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Sunday, January 16, 2022

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An SDSU student works with an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. (Credit: Paul Sutton) An SDSU student works with an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. (Credit: Paul Sutton)

Straight from the Pen

A new documentary shines a light on lessons learned in a creative writing program involving SDSU students and prison inmates.
By Katie White

For more than three decades, criminal justice professor emeritus Paul Sutton has been taking students to prison to experience life behind bars firsthand. Sutton has documented the experiences of his most recent group of students in a new titled “Straight from the Pen.”

For this project, SDSU students spent time at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in southern San Diego County teaching inmates writing and communication skills. Sutton does not like to refer to them as inmates, instead calling them "students in blue." He refers to the group of SDSU students who facilitated the writing classes as the "students in black."

“Both sides got so much out of this project,” Sutton said. “The ‘students in blue’ get a sense of purpose and pride because they see there are folks on the outside who care about them. The ‘students in black’ gain a deeper understanding of the problems of crime and criminality that can come only from a relatively intimate, face-to-face dialogue with actual offenders.”

Sutton paired 12 SDSU students with 25 inmates. Over the course of 17 four-hour meetings, the SDSU students helped the inmates tell their stories in ways that fostered a deeper understanding of who these men are and how they got to this point in their lives.

But the lessons were not just one-sided. Week after week, the participating SDSU students developed a better understanding about life in prison.

“Even though I was used to visiting my uncle in prison, I was still intimidated going into this project,” said Alyssa Rodriguez (’14). “After a few weeks I realized the gentlemen we were working with were very kind and I felt safer and more respected in the prison around a group of lifers than I sometimes feel in everyday life.”

The experience of working alongside the inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility inspired Rodriguez to pursue a master’s degree in Justice Studies at San Jose State University. She is finishing up her thesis in the coming months and hopes to eventually become a judge.

“A lot of the men we worked with were told growing up that they would not succeed in life and that eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Rodriguez. “What most of them had in common was an upbringing in poverty in gang-infested neighborhoods. In order to really help them, we have to rethink our social structure and come up with better ways to rehabilitate them.”

Most of the inmates who participated in the writing class were serving life sentences, with little chance of parole. Since “Straight from the Pen” was filmed in 2014, two of the men featured in the movie have won their freedom. The former inmates tell Sutton the skills and insights they gained in the class helped with their parole board hearings.

“Frankly, I think they give the writing class way too much credit in their reform, as they were well on their way to recovery before our arrival at the prison,” said Sutton. “On the other hand, I do know that working with us helped them put their work on record, so the parole board could actually see it.”

Sutton’s ultimate goal is to get other criminal justice or writing classes to adopt the idea and grow the prison writing program across the nation.

To watch the "Straight from the Pen" trailer, click here.