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Choosing to spend free time in prison

by Anita Kornoff
Special to The R-C
Debbie Cutshaw in the shadow of The Duke, John Wayne.
Anita Kornoff

Who would have guessed the petite, demure lady with the friendly smile was on her way to prison? Debbie Cutshaw volunteers time to share her years of education and provide an opportunity for self-improvement to the inmates in Northern Nevada correctional institutions. Besides enjoying teaching, she chose to offer classes there mainly because statistics show “an educated inmate is less likely to return to prison.” Her other volunteer efforts include being an active member of the Carson Valley Lions Club and helping out at the Douglas County Library.

Cutshaw has lived in Nevada since 1964. She earned college degrees in both Criminal Justice and teaching English and Literature. She retired in 2007 after more than 20 years of working for the state. Her most recent position held was as an NSP Caseworker II. In 1990 when she began working at Women’s Prison, a supervisor told her she would need to be a bit of a maverick. She also taught English classes after work for male inmates at NSP through WNCC.

“One of the first skills needed when working at a prison,” said Cutshaw, “is to be able to prevent inmates from manipulating you. However, I found those who participate in educational programs are usually among the best behaved. Most are interested in improving themselves, and appreciate the opportunity for diversity in their routines.”

Opportunities to earn high school diplomas and GEDs while in prison are free. However, inmates must pay for any community college-level classes. “After completing education, they are eligible to qualify for certain prison jobs,” she continued. “The most highly prized are in the license plate factory, bookbindery, or mattress factory. Taking classes while incarcerated can also help inmates qualify for non-paid, yet highly rewarding assignments such as in the dog training and Nevada’s Wild Horse programs.”

When Cutshaw started teaching part-time at NSP and NNCC, classes included English 98, 101, and 102. Since inmates rarely have enough money to buy materials, she scrounged for old textbooks and bought paperbacks or films for classes like English 200, e.g., Novels to Films. She provides paper and pencils for students. All classes presented must be approved by the prison’s assistant warden. Cutshaw offers one course in which she shows classic movies being careful to limit the level of violence depicted. Examples of films she uses are “Double Indemnity,” “North by Northwest,” and “The Searchers.” Students are required to answer in writing about five questions regarding what they have just viewed.

“During Black History month, I create a Black Literature Symposium reviewing renowned authors and poets such as Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was the first African-American woman (brought here as a child on a slave ship) to publish a book of poetry in 1773; becoming as famous as Oprah Winfrey is to us.”

Another popular class she offers is on “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” by Hannah Craft, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The recently discovered novel dating back to the 19th century is believed to be at least partly autobiographical and is the first book written by a former slave herself.

“We also discuss and read excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” says Cutshaw “I am continually surprised to learn how many people have not actually read the book despite having definite perceptions of it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel of the 19th century is considered the most powerful book ever written about American slavery. Yet many people of that time only saw the story as a stage play or musical.”

“Unfortunately, given the lax copyright laws in those days, producers often took liberties turning Uncle Tom into a satirical character,” she said. “The point being that the novel was not written for entertainment’s sake; but rather to educate and to transform society. The actual book tells the story depicting Uncle Tom as a dignified, almost saintly slave admired as a leader among his people,” she said.

Cutshaw recommends reading the original work. “It is quite different from the way it has come to be shown over the years and makes an interesting read,” she concluded. Although some inmates drop out of the class, those who remain end up improving.