Tennessee Woman Serving Life Sentence Earns College Degree, Sense Of Purpose

Tennessee Women's Prison Inmate Donna McCoy isn't letting a life sentence interfere with pursuing an education. Here she is with Lipscomb University President Dr. Randy Lowry. Image: Lipscomb / Kristi Jones

Tennessee Women’s Prison Inmate Donna McCoy isn’t letting a life sentence interfere with pursuing an education. Here she is with Lipscomb University President Dr. Randy Lowry. Image: Lipscomb / Kristi Jones

Fifteen years into a life sentence for first degree felony murder and aggravated burglary at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Donna McCoy donned cap and gown last Friday, and was handed an Associates of Arts degree by a college president.

McCoy is one of eight in the first graduating class of LIFE (Lipsomb Initiantive for Education). On Wednesday nights, the privately funded program turns classrooms off a cinder block prison hallway into a satellite campus for David Lipscomb University.

A student gives a semester-end presentation about how non-profit organizations can best serve their communities. The other students cheer when she speaks of helping others when she gets out. Image: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

A student gives a semester-end presentation about how non-profit organizations can best serve their communities. The other students cheer when she speaks of helping others when she gets out. Image: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

Much Like Any College

In that hallway, professors mingle with students, fielding follow-up questions, having casual conversation. Students joke with one another, some in TN Dept. of Correction-labeled denim pants and grey scrub shirts, others in regular street clothes. Those are the ‘outside’ students, traditional coeds at Lipscomb University who’ve signed up to take classes alongside inmates.

LIFE founder Dr. Richard Goode is in the hall too, chatting with a bow-tied Speech and Communications professor about how a student’s parole hearing went. Goode points out that Speech class is a real-world example of the program’s practicality. “It really helps when you’re going before a parole board to have had that class.”

Everyone seems happy to be there and comfortable with one another. An inmate student gives a professor a hug. It’s hard to imagine that in less than an hour half of these students will be locked in their cells for lights out, the other half having backtracked through a giant fortress of razor wire to their waiting cars.

A Violent Offender, Writing Of Violence

Donna McCoy is both a cordial conversationalist and a deep thinker. Her friendliness belies the crime that got her here. And when I congratulate her on her accomplishment, she breaks an air of seriousness with a proud grin.

WPLN’s Anne Marshall interviewed her in 2011 and described her as an avid poet and writer. When I tell her I’ve heard she is a poet, she replies dismissively “some people say that”. But she opens up when I ask how the Lipscomb program has altered her life and writing:

I didn’t have pre-conceived notions about what it would do for myself or for anyone else. But the more we grew as a family, as a community, with Lipscomb, it became apparent that I had a purpose and it felt like ‘this is an opportunity to give something back’, regardless of whether I’m on the outside or on the inside.

McCoy has written an essay — “The Nonsense of Violence” — due to appear in Chiaroscuro, a literary magazine for writers from inside the prison. In it, McCoy depicts a thread of nonsensical violence that runs through history. It’s the enemy of hopes and dreams.

Hope is embodied by one “perfect” day in McCoy’s childhood, as school is let out early and she’s fishing with friends. The day is shattered when National Guard tanks roll into her Tennessee town: Martin Luther King has been killed. She connects King’s death, the rioting that ensues after, and a few prison inmates who oppress others with the threat of violence, arguing all are faces of the same culture:

There is a small faction within the prison population who seem to have given up on their own capabilities to hope or serve humanity. This faction reminds one of an enemy. Race, sexual orientation, or economics don’t bind them. They share a creed: ‘satisfy, serve, and believe in self.’ To qualify, one must be devoid of family, faith, and friends.

This is Donna McCoy in 2011, when her college career in Lipscomb's LIFE program had just begun. Image: WPLN / Anne Marshall

This is Donna McCoy in 2011, when her college career in Lipscomb’s LIFE program had just begun. Image: WPLN / Anne Marshall

Thought She Would Fail

McCoy recalls being intimidated when she enrolled in the Lipscomb program, thinking “everyone else is at least 20 years younger than I am. I can’t do this.” She recalls a low point in Dr. Lee Camp’s Biblical Ethics class when she “just knew I was going to fail the class.”

But she credits Camp and other professors with being willing to give individualized attention, even as they hold students to a high standard. She said the homework regimen was intense, with “a tremendous amount of reading”.

Now that she’s come this far, she hopes the university will go through with plans to expand to offer a Bachelors degree. If so, she’ll pursue it. But either way, she intends to stay involved in some capacity.

 The Critics

McCoy told Anne Marshall that there were officers at the prison who believed she and her fellow inmates didn’t deserve a free education — they had had their chance and squandered it. Even though the program is funded privately, it’s an interesting question.

McCoy will likely never rely on her degree to help her get a job and contribute to society ‘outside’. She hopes to have an impact on those around her, including some who will be out one day. But when law-abiding students struggle to pay back student loans, is it fair that convicted felons are getting free college? What do you think?

At the end of a seven-year journey Donna McCoy sits in a prison classroom, reflecting on what her degree means to her and whether it matters to others. Image: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

At the end of a seven-year journey Donna McCoy sits in a prison classroom, reflecting on what her degree means to her and whether it matters to others. Image: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that LIFE is a two year program. It actually took more than seven years for the inmates to complete their degrees. 63 hours are required to graduate, and classes are taught only one night per week.

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