Humanities on the Inside-Out: A Mixed Community Course on the Prison Memoir

by Maria Healey

In June 2005, the Foundation awarded Mount Holyoke College funds for the training of a teaching assistant for a spring 2006 class, Inside-Out in Hampden County: Prison Literature and Creative Writing. As designed by Mount Holyoke Visiting English professor, Simone Weil Davis, Inside-Out was an innovative course that brought together incarcerated students and students from the Five Colleges in a classroom “behind the wall” at the Hampden County Community Safety Center, a day-reporting facility in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Kim Keough, Davis’ teaching assistant, is a Frances Perkins scholar who graduated from Mount Holyoke in the spring of ‘06. Keough had previously trained as a writing workshop facilitator with Amherst Writers & Artists and with Voices from Inside, a Western Massachusetts creative writing program for incarcerated women, when in August 2005, with the funds from the Foundation, she attended the Summer Training Institute offered by Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program has been offering mixed-population, semester-long courses to college students and the prison population since 1997. The Summer Training Institute exposes trainees to curriculum development, group dynamics, and protocol.

Davis, a visiting associate professor of English, formerly at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus and New York University, had taught classes on incarceration and social justice issues before, but Inside-Out was her first course with a mixed student body. Awarded an Innovation Grant from Mount Holyoke, as well as the grant from the Foundation, she collaborated with Voices From Inside, devising a course that melded the exchange of creative writing with analysis and discussion of published prison memoirs appropriate to a literature course. Five College students received course credit toward their degree. The incarcerated women received a certificate of course completion, which can aid in parole and, Davis hopes, foster confidence that they “have plenty to offer in a discussion about literature and can succeed in a college environment.”

Davis’ interest in incarceration stems from her childhood. Her father was a professor at the University of Michigan with radical views during the McCarthy Era. When he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he declined to testify and claimed protection of the First Amendment on the grounds that the proceedings were unconstitutional and therefore invalid. Cited for contempt of Congress, he spent six months in federal prison.

“It made me aware of the impact on families of incarceration,” she says. “It was part of (our family) culture growing up. My father was blacklisted in the wake of that experience, so we ended up moving to Canada.”

An equally passionate interest of Davis’ has been adult literacy, especially how people without the benefits of education “figure out a way to get access to full expression.” She advocates “a redefinition of the word literacy, one that emphasizes community creation and community purpose rather than individual “self-betterment” and “upward” mobility, one that turns literacy from a noun to a verb, from a possession into a praxis between people.”

The role of community in the Inside-Out course was layered and pivotal. Combining populations that are usually kept separate was crucial to the idea of the class. The mixed student body’s efforts in analysis, discussion and shared writings were infused with a an uncommonly wide range of personal experience and social conceptions.

The assigned prison writings spanned centuries, cultures and human stories, from “De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde to excerpts from Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead to a memoir by Jimmy Santiago Baca, a poet of Hispanic and Native American heritage, who served six years in an Arizona prison for drug possession. The class delved into Inner Lives: Voices from African American Women in Prison, a poetry anthology edited by Paula Johnson, as well as a piece by popular contemporary author Dorothy Allison, titled “Stealing in College,” and Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, by Jarvis Jay Masters, a converted Buddhist currently on Death Row in San Quentin, whose vivid, transformative work was particularly inspiring to the class.

Assistant teacher Kim Keough praised the readings for provoking meaningful in-class exchanges on many levels. With an emphasis on shared responses, both oral and written, the course readings became launching pads for intellectual confidence and broadened all students’ conception of higher education and civic responsibility as arenas where both academic and experiential knowledge can play vital roles. “Amazing exchanges left students feeling as if they’d opened new parts of their brains,” Keough said. Discussions illuminated not only the commonalities in the written and shared incarceration experiences, but also “the thin line between not suffering consequences for some stupid mistake that you made and having your whole life revolve around it.”

Professor Davis observed that the prison memoir has particular power in this setting. “It makes it clear that experiences and emotions caused by incarceration connect people across time and place and circumstance. It also makes it clear that the things incarcerated people are experiencing are ‘literature-worthy’.”

Davis had expected that assembling a mixed community to study literature together in a correctional facility would prove uniquely transformative. “Inside” student Tracey Bacote, had this to say about the intangible value of a humanities course behind bars: “You can show me how to do something in terms of (earning money) but it doesn’t mean it’s going to do me any good, because the only thing I (may) use it for is to support my addiction. But if you teach me how to address those issues that I’ve never been able to discuss with anyone, I will be better off as a person. I will realize my value as a person is more than me just doing the same thing I’ve always been doing.”

©2006 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2006