Inmates say ‘stay in school’

By SpencerRoush

Interviews with inmates at two maximum security prisons have created a learning tool that has spread across the United States and recently into Chicago Public Schools.  The tool is a 26-minute documentary that activists hope will inspire students to stay in school and deter the “chronic” dropout rates.

The Mattie C. Foundation, which created the documentary, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing dropout rates and helping people realize that “education is the key” to life.  Since 2007, the “InsideOut” documentary has been circulating throughout 44 states and was launched in Chicago on Feb. 9 with the help of Verizon Wireless, which sponsored the endeavor.

“The goal of the foundation is simple—to stop the dropout rate—that’s it,” said Tom Shaer, media relations coordinator for the foundation. He said the documentary displays a stark look at the consequences of dropping out of school, which he said is “tragic, but avoidable.”

Shelley Stewart, president of the foundation, said the documentary can build a relationship with students and communicate in a way that is more helpful than any one-time program implemented in schools. He said the stories of these inmates will connect with students.

“Relationships come from the darndest places,” Stewart said. “It came from people who will never be able to walk free again in the penal system, and their message is, ‘If you learn to read, if you get an education, you won’t be in here where I am.’ It’s a great message, that’s why it’s called ‘InsideOut.’”

Stewart speaks from experience. He was just 5 when his father murdered his mother with an ax. He  was homeless at age 7.  However, he said there was an incident that saved him from going down the wrong path.

“At the beginning of that tragedy in my life there was a first grade teacher who, for whatever reason, formed a relationship with me,” Stewart recalled. “She said, ‘Shelley, if you learn to read and you get an education, you can become anything you want to be.’”

Now Stewart is a published author of a book telling his life story.

However, the stories from the inmates are not like Stewart’s. In the documentary, he asks them their level of education and what their dreams were before prison. Seventy-five percent of America’s prison inmates are high school dropouts.

Many of the inmates in the documentary went to prison before they were 18 years old. One female inmate stopped attending school in the fourth grade.

Another inmate talked about his endless dreams of what he was going to do when he grew up, which never transpired.

“One of my dreams was owning a chain of motels,” the inmate said, because his mother worked at one. “When I lost my dream, then I got lost.”

Some of the inmates were illiterate, others will never be freed, but all of them had one thing in common: they all lacked a proper education.

Andrew Brady, director of business sales for Verizon Wireless’ Illinois-Wisconsin region, said, “[The documentary] moves you when you think of the inmates and the message that they bring. It makes you want to be a part of it.”

Brady said Verizon sought out Stewart to be part of this project because education has always been important to the company. Verizon Wireless sponsored the foundation so parts of the Midwest could receive “InsideOut.”

Stewart said he wants Chicago’s students to listen to the inmates’ stories and overcome adversity, which he said is possible because he’s done it.

“If you look at me, I’ve done very well … but it took a lot to get where I’ve come today,” Stewart said. “You can overcome adversity. You can overcome. You can

do things.”

According to Stewart, if people focus on education, other problems in the world will also lessen, such as people entering into the penal system, teen pregnancy, obesity, unemployment and poverty.

“I’m not a politician and I’m not a preacher,” he said. “I’m just a common- sense guy that says ‘Education is

the key.’”