The Public Humanist

Education, Prisons, and Battling Misperceptions

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

Despite the well-documented link between education and reduced recidivism, the opportunities to pursue an education within prisons is extremely limited. As a Political Science and Gender Studies professor in a small liberal arts college, I have joined other educators who have decided we can no longer wait to respond to the crisis of incarceration and its collateral consequences. I have developed an “Inside-Out” course that brings together eleven Amherst College students and eleven residents of the Hampshire County House of Corrections in Northampton, Massachusetts for a seminar on “Regulating Citizenship.” My course follows the methodology developed by Lori Pompa at Temple University. The design is based on carefully constructed guidelines and promotes 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 question rarely posed by criminologists and policy-makers narrowly interested in reducing recidivism rates—how can the liberal arts classroom transform lives?

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

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

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

This project has real potential to reverse fundamental misconceptions about who can benefit from an “elite” education. My “outside” students immediately recognize that high SAT scores and impressive resumes are not the necessarily requisites for insightful thinking. An inside student, for example, in discussing Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism may better understand how an authoritarian regime stifles ones sense of distinctiveness. This appreciation for the talents of incarcerated students is difficult to convey to the general public who often assume that the incarcerated are undeserving and incapable of benefiting from a liberal arts education. In hopes of reaching a broader audience I permitted a Boston Globe reporter to visit my classroom this spring and ended up sorely disappointed by her portrayal of the course. Except for a promising headline (“Unlearning Preconceptions”), the article re-enforced stereotypical images of “inmates” in a sensationalized account. Both my inside and outside students felt betrayed by these characteristics, especially by the way a rather reductionist news story failed to capture the life-changing dimension of the classroom experience. My unfortunate encounter with the mainstream media demonstrates the difficulties in making the case for education in prisons in a law and order society.

In order for such educational opportunities to become more widely available I believe it is imperative for scholars and teachers to take an active role in breaking down the commonplace presumptions furthered by decades of the crime-control mentality. Although “Inside-Out” courses are small efforts to improve the lives of those in prisons, they can become part of a larger effort to promote social awareness about the wasted potential created by mass incarceration. This course “works” because it benefits the inside students, but just as importantly, it benefits all of us because it counteracts the impact of the penal system which continues to punish long after prisoners are released. This is also a marvelous example of how humanists can use their skills as teachers and scholars to have a direct and immediate impact on reversing the effects of social disadvantage.

--Kristin Bumiller, Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies, Amherst College

© 2014 The Valley Advocate