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Spotlight Iowa City: Finding a calling in prison

BY IAN MARTIN | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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When Rebecca McCray’s friends ask her what she’s doing on a Tuesday night, she almost always has the same answer: I’m going to prison.

It’s not because she has been charged with or convicted of any crime. The 24-year-old UI senior makes the hour-and-a-half drive to Mitchellville, Iowa, and willingly checks into the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women to teach art and writing classes.

“They’re excited,” said McCray. “They don’t take education for granted the way some of us do, because it’s just something we’re accustomed to. But it’s a privilege when you’re inside.”

McCray is an English major who began to accompany Rachel Williams, a UI associate professor of art education, on the trips to Mitchellville in the summer of 2008 to work with inmates.

In a typical one-and-a-half hour class, the group will help about a dozen inmates with art ranging from painting to writing. Many students keep journals McCray gave them in which they write poems, letters, or prose pieces.

At the end of the class, McCray gathers the group and allows participants to read what they want aloud. McCray and Williams both described the writings as much different from a college English class, because they are not bound by the conventions taught in classrooms.

The crew has grown now to include an administrator from the School of Social Work and an English teacher from Kirkwood Community College.

McCray has stayed with the program almost every week since her first visit almost two years ago.

“She is the reason I bring volunteers to the prison now,” Williams said, explaining she wanted more helpers like McCray. “After I worked with her, she was just incredibly inspired and inspiring.”

Though McCray relishes the time she spends at the prison, it can also be emotional.

“It’s kind of rough,” she said. “I develop relationships with these women, and so sometimes, when I leave, I am just incredibly depressed and horrified when I learn how they have to live.”

The class is not about workshopping writings, McCray says, just expression for women who may not have many forums to do so.

All of this, for someone who has sat through countless college workshop and English classes, is what is really important. McCray wants to eventually work for a nonprofit organization aiding ex-offenders who have been released from prison.

This may be because her interest is not just a single foray. McCray and Williams have worked at the Iowa State Juvenile Home in Toledo the past two summers, helping the girls write, produce, and act a play over just a few weeks.

For someone who has lived in Iowa City for nearly her entire life and who has dropped out of college twice, she said these experiences have been an awakening for her.

“It puts things in perspective for me,” she said. “I appreciate the freedom that I have.”



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