In the 1980s while teaching 12 hours at SHSU, English professor Dr. Ralph Pease was commuting Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to Houston to teach young police officers the grammar and structure of report writing. At the same time, he was also teaching on the other side of the bars here in Huntsville.
For five semesters, one night a week, he taught between three different units; the Walls Unit, the Ellis Unit, and the Wynne Unit.
“I did it primarily for the money, really,” said Pease. “When my wife and I started having children, we decided she would stay home and raise the children, so I moonlighted to take care of my family.” He explained that was about the time he won the prestigious Piper Award.
He believes it was because he was teaching not only his college students, but also the police and prisoners all at the same time.
After two and a half years, he stopped teaching in the prison, but said that it wasn’t because he stopped liking it, it was just too much teaching full time, driving to Houston, and spending late nights at the prison.
In fact, he liked it very much. Teaching at the prison was “interesting,” according to Pease.
He taught at the freshman and sophomore level in the prison. He said that there were three types of people in his class: people who had been in the military and received a G.I. Bill, which they forwarded to their families, people who thought it looked good on their records, and people who were pretty determined that education was going to keep them from ever going back to prison again.
Sometimes Pease taught from the same syllabus for his SHSU students and the prison inmates, and the prisoners were mostly more prepared for class than his university students. He admired many of them. They worked all day in the prisons in the heat, and still managed to come prepared and participate in class.
He also understood why many of them were so bright. A good portion of his students were college-age students that had gotten into drugs at some point or another. The reason they were not in college outside of the walls was because they had made poor choices and had run with bad crowds.
He found the students to be hard-working and generally pretty good writers. One semester, his class was running out of time for a story, and the class asked him to come back the Saturday after their last class just so they could get that extra story in.
“They were excellent students. They were mature,” said Pease. “Inmates are just people in a different place, that’s all.”
According to Pease, they were not all great students. He explained that one semester he had an older gentleman in his class, and when it came time for the first exam, he simply didn’t want to take it.
“I don’t want to take the test,” the student said, “I just like being in here.”
He also had a student that always sympathized with the “bad guy” in the story. People didn’t even want to sit near him.
He said that there were some students that if he had the power, he would have released them right then. They had made one bad decision or another, and his heart broke because the longer they stayed in prison, the tougher they got. A favorite student of his was actually in his class once, and then again two years later, and he could just see him getting more rigid.
He also said, “There were some that I hope never get out.” He was never scared of any inmates. According to Pease, he knew if anybody had tried to attack him, they never would have reached their goal. He had the protection of the other inmates. He was their teacher — there was a mutual respect.
The hardest part of teaching was the classroom setting. For example, at the Wynne Unit, they were in a large gymnasium with no air conditioning, and the classes were divided with rolling chalk boards. So while teaching, he was competing with the other classes to be heard.
One thing Pease adamantly explained was that he never met an inmate that proclaimed to be innocent. What they did argue about, which Pease felt was a good argument, was justice.
An example of their complaint is that one of his students who was released had been the driver of a get-away car in a vicious robbery. The other men involved had gone into an old antique store, robbed the elderly woman, and drowned her young granddaughter in the commode. At the same time, there was a man in prison for life because he had continually written hot checks.
Other complaints in regards to justice were that many people guilty of horrible crimes just skated because they had money.
Pease liked to address real issues with his students as they read the stories. There were things that no one was supposed to talk about with students, but he said that was sometimes hard to avoid with literature.
On one occasion Pease told them that one time he had gotten so angry he could have shot someone. People were protective of their families and sometimes a person could get to that point. He told them that he hadn’t, of course, and a student shouted, “That’s because you didn’t have a gun.” Pease corrected him and said, “No, I had a gun, I just chose not to use it. That is why I am leaving here at 9 o’clock, and you guys have to stay here.” He knew that he was not supposed to talk about things like that, but felt as their teacher, it was important to make points of that nature to show them there was a different way to live.
The Ellis Unit had the best learning environment according to Pease, and they actually had a classroom setting. He had to teach The Scarlet Letter while he was there, and he said he kind of dreaded the fact, but that it actually turned out to be very popular among the inmates, and was a terrific experience.
They enjoyed The Scarlett Letter so much because Hester did not sell anyone else out, she accepted responsibility, paid the price of her crime to society willingly, and then continued on with her life. That is exactly how they felt in their situation — they related.
“The prisons are like little cities. They have their own Rotary Clubs, and poetry clubs,” he said. “The idea of offering education in the prisons is absolutely valid.”