Cleveland school students to see images from life in prison in district's attempt to stop dropouts

Documentary for schools on convicts wrong turns

CLEVELAND - The moving images and sound of men marching along an instituional hallway while a guard wearing a pistol with handcuffs hanging from his belt is both graphic and saddening.

The men who are walking are clad in prison uniforms as they pass along the corridor inside a prison.

These are images that will be part of the curriculum of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as the system wrestles with the enormous problem of dropouts. Experts know a sizeable proportion of the men and women in the prisons of America had dropped out of high school before they broke the law.

So the documentary, "Insideout," is being brought to Cleveland schools as a way of allowing the inmates to speak to the students. Wlith cameras  recording their images and voices, the inmates tell their story of how they went wrong in their lives.

The hope is students will not consider dropping out of school or of turning to lives of crime.

"You know what the results of ignorance is," said documentary creator Shelley Stewart. "All you have to do is just look into the prisons; look at the crime rate."

Stewart owns an Alabama advertising agency. He credits his education with his station in life. Certainly, he began life in a troubled situation. In the documentary, Stewart tells the camera when he was five years old, his father murdered his mother.

It was at that point others took in Stewart and stressed the importance of education. It was advice he took.

His documentary features both men and women inmates in the Alabama prison system. It was shown to a group of Cleveland educators, community workers, elected officials, and students.

"I was watching the film and I felt inspired to continue to do what I wanted to do," said Shadi Thompkins, a student at Cleveland's East Technical High School.

He said it impressed him to continue in his quest to graduate high school and go to college.

"It was really a powerful film," he said.

The film is poignant in many ways. Each inmate who is interviewed by Stewart has his year of his first incarceration on the screen. Students will see some of the convicts have been in prison for 20 years since they turned age 18.

Those in life behind bars plead with the student who will see and hear their stories. The convicts talk of the mistakes they made in their lives. Stewart's camera goes into the many areas of the prisons, showing life behind bars. In many segments, there are shots of barbed and razor wire at the top of tall fences.

The sound of closing prison doors echo throughout hallways. Throughout, Stewart's narration resonates about how all decisions are made by prison authorities and not by inmates. They are told what time they must rise from bed, eat, return to their cells and work.

In one segment, a prison warden speaks of the mothers on the outside who cry for their sons and daughters behind the bars and walls of the prison system.

"Sometimes the mothers cannot afford to make trips often to the prison to visit their sons or daughters," said the warden. "Often, they quit coming."

Stewart said the idea is to impress upon students who will view his documentary of the importance of making good decisions early in their lives. Whatever decisions made will have an affect on the quality of life later.

"Insideout" will not stand alone as part of the curriculum in Cleveland Schools. Accompanying the documentary will be lessons plans where teachers go deeper into the subject of school dropout and crime.

"We can continue to do these kinds of things and we can have these kinds conversations with students," said Gayle Gadison, a curriculum manager with Cleveland Schools.

Part of the curriculum calls for high school students to write letters as if they are incarcerated in prison. The letters are a class project, but written as if they are to be given to their families "back home."  The idea is to give the students a taste of what life would be like were they to follow lives of crime.

"If we don't try to fix it now, then there won't be any future generations to inspire others," said Christian West, a student at East Technical High School who saw the documentary's premiere showing.

"Insideout" closes with a heavily-barred prison door closing slowly on the camera's lens. Its clank is jarring. Then the documentary slowly fades to black. The hope is Cleveland students understand that life does not have to be lived inside prison walls and behind steel-barred doors. The hope is the students understand they can achieve their positivie dreams with education.

Stewart emphasized the documentary can play a major part in the lives of parents of the students. When his mother was taken from him in a violant act by his father, he lost both parents at the same time. However, other adults and a

school system would not let him fall through the cracks.

"Insideout" workers to keep students from falling through the cracks all the way to a prison system where a heavy door would clank on them.

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