What is the difference between helping someone and saving someone? This is not a trick question, nor is there a wrong answer to the question. I posit the difference between helping someone and saving someone is: When you save someone, the saving person does all the work required. When you help someone, the person being helped participates in the work required.

For me, this is a key distinction, and it caused me to be skeptical towards the university professors and other teachers and volunteers who come to Stateville Correctional Center to teach classes on philosophy, women’s studies, political science, etc., to the marginalized and oppressed citizens who reside within the institution. I was greatly concerned that PNAP and UWW professors would have a preconceived notion that the citizens of Stateville need to be saved rather than helped. I was concerned that the sensationalizing of prison life by the media and big-screen portrayals of prisoners were the impetus for instructors coming here. I looked at the professors as akin to colonizers and the people of the prison as being the colonized. Besides, who would want to come to a maximum-security prison voluntarily, for little or no pay?

I will be the first to admit, boy was I wrong! Although the professors and other instructors come from institutions of privilege, institutions many of the men of Stateville consider upper class, meant for people other than themselves, my worries were quickly abated by the professors and instructors of PNAP and UWW, who have shown not an inkling of prejudice or an attitude of superiority. PNAP instructors have gone above and beyond anything I could ask or imagine. They have displayed great compassion and support for all the men of Stateville. PNAP instructors have also shown concern for the families of those incarcerated at Stateville. They acknowledge the difficulty of engaging in college coursework while at the same time attempting to overcome the corrupt juggernaut of Illinois’ judicial system. They empathize with our circumstances, applauding our creativity, energy, passion, and unique perspectives.

I have not felt as empowered or supported by a teacher since I was in grammar school. At first I was worried that the work would be watered down or graded on a broad curve, considering the students at Stateville are not of the ‘traditional’ college type. Both of these concerns were put to rest when I saw the syllabus for my first class, Critical Ethnic Studies and Contemporary Art Practice, and how I would be evaluated. The first book we read was Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and our grades were based on our comprehension and interpretation of the text, as well as the writing of a personal version of Wretched of the Earth. I understood from that point forward that my experience with PNAP/UWW was going to be based upon my ability to comprehend complex literature and theory of the past, as well as my ability to formulate new ideas for contemporary usage. For the first time in my life, I was engaged in research that was pertinent to me and to those who look like me. I was asked for my thoughts about a text, how it made me feel, what, if anything, I would change about the text, and how I would use the experience of reading it to make the world better.

In many ways, my classmates and I were the instructors, as the PNAP professors came ready and equipped with questions for us about our experiences and how the text either reinforced our thoughts or caused us to look at our lives in a different light. This was a new phenomenon for me. My instructors never assumed that they had the answers or were the privileged possessors of knowledge. They recognized that there was brilliance amongst the marginalized and that, if given the opportunity to engage in meaningful academic work to overcome conditions of oppression, prejudice, and the stigma of stereotypes, the men of Stateville would bring added value to any institution of higher learning.

I commend all the faculty of PNAP and UWW for their hard work and dedication. You bring light into a very dark, barren place and give agency to overlooked and outcast men. I applaud you for showing that there are many well-educated people who don’t harbor negative attitudes towards those of us locked away in prisons. In fact, you all stand up and loudly shout about the injustice perpetuated against marginalized people, their communities, as well as the oppressive conditions of confinement.

I tip my hat, and say, Thank You, to all the people involved in bringing PNAP/UWW to Stateville. I want you to know that you have a proponent in me. You have shown that you don’t think the men of Stateville need to be saved, but helped to use our God-given talents in order to better not only our own situation but also that of humanity as a whole. We can make a difference for future generations, now! I am proud to be a part of the PNAP/UWW family. We stand in solidarity against all forms of oppression and dehumanization.

Darnell Lane is a UWW student, who is on track to complete his bachelor’s degree in 2022. His Depth Area is Transformative Justice through Youth Advocacy.