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Tutwiler Reading Initiative educates, inspires participants

January 25, 2017

During a break in class, Yolanda McMillan picked up the book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” from the table and thumbed through its pages.

“It feels good to express different views and to hear everyone’s views. Everyone walks on different paths, and one passage or book may mean something to me and something different to someone else,” she said.

McMillan is part of a reading initiative, provided through Troy University and Ingram State Technical College and made possible through a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The difference between this class and others though is that this one meets behind the walls of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, where McMillan and other inmates meet each week to discuss what they have read.

The program, now in its second year, begins the spring session this month and is led by professors from TROY’s English Department.

“Each week we meet here. The ladies have the books and have read them before they come to class,” said Dr. Harold Kaylor, a professor of English who heads up the program. “We have about 2 ½ hours each week to present the material and hear the responses and ideas from the ladies who participate. Their responses are always energetic, enthusiastic and deeply considered because they have such commitment to the literature we are presenting.”

Tutwiler Reading Initiative participant Yolanda McMillan

Tutwiler Reading Initiative participant Yolanda McMillan

The idea for the program grew out of connections between TROY and Ingram State, the state’s only educational institution providing postsecondary career and technical education exclusively to incarcerated adults and eligible parolees. Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Chancellor of Troy University, chairs the Ingram State Foundation Board.

“The program came about as an opportunity for Troy University to become involved in an outreach to the prisons within the State of Alabama,” Dr. Kaylor said. “Through the support of the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Troy University and Ingram State Technical College, we were able to put this Reading Initiative program together. We plan to extend the program next year to include men’s facilities with a focus on veterans, who represent too large of a presence in the prison population in Alabama. Little by little, Troy University is moving into a very important area of what we could only call social consciousness.”

In addition to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” participants in the fall session of the program also read “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

For McMillan and other participants, the program helps promote a wider appreciation and understanding of literature and its applications to daily life.

“I enjoy it because you hear different views based on how different people interpret the book,” Shawnda Owens said. “You learn more by discussing the book and hearing what others think. I’m able to freely give my input on how I view things. This enables me to do what I like best, which is read and learn about history and different cultures.”

For others, the program also helps awaken a love for reading and opportunities to explore other means of expression and self-discovery.

“I’ve always loved to read, so I really enjoy these classes,” said Tiffany, a participant in the program. “This program has also helped me to discover that I like to put my thoughts down on paper and write stories, poems and hopefully, in the future, books.”

While McMillan enjoys reading and discussing the books, she admits that the program also provides a break from daily life inside the prison’s walls.

“It makes you forget where you are and helps you to focus on something else,” McMillan said. “It is good to have the professors here and have their points of view. This is good for me, and I need it. I appreciate that I have a program like this that I can get all of this from.”