Tamar Birckhead inspires NC inmates through fiction and writing

“I was an English major a hundred years ago, and I think there is a tradition of teaching fiction and teasing out ethical issues and issues that are tangentially related to the law,” Birckhead said.

Birckhead taught her Introduction to Fiction class through the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education’s Correctional Education Program, which brings UNC classes to some North Carolina prisons. The class ended March 14.

Birckhead has worked as a defense attorney since she graduated from law school and said she felt teaching a class at a prison would provide her with perspective.

“After years of practicing in criminal court rooms, at times I feel like I’m a cog in a broken machine, and I’ve wondered how much or whether I’m really helping inmates in a long-term sustained way,” Birckhead said.

Raphael Ginsberg, UNC’s associate director of correctional education, said the UNC program started as a reading group where now-retired professor Brick Oettinger discussed sociological texts with inmates.

“It was just a small reading group, and then (Oettinger) got a little bit of money, then he got more money, then the legislature gave him money, so it just grew over the years into what it is today,” Ginsberg said.

Birckhead said she noticed the women wrote about similar experiences in their essays.

“A number of the women in the class were teen mothers and ended up dropping out of high school. A number of them have written about being victims of abuse ... none of those things are surprising to find in a prison population,” she said.

“It’s just striking when you get to know people and to just see these are the commonalities — it’s sobering.”

Birckhead said she hopes her students gained a better appreciation for reading.

“I also want to improve their confidence levels. I noticed that a lot of the students were insecure about their own abilities at the beginning of the course, and I hope by the end of the class they are feeling good about themselves and more confident in their abilities,” Birckhead said.

Brooke Wheeler, education director at the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said she has noticed a positive change in the inmates who took Birckhead’s class.

“Many of the women do not think they have much self-worth or that they can accomplish things they once believed they could, so I think once they take a class through UNC, they feel like they can accomplish something, and they think there is more they can do when they get released,” Wheeler said.

Though the class is over, Birckhead said she hopes her students will continue their love for reading and learning.

“They’re incarcerated. Their days are very structured, and they can make so few decisions for themselves because their liberty has been taken away,” Birckhead said. “But their minds are still free, and I think reading stories and fiction is one of the best reminders of that — that no one can take their ability to keep learning away from them.”


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