Rhodes Professors Lead Reading Group at a Women’s State Prison

an open book surrounded by library shelves of books

Since January, eight Rhodes faculty members—Stephen Haynes, Kenny Morrell, Brandy Brown, Tim Huebner, Mel Durrett, Kim Brien, Keith Corson, and Raquel Baker—have been leading book discussions for a group of 24 “residents” at the Women's Therapeutic Residential Center (WTRC) at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning.

Books for the 16-week course called the “Great Books Reading Group” were: 

  • The Iliad by Homer
  • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • The Double Helix by James Watson
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by  Alex Haley
  • Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

“The common thread in all these book are the ideas and emotions and feelings they stir up in you that make you think,” said one of WTRC residents in an article about the course published in The Commercial Appeal

Dr. Stephen Haynes, professor of religious studies at Rhodes, organized the course, modeling it on Rhodes’ Search Course and prison programs organized by liberal arts colleges in other parts of the country. 

Of the experience, Haynes says: “We planned this course to operate just like most courses at Rhodes do—as a discussion of common texts. It was only going to work if the residents were prepared to read and openly discuss the texts we chose, some of which were very challenging. The fact that they were willing and able to do engage with these texts is what made the class so successful.” 

What did Haynes learn from the experience? “That you can’t make assumptions about people’s minds based on their appearance or circumstances; that although incarcerated people remain invisible to most of us, once we make the effort to see them, we can’t forget; and that, no matter where it takes place, liberal education is intellectually and spiritually liberating.”

In order to participate in the class, women must have a high school diploma or GED and a clean disciplinary record and must explain in an essay why they want to participate. Haynes plans to offer the Great Books Reading Group again this fall with a new set of books and a new group of women, both to be determined.