For Paul Marassa, writing coordinator for the TRIO Achievement program, his students at the Hills Correctional Center are just like college students to him. Though some of them are older and come from different backgrounds, he says teaching at the educational program at Hills Correctional is not too different from teaching at Knox.
“When I first started working there … there was an older professor of math there who said, ‘I never think of them as felons or prison inmates- to me, they are college students,’” Marassa said. “I really took that to heart and I’ve always done that.”
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Hills Correctional Center is a medium security all-male prison located in Galesburg. The center opened in 1986 and hosts 1,703 inmates.
Marassa has been teaching at the correctional center since 1993, a few months after he started teaching at Knox. Marassa typically teaches English and writing during the weekends. According to him, everything students hand in for a grade is done during class time, so if a student is working on a paper or taking an exam, they will do so during the designated educational hours.
Adjunct Professor of Math Liz Hutchings, also began teaching at the correctional center. Hutching had heard from another Knox professor that the program at the correctional center during fall term needed to hire a math teacher so that students could meet their graduation requirements.
“I felt like [the inmates] were trying to do something good with their lives, and they weren’t able to do that because they didn’t have a math teacher. I wanted to be able to help them,” Hutchings said.
For Hutchings, teaching at the correctional center can be a bit different from teaching at Knox. Hutchings likes to be personable with her students and teach them through experience. However, at the center, instructors are not allowed to speak about their personal life.
“There are rules against that, but you can tell that some of them are trying to connect because they appreciate what I do,” Hutchings said.
Marassa is also aware of the distance he needs to keep between him and his students. Despite this, he tries to keep a light-hearted classroom environment. One of the biggest challenges for Marassa is adjusting his teaching for the different levels of writing and verbal skills of the inmates. Sometimes, inmates will tell Marassa learning something is impossible because of the situation they are in. However, Marassa attempts to convince them otherwise.
“It’s not that I don’t understand that their skill levels are deficient. This is an issue at every 2 and 3 year college,” Marassa said.
Marassa says that Hills Correctional Center used to be at the top in terms of educational opportunities for inmates, but things have been “up-and-down” since. The correctional center had a two year Associate of Arts and Science program and a four year accredited General Arts program in partnership with a few different universities. However, since then, a few universities have pulled their program.
“I was writing recommendation letters for people wanting to go to grad school. We had a guy there who was incarcerated, who was a student at Roosevelt University, but also trained and ended up on the Olympic boxing team.” Marassa said.
Marassa says that resources have been more scarce now and that getting books is especially difficult. However, he does notice a resurgence with expanding the academics program in the center.
Hutchings also believes that adjusting for the different skill levels in her classroom can be a challenge. She also thinks the dynamic between an all-male classroom and one female professor can be daunting, but she’s never had any trouble with her students. She finds that being able to help students, who may otherwise feel like society has given up on them, learn the skills they need in order to have an education is deeply fulfilling.
“It’s very meaningful. I just walked away from my last final exam going ‘Wow, look at what they did,’” Hutchings said. “[Society] expects nothing from them, and yet they accomplished so much. They were doing trig and doing things that some math students never get to.”
Marassa doesn’t want to make his teaching sound too noble, as instructors are paid a stipend, but he believes the program can significantly help inmates. Like Hutchings, he also finds the work to be gratifying and recommends any professor at Knox to join the program.
“In terms of the pleasure of teaching, it’s about some of the best teaching opportunities I’ve had. Not that it’s a competition, just there are times where I’m happy to be with them,” Marassa said.