Veteran Nathan Block stands on the UAS campus last week. Once an inmate at Lemon Creek, Block is now in his second semester at the college and hopes to get his PhD.
Emily King, seated, listens as Nathan Block addresses a class at Yaakoosge Daakahidi. King is a senior at UAS. This fall, she organized a poetry workshop with both UAS and Lemon Creek students.
Story last updated at 12/4/2013 - 2:07 pm
This time last year, Nathan Block was in jail. A veteran who served two years in Iraq and three months in Afghanistan, when he returned he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and had a hard time adjusting. He moved to Juneau to attempt to get away from it all, but ended up using drugs and robbing a downtown jewelry store. And then he ended up in jail.
Now, he's finishing up his second semester at the University of Alaska Southeast. He's the co-founder of the college's philosophy club. He won one of Woosh Kinaadeiyí's poetry slams. He's applying for a grant to start a community garden on campus. He volunteers to share his love of spoken word poetry with youth. He works part time as a peer advisor. And he credits much of his success post-release to The Flying University, a University of Alaska Southeast program started by UAS Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy Sol Neely.
"The Flying University totally kicked ass," Block said. "There are so many institutional structures in jail to treat drug addiction, to treat all this stuff, but it's all based in history, it's not based in the existential realities of the individual."
Other inmates, both inside and outside the jail, praise the program as well, saying it's had a positive impact on them.
The Flying University
The program started under a different name with Fall 2012 advanced English class Neely taught called "Fugitive Thought: Philosophy and Literature Born of the Prison." UAS students worked and attended class on campus, and at the end of the semester, participated in an integrated portion involving both philosophy and creative writing - and both "inside" and "outside" students - at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
"It was just a marvelous success," Neely said. "Relationships were made, forged, in four weeks."
The next semester, Neely organized a Lemon Creek class on the philosophy of existentialism. In other classes, UAS student Anna Hoffman organized a three-week poetry seminar at the jail, Neely brought visiting philosophers Martin Matustik and Patricia Huntington into the jail as speakers, and UAS senior Emily King organized a five-week creative writing and cultural studies class UAS students and prisoners attended just because they wanted to - they didn't get any credit.
"That already is a testimony to the program and what it can do if it's drawing people on their own good will," Neely said.
King said she was impressed with how supportive everyone was of fellow students' writing, and how vulnerable they were willing to be.
In one exercise, each of them wrote a love poem. Then they passed it to the person sitting next to them, who read it out loud.
"It was just this really intense moment of vulnerability that everyone was willing to experience together," she said. "That's what keeps us wanting to go back in, is them being so willing to share, and so willing to be open, and because they're so vulnerable, we're able to be vulnerable, too."
"The prison classroom becomes a utopia," Neely said. "When you can have a respect for one another that's not based not off of the power model that constitutes the prison system, but rather respect based off vulnerability, it's a completely different kind of respect."
Neely has experience working in prisons in Indiana. When he arrived in Juneau, he knew he wanted to continue that work.
"The history of the prison system in the U.S. is thoroughly entangled with the history of racism," Neely said. "You can't separate the two. And I think that that's sort of the inspiration. We're born in the wake of historical violence that we maybe did not commit but we find ourselves having to heal, and I think that's what this is about."
The "inside-out prison exchange program" is also an inspiration, Neely said.
"Every prisoner has a story, and that's what we're really about attending to," Neely said. "The story of every prisoner. Prisoners are not reducible to their histories. They are incommensurable in some way with their histories and with the institution that they inhabit. However small that space of incommensurability is, that's the place of transformation. And the guys - they tap into it."
Next semester, Neely is planning a Native American literature class. Xh'unei Lance Twitchell may also teach some Tlingit language revitalization classes, Neely said.
King plans a literary journal of the inmates' work.
"They're always expressing gratitude for us going in there," Neely said. "It's a paradoxical kind of service. The more we go into the prison and the more we work with these guys, the more indebted to them I feel."
So far, about 15 UAS students and about 20 inmates have participated in the program.
With a mother who was a prostitute and a heroin addict, and a father who is a former Hell's Angel, Block said he grew up in Minnesota foster families and orphanages, finally getting adopted later on.
"None of it ever seemed to be the white picket fence dream that I was hoping I was going to get when I got out of my dysfunctional family and upbringing," he said.
In the summer of 2004, he found out his mom died of a heroin overdose. In 2005, he joined the Army.
"When I came back from Iraq, I couldn't really find myself, find my place," he said.
He started self-medicating with drugs.
"I ended up on just a horrible path. I couldn't get off the path. I didn't know what to do... I created all these caves," he said, referencing Plato's allegory.
His armed robbery was "the stupidest decision I've ever done," he said.
In a way, he says, jail was good for him, in that it got him off drugs. He also got to attend the Flying University.
"What I really appreciated about Sol's class is that he gave us the tools and the chance to artistically express ourselves," Block said. "In that class we had every... story possible inside this one room, and we all had the ability to realize we're not so different at all. We're people with stories, and people that are learning and experiencing life, and making mistakes, and learning from our mistakes, and suffering from our mistakes."
By helping them understand that, Block also said the class helped him get out of jail.
"If it wasn't for this class, I'd probably still be in jail," he said. "I would have ended up fighting (a couple) of these guys and not getting good time. That class allowed us to engage ourselves outside the confines of the gang mentality. We created a new mentality. The Flying University mentality."
Students still in jail expressed thanks as well. After King's poetry class, two wrote thank you letters. One preferred to remain anonymous.
"I was also somewhat astounded at how cordial and Respectful and Ready to launch y'all were... an atmosphere which I am not ... accustomed to... but like all capable inhabitants of the Jungle whose existence is based upon mere survival instincts I can adapt to uncharted territory," he wrote. "The way you brought Peace and Friendship into the mix... was appreciated... there's no way to adequately convey how it felt to be in the midst of such talented and educated and social people."
Shaka Levshakoff, a current resident of Lemon Creek, wrote a letter to Neely in early November. "Sol, what you are doing for me and all whom have participated in your offering of invaluable time, energy and wisdom is beyond tenable," he wrote. "Thank you. Please continue to feed us this much needed intellect that has allowed me to grow in such a metaphysical way." He also extended thanks to other participants and to King, specifically, for "exposing me to the beauty of poetry."
"I believe she has allowed me to tap into a gift that has been dormant and now I have another manifestation in my life that I am proud to proclaim," he wrote. "I will never forget that."
Once he got out of jail, Block had a hard time. He didn't know what to do, and the restrictions by which he had to abide (only so much time away from the halfway house, limitations on loans) made things more difficult, he said. With Neely's mentoring and his military benefits, however, he managed to enroll at UAS.
"What I realized is Sol set up a community inside the prison to embrace me as I came out," he said. "I felt like I was welcomed on the university. I've never really felt that way before about any other place."
It's not always easy. Sometimes, he gets depressed thinking about the years he's lost. Sometimes he feels the pull of addiction, something he expects to battle for the rest of his life. But Block said as the first Flying University student out of jail, he feels a responsibility to those still there.
"I have a responsibility to show them that the path is there and we can do this. It's hard... I have an ethical responsibility to my brothers and sisters in jail to show them you can do anything you want to do.... You're not reduced to the prison," he said.
He'd like to get his doctorate and teach philosophy overseas. He also doesn't feel right about the U.S.'s role in Iraq, and would like to go back to make a positive difference.
"I feel like I have a responsibility... to ask for forgiveness for what we've done over there," he said. "I'd like to teach English in Iraq one day. I don't know how realistic that is (due to violence), but I'm holding on to the dream."
Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.