The Outliers

Arielle Emmett, Ph.D.
5 min readJul 31, 2023

--

7 / 21 / 23

When Prisoners Educate Themselves, Success becomes Reality

by Arielle Emmett

At age 19 Ed McMillan was an out-of-control kid who loved his mother and hated the Navy. At Christmastime in 1997, he went AWOL, driving in a buddy’s car from Virginia back to Oxnard, CA to stage a surprise visit. Barred at the door by a distrustful stepfather, McMillan and his friend Josh stole a car to return East. For 15 minutes they pointed a gun at the driver as they drove to the outskirts of town, dropping her off unharmed.

Ed McMillan on the job today

For their crimes of kidnapping and carjacking, Josh got 15 months in jail — his uncle was Chief of Oxnard Police –and McMillan, represented by a public defender, was sentenced to a maximum of life in prison. Paroled after 21 years, McMillan is now a full-time construction inspector, holder of four academic degrees, and father with a three-year-old daughter. At Folsom State prison he mentored other men trying to find answers to what they did and why they did it — questions about blame and self-esteem, sexual abuse as children, and how to turn decades of jail time into new life.

McMillan’s attributes his turn around to Pace Life Skills, a prisoner-taught program at Folsom that uncovered gaps in his past that neither vocational nor behavioral science courses revealed. “College courses weren’t the complete answer,” McMillan told me. “With Pace, I started solving a lot of mysteries…my short-term thinking, inability to plan, to follow directions or give directions. In class I was asking questions, doing my homework, showing up on time. It wasn’t like the other courses, where you could just sit there and blank out.”

Pace Life Skills is now available in more than 100 US correctional institutions. The course is disseminated throughout the California prison system, along with institutions and community colleges in North Carolina, Alabama, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, among others.

Although Pace is among an arsenal of schooling programs for prisoners mandated by law, its focus on “soft skills” is unusual. The program’s 25 modules focus on prisoner-guided discussion and mentoring, writing journals, role playing, and pragmatic problem solving rather than conventional “we will fix you” counseling from outside experts. Prisoners like McMillan say the program helps rebuild self-esteem and confidence. Skills like goal setting, learning to listen and speak effectively, and developing strong interpersonal relationships are crucial in the outside world.

“You can’t make a life for yourself if you don’t have goals and a plan to get you there. You need a pretty good self-concept,” said Dr. Susan McKee, an Alabama-based educational psychologist who developed the original Pace Life Skills program in the early 1990s with husband Dr. John McKee, a correctional educator, director of the Rehabilitation Research Foundation, and founder of Pace Learning.

Today, she continues to disseminate a modified curriculum with input from prisoners themselves. She’s gratified that “soft skills” training, in addition to academic skills, reading, mentoring, and peer-to-peer counseling have been recognized in so many institutions she’s touched.

I met Susan McKee three years ago in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She’s a close friend of my practically new husband Neil Dietsch and his late wife, Christine. Susan lives in a quaintly timbered house in the woods high above a meandering lake. I also discovered how incredibly warm and insightful she is — a lifelong proselytizer of second chances. She’s a great listener, too. Susan offers a maternal touch that people like Edwin McMillan and Chris Whisenant, another Pace Life Skills graduate, seem to love.

“Before I was putting band-aids on a lot of [personal] stuff, said Whisenant, a 49 year-old electrician and holder of five academic degrees. He’s out of prison after 18 years, having been incarcerated three times over two decades for gang violence, gun possession and multiple shootings. But working with McMillan at Folsom, Whisenant took the PACE course and after three years became the lead facilitator. Today, he’s working toward a career in social work. “I had a lot of trauma [in youth] and I didn’t see it as trauma,” Whisenant told me. “The Pace course set the standard, the basis for me to see all this stuff. For the first eight modules of the course exploring self-concept and how others saw me, it was huge. When I started these modules, I thought people saw me in a violent way and I didn’t like it.”

What distinguishes these two from roughly 2 million incarcerated men and women in US prisons today, two thirds of whom end up being rearrested within 3 years of release? One differentiator could be the opportunity, training and will to look inward without authorities judging you as irredeemable. That, apparently, is at the heart of what “soft skills” training is all about.

An Epidemic of Incarceration

I’ve asked several criminologists what can be done to stop the epidemic of incarceration — a more than 700% increase from 1972 to 2009. Today, one out of every 31 Americans is involved in the criminal justice system. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans. Escalating numbers of African-American women are being imprisoned long-term for non-violent drug crimes. Although efforts to reduce prison populations are ongoing in some states, incarceration rates for violent crimes have barely budged. Stiffer sentences –a legacy of the Clinton years –drug traffic, “three strikes” laws, racialized (in)justice, and a history of ignoring root causes of crime and abuse are all part of the mess. But one positive factor is education. Research has shown that prison education programs reduce recidivism as much as 43% overall, according to a Northwest University study.

Admittedly, criminal justice has never been my “beat” as a journalist. But with Susan McKee’s friendship, I’vestarted to ask a lot of questions. In the next few posts, I’ll highlight my interviews with Ed McMillan, Chris Whisenant, Susan McKee, and Dr. Susan Dewey, the University of Alabama professor of criminology and criminal justice who has devoted her life to understanding women prisoners in the rural south and west. I’ve talked to artists like Tameca Cole, whose 26 years of incarceration ultimately led to national exhibitions, including her featured painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

To me, redemption comes in different forms. There is no one “model” of prison education that works for all. But these outliers provide a vision of what could be — and the hope that goes with it. I want to tell their stories as best I can. — Arielle Emmett

--

--

Arielle Emmett, Ph.D.

Emmett is a writer, visual journalist and US Fulbright Scholar. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Air & Space, Mother Jones, and many more.