The Public Humanist

Education, Prisons, and Battling Misperceptions

In Massachusetts and across the nation the formerlyincarcerated are faced with often-insurmountable obstacles in finding jobs,rebuilding relationships and rejoining communities. The surest way to improve theirchances for success is indisputably providing opportunities to pursue a collegedegree. A college education provides not only skills and credentials, but moreimportantly, it helps to repair the psychic damage caused by social exclusion.Many individuals in our prisons are people who presumed from a young age thatthey would be “doing time.” Moreover, their experiences in public schools andwith social welfare systems have reinforced their sense of inferiority andfueled their anger.

Despite the well-documented link between education andreduced recidivism, the opportunities to pursue an education within prisons isextremely limited. As a Political Science and Gender Studies professor in asmall liberal arts college, I have joined other educators who have decided wecan no longer wait to respond to the crisis of incarceration and its collateralconsequences. I have developed an “Inside-Out” course that brings togethereleven Amherst College students and eleven residents of the Hampshire CountyHouse of Corrections in Northampton, Massachusetts for a seminar on “RegulatingCitizenship.” My course follows the methodology developed by Lori Pompa atTemple University. The design is based on carefully constructed guidelines andpromotes an atmosphere of equality among all the students involved.

My experience teaching this course has been remarkable.Rather than explore all the reasons why, I want to focus today on the questionrarely posed by criminologists and policy-makers narrowly interested inreducing recidivism rates—how can the liberal arts classroom transform lives?

In a classroom it is possible to create an alternativereality to one’s immediate surroundings (even if it is a prison). When I firstmeet the “inside” students, I tell them that I will teach this class like anyother seminar I teach; that, in effect, I will bring to this institutioneverything that I value about teaching at Amherst—the assumption that studentsfully participate in the learning experience, high expectations for verbal-expressionand writing, and encouragement for critical inquiry. Within minutes of thestart of the first class, we are caught up in the thrill of exploring new ideasand listening to each other. After the first class one of the inside studentscame up to me and said, “thank you, that was like two hours of freedom.” Whilethis experience of freedom is essential to any good learning environment, theinside students enabled us all to appreciate it more fully.

When I teach the works of John Dewey, Henry David Thoreauand other theorists, students explore these readings with an unusual degree ofintensity and interest. While I hope to achieve this level engagement in everyclass I teach, in this setting I find that students are quicker to draw on eachother’s insights and take advantage of the variety of life experiences in theroom. There are also moments when the context of imprisonment resonates withthe discussion. No one forgets for a second that the issues we discussmatter—that the vibrancy of democracy, restrictions on freedom of speech,bureaucratization of modern life dramatically shape our lives (and oftenexplain who and why some of us are on the “inside” and others are on the“outside”).

This creates more than a great learning experience; itenables the inside students to realize how much they have to contribute totheir peers and their own potential to learn. It also is a powerful correctiveexperience for many whose schooling has re-enforced feelings of inadequacy andhopelessness. Although it is anecdotal evidence, in the two semesters I havetaught this course, many of the students have decided to enroll in communitycollege after finishing their sentences. They tell me that they never thoughtthey would enjoy reading political theory, and finding that they do, they alsogain the confidence to pursue academic studies or occupational skills thatnever before seemed attainable. Seeing this transformation in my students hasstrengthened my own faith in liberal arts teaching and its power to unlock thepotential in all of us.

This project has real potential to reverse fundamentalmisconceptions about who can benefit from an “elite” education. My “outside”students immediately recognize that high SAT scores and impressive resumes arenot the necessarily requisites for insightful thinking. An inside student, forexample, in discussing Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianismmay better understand how an authoritarian regime stifles ones sense ofdistinctiveness. This appreciation for the talents of incarcerated students isdifficult to convey to the general public who often assume that theincarcerated are undeserving and incapable of benefiting from a liberal artseducation. In hopes of reaching a broader audience I permitted a Boston Globereporter to visit my classroom this spring and ended up sorely disappointed byher portrayal of the course. Except for a promising headline (“UnlearningPreconceptions”),the article re-enforced stereotypical images of “inmates” in a sensationalizedaccount. Both my inside and outside students felt betrayed by thesecharacteristics, especially by the way a rather reductionist news story failedto capture the life-changing dimension of the classroom experience. Myunfortunate encounter with the mainstream media demonstrates the difficultiesin making the case for education in prisons in a law and order society.

In order for such educational opportunities to become morewidely available I believe it is imperative for scholars and teachers to takean active role in breaking down the commonplace presumptions furthered bydecades of the crime-control mentality. Although “Inside-Out” courses are smallefforts to improve the lives of those in prisons, they can become part of alarger effort to promote social awareness about the wasted potential created bymass incarceration. This course “works” because it benefits the insidestudents, but just as importantly, it benefits all of us because it counteractsthe impact of the penal system which continues to punish long after prisonersare released. This is also a marvelous example of how humanists can use theirskills as teachers and scholars to have a direct and immediate impact onreversing the effects of social disadvantage.

–Kristin Bumiller, Professor of Political Science andGender Studies, Amherst College

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