YOU, WERE A STUDENT LEARNING HOW TO WRITE. INITIALLY I DID NOT WANT TO JOIN. I WAS IN A REENTRY PROGRAM WITHIN THE INSTITUTION AND THEY TOLD ME THERE WAS A WRITING CLASS COMING IN I HADN'T DONE ANY TYPE OF WRITING BEFORE IN MY LIFE. I WAS INITIALLY SCARED OF A WRITING CLASS AND THEN I WAS INVITED TO THE FIRST DAY AND I SAW IT WAS BASIC ENGLISH WRITING FROM THE BEGINNING. I TOLD THE FACILITATOR CAN YOU GIVE ME THE TWO TOPICS AND I WILL WRITE MY ESSAYS TONIGHT AND TURN THEM IN TOMORROW. FOR A CHANCE TO GET INTO THE CLASS, IT WAS SOMETHING DIFFERENT, SOMETHING I HAD NOT BEEN INVOLVED IN BEFORE. THERE WAS A TOPIC CALLED WHAT IF AND MY FIRST DAY, I WROTE ABOUT THE DAY I WAS BORN AND HOW I WAS A CHILD BORN ON HEROIN. MY MOTHER AND FATHER WERE ARRESTED AT THE TIME OF MY BIRTH, THEY BOTH WENT TO PRISON. I WROTE WHAT IF MY FIRST DAY WASN'T LIKE THAT. WHAT WOULD MY LIFE BE LIKE? WHAT DID YOU SAY IT WOULD BE LIKE? I DIDN'T, IT WAS A QUESTION, WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN LIKE IF ALL THESE CIRCUMSTANCES DIDN'T HAPPEN. IF I WASN'T SENT TO THE CARE OF MY AUNT. THERE WAS NINE OF US IN THE CARE OF AN AUNT WHO IS A HEROIN ADDICT. WHAT CRIME DID YOU COMMIT THAT LED YOU TO BE HERE AND WHAT WAS YOUR SENTENCE? MY CRIME WAS KIDNAPPED FOR THE PURPOSE OF ROBBERY RANSOM, ATTEMPTED MURDER, ASSAULT WITH A FIREARM AND A FIRST-DEGREE RESIDENTIAL ROBBERY FOR WHICH I HAD LIFE PLUS +16 CONSECUTIVE YEARS. HOW LONG HAD YOU BEEN IN PRISON? AT THAT .23 YEARS. IN THE MIDDLE OF RUNNING THIS CLASS, THEY WROTE AN ARTICLE ABOUT YOUR WORK, FROM WHAT I GATHER THERE WERE A LOT OF LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, WHAT WERE PEOPLE SAYING AND WHAT WAS YOUR RESPONSE? A LOT OF THE PUBLIC RESPONSE, NOT SURPRISINGLY, WAS WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS, FOR THESE GUYS? WHY ARE YOU SPENDING OUR MONEY TEACHING THESE GUYS WHEN THEY DON'T DESERVE THE TIME OF DAY. OF COURSE, IT WAS VOLUNTARY ON OUR PART. KNOWN WAS GETTING PAID, IT DIDN'T COST THE TAXPAYER A NICKEL. IT DOESN'T CHANGE THE FACT THAT MOST OF THE PUBLIC ARE STILL HATEFUL BECAUSE THEY ARE BASICALLY UNINFORMED. THE SAME KIND OF NOT CARING THAT GOT A LOT OF THESE GUYS LOCKED UP, IS THE SAME KIND OF NON-CARING THAT WILL KEEP THEM COMING BACK. THEY STILL FEEL LIKE NOBODY CARES. THAT'S WHY THE RECIDIVISM RATE IS ANYWHERE FROM 50-80%. IT'S A FAILURE. PEOPLE SADLY ARE WILLING TO WRITE IT OFF AND SAY I WILL PAY MY TAXES, I WANT THOSE PRISONS THERE BECAUSE I AM SAFER BECAUSE OF IT. THAT'S A LIE. I WANT TO PLAY A CLIP OF SOMETHING YOU STAY IN THE FILM TALKING ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU WROTE DURING THIS CLASS. I PROBABLY HAVE OVER 500 PIECES OF PAPER, THAT ARE FULL OF ALL MY NOTES, THOUGHTS IDEAS AND THINGS I LEARNED, THINGS I LEARN ABOUT MYSELF. THINGS I WOULD NEVER HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT PRIOR TO THIS. I HAVE MADE A PERSONAL COMMITMENT TO MYSELF THAT THIS WON'T STOP AT SOMETHING, I WILL CONTINUE PAST THROUGH THIS CLASS. SO YOU WERE PAROLED IN 2015, HAVE YOU KEPT UP? I HAVE NOT. I HAVE NOT BEEN DOING ANY WRITING SINCE I'VE BEEN HOME, UNFORTUNATELY. SINCE I'VE BEEN RELEASED, MY LIFE HAS BEEN LIKE A WORLD WHEN. I WAS IN PRISON FOR 24 YEARS, COMING HOME TO PAYING BILLS AND LEARNING HOW TO LIVE LIFE OUT HERE HAS TAKEN CONTROL OF ME. IT'S MAINLY WORK, WORK, WORK. I'VE HAD THREE DIFFERENT JOBS SINCE COMING HOME, THAT'S WHERE MY LIFE HAS BEEN. IN THE FUTURE, I DEFINITELY WOULD LOVE TO KEEP WRITING, IT'S NOT LIKE IT'S OUT OF REACH OR SOMETHING I WON'T EVER DO AGAIN. ONCE I FIND THE TIME AND SETTLE DOWN, IT'S ALMOST BEEN 3 YEARS SINCE I'VE BEEN HOME AND IT STILL -- IT'S MOVING FASTER AND FASTER VERSUS SLOWING DOWN AND SETTLING. IT HAS BEEN PRETTY CRAZY. THIS WAS FILMED IN 2014, WERE THERE OTHER CLASSES AFTER THAT? THAT WAS THE LAST CLASS. IT COINCIDED WITH MY RETIREMENT BUT WE WOULD LOVE AND I HAVE HAD OTHER PEOPLE AND OTHER STATES TRYING TO DO A PROGRAM LIKE THAT BUT IT DIDN'T WORK. WE WOULD LOVE TO SEE IT STATEWIDE, AND EVERY PRISON, IF NOT THIS CLASS ANOTHER CLASS LIKE THIS. IT IS BASICALLY FUNDING. THE STATE PROVIDES SECONDARY EDUCATION, PROVIDING GRAMMAR CLASSES, ENGLISH COMPOSITION CLASSES, THIS WAS NOT ABOUT HOW TO STRUCTURE A SENTENCE IT WAS ABOUT HOW TO FIND SOMETHING MEANINGFUL TO PUT IN YOUR SENTENCE. I THINK FOR THAT REASON, IT IS MUCH MORE FULFILLING THAN THE TRADITIONAL EDUCATIONAL CLASSES. IF I HAD TO CATEGORIZE IT, I WOULDN'T CALL IT AN EDUCATION CLASS, I WOULD CALL IT AN ENLIGHTENING CLASS. IT'S A CLASS WHERE YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF I THINK IT MADE PEOPLE WILLING -- THE DANGER WAS OPENING UP. IN PRISON YOU DON'T OPEN UP, YOU SURVIVE BY BUILDING A WALL. ONE OF THE THINGS YOU BUILD WALLS FOR IS THERE ARE GUYS WHO RUN OUT AND TELL OTHER GUYS IN THE YARD, HE'S WE, HE HAS SOMETHING IN HIS HEART THAT THEY CAN TAKE ADVANTAGE OF. MAYBE THE FACT THAT I WAS ABUSED, TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF AS A CHILD, THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS, YOU BUILD UP WALLS AND YOU DON'T SHARE WITH OTHER STRANGERS IN THEIR. NO ONE IN THERE IS HER FAMILY, NO AND THEN THERE IS YOUR BROTHER. NO ONE IS THAT CLOSE TO YOU TO WHERE THEY GET INTO YOUR HEART. BREAKING DOWN THE WALLS AND SHARING THOSE THINGS WITH PEOPLE WAS ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS THAT I EVER DID IN MY LIFE. A BIG REASON WHY I WAS CAPABLE OF DOING THAT WAS BECAUSE OF THE POSITIVE ENCOURAGEMENT AND INSPIRATION AND LOVE WE WERE SHOWN IN THEIR

Former San Diego State University criminal justice professor Paul Sutton led his students on dozens of prison tours over his three-decade teaching career.

But in 2011, he brought his students into Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility not only to observe, but to help teach the inmates to write about their lives. Sutton co-directed a film about the program, called "Straight From the Pen," which came out this year.

Robert Gullett was serving a life sentence plus 16 consecutive years in Donovan for attempted murder, kidnapping for the purpose of robbery, and first-degree robbery when he joined the class.

"I was really yearning to find out about me and my life, and how I came to be the person that I was. I was searching for what my problems were in my life," said Gullett, who was paroled in 2015. "I was writing about my good memories and bad memories, and I had no idea I was an abused kid. I just thought that’s how people were raised up in the ghetto."

A collection of essays from the prisoners is due out this fall, Sutton said.

Sutton and Gullett join KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to discuss how the program helped inmates to open up about their vulnerabilities.