PELZER — A lecturer and team of students have taken a communication theory class to a maximum-security prison in the Upstate over the last year and a half. Pauline Matthey, a lecturer in the communication department, has held “Talk Back” on a weekly basis at Perry Correctional Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in Pelzer.
Matthey created the curriculum for the course based on research and previous graduate studies at Eastern Illinois University.
Through the lens of communication theory, Matthey uses “Talk Back” to broach topics relevant to inmates, including social issues and listening and reflection skills. She said the experience thus far has been incredibly rewarding and she enjoys working with a segment of the population that many people would prefer to “keep out of sight and out of mind.” Once certain barriers are broken down, Matthey finds inmates who are just as receptive as many students she encounters in her day job.
“Once you’re able to show the inmates respect and prove to them that you don’t see them as their inmate number or a crime they committed, they really open up to you,” Matthey said. “In just a few weeks I’ve found students who are eager to engage with something outside of what they’ve experienced before or since incarceration.”
Although Matthey arrived at Clemson in 2012, it took until August 2015 for her to make the program possible. She reached the chaplain at the prison, who was receptive to the program as a practical and creative outlet for inmates. Prison administrators then picked inmates they deemed a good match for the program, and by December 2015 it officially launched.
Matthey is the first to admit that she may seem to be an odd choice to head up the program, let alone introduce it to a correctional facility. A native of Switzerland, Matthey was born into an upper middle class European household. Upon arriving in the U.S., the country’s preoccupation with shows like “Cops” and “Lockup” intrigued her and informed her graduate work.
An Eastern Illinois University professor recruited Matthey to help with a theater program at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, where she eventually developed the communication class curriculum with the help of three inmates. Those inmates since have taken up the reins of the program and spread it to other prisons.
Matthey said the first day of class was intimidating, to say the least. She still remembers how the gates locking behind her seemed to get louder as she made her way through the prison. Any concern for her own safety was soon dwarfed by the thought that she might never find common ground with her students. However, week after week, Matthey saw students increasingly engage with her and the material. She’s found similar success at Perry Correctional Institution.
“I believe in this program regardless of the size of its impact,” Matthey said. “This isn’t necessarily for the academic world; it’s to benefit the students in a concrete way.”
According to her students at Perry Correctional Institution, Matthey’s work at Wabash Valley more than translated for them. Jimmy is an inmate involved in the program who has served more than 40 years in prison, many in solitary confinement. He sees the classes as a gift and commented in question-and-answer follow-up surveys that the classes have expanded his knowledge and helped him realize how certain issues such as racism and sexism affect everyone. Jimmy’s final project focused on both relational dialectics and narrative paradigm.
Colin, another inmate in the program, enjoyed the class’ information on speech code theory, which refers to a communication framework exploring how societal, cultural and gender groups communicate. He said he valued the experience simply because it allowed people outside of the prison to “see what society doesn’t see.”
“We remain human and full of life and love even though we’re viewed as animals,” Colin said. “I have to ask myself whether I should strive to be better; I’m grateful for the opportunity in this class.”
Matthey has spent two hours most Wednesdays at the prison. She was joined by Jeff Kenney, a doctoral candidate in the Clemson College of Education’s educational and organizational leadership development department, and Abbie Beadle, a recent graduate of the College of Education’s counselor education program.
Matthey, Kenney and Beadle have seen the class delve into multiple subjects, and Matthey said many inmates have emerged from discussions with different points of view.
The program hasn’t just had a great effect on the prisoners, but on the students who have worked with Matthey. Beadle nominated Matthey for the Chi Sigma Alpha Outstanding Professional Award due to the impact she has had on student affairs through her work at Clemson and at Perry Correctional.
Beadle said her weekly experiences at Perry Correctional have had a lasting impact on her.
“Even though it didn’t seem like a likely place to find joy, I had so many meaningful conversations and moments with the group,” Beadle said. “The laughter and support of those involved was a beautiful contrast to the setting.”
Michael Staton works in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, at Clemson University.