How College in Prison is Leading Professors to Rethink How They Teach
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When it comes to education in correctional facilities, the focus of policy and research often revolves around its benefits for society or its impact on the lives of those serving time.
However, as I highlight in my recently published book, "Education Behind the Wall: The Reasons and Methods of Teaching College in Prison," education inside prisons not only transforms the lives of inmates, but it also has a profound effect on the educators themselves.
In my role as the director of a college program in prisons, as well as a researcher and professor teaching in both traditional colleges and prisons, I have come to realize that teaching within the confines of a correctional facility prompts educators to question and reconsider many of the approaches we employ.
My book collects the experiences of college professors who teach in prison, and one common thread among us is that we initially entered this realm of education viewing ourselves as experts. However, our interactions with incarcerated students and the institutions that confine them have led us to critically reflect on our knowledge and teaching practices.
In one semester during 2020, I volunteered to tutor a class on conflict and negotiation, a subject that frequently arises behind prison walls. The class centered around two essential books in this field: "Interpersonal Conflict," a 2014 text that prompts readers to reflect on their personal experiences with conflict, and "Getting to Yes," a 2011 text described by its publisher as a universally applicable method for resolving personal and professional disputes without resorting to anger.
After a few class meetings, one incarcerated student expressed his skepticism about the applicability of these books within the prison setting. He pointed out that openly discussing personal feelings, as encouraged by the authors, is not feasible within the prison environment, and the dynamics of relating to people are significantly different.
I acknowledged the astuteness of his observation and suggested that understanding both sets of rules, as well as knowing how to navigate between them, could be immensely valuable. For instance, I hypothesized that his behavior during yard time would differ from his conduct during a phone call with a family member outside the prison. Since the textbooks on conflict resolution did not adequately address handling conflict within the prison context, I proposed that he consider writing an equivalent book on negotiating conflict specifically in prison.
He chuckled at the idea and glanced at his classmates, contemplating the possibility.
This experience exemplified how even texts considered "universal" may not always prove applicable in correctional institutions.
Shelly Tenenbaum, a sociology professor and the chair of the sociology department at Clark University in Massachusetts, shares her own insights in the book regarding the change in status she experiences when entering medium-security prisons for men in Massachusetts. Despite her professional achievements and credentials, they hold no weight once she crosses the prison gates.
Tenenbaum writes, "The status I hold as a scholar, full professor, and department chair…is rendered invisible upon entering prison." She describes how she is abruptly instructed to comply with orders, and her questions go unanswered during the security check process.
For educators, encounters with correctional officers at the entrance gates are often disconcerting.
"I find myself constantly second-guessing whether I have done something wrong and deferring to individuals much younger than me," Tenenbaum continues. "There have been times when I followed the rules, only to be scolded when the interpretation of those rules seemed to change from one day to the next. Being in a subordinate role within a power dynamic is a humbling experience… It takes having your expectations shattered to realize they even existed."
Whether it is about the clothing faculty members are permitted to wear or the number of papers they can carry, these decisions primarily revolve around power. In her chapter, Tenenbaum explains how having her status questioned has humbled her and shifted the power dynamics in her professional world. She no longer takes for granted that her expertise automatically earns her respect.
Another example comes from Bill Littlefield, a retired English professor, who was challenged by an incarcerated student when he claimed that the novel "Frankenstein" held no relevance to his own experiences or life. Littlefield’s immediate response was to push back.
"He assured that he would indeed read it, despite knowing that the narrative of the solitary monster, driven by the outrageous and delusional ambition of a scientist, would hold no relevance for him," Littlefield recounts. "I challenged his belief and argued that he was mistaken."
However, over the course of the following week, Littlefield realized that his initial reaction was a misjudgment and an act of arrogance.
"When we met again, I took the initiative to apologize to the student in front of his peers," Littlefield explains. "I acknowledged that it was not my place to dictate what was significant in his life. If he chose to engage with the reading, he would come to his own conclusion." The student expressed gratitude for the apology.
The Expansion of Higher Education Programs in Prisons
As the prevalence of college programs in prisons continues to rise, I anticipate that more college professors will undergo a profound transformation as a result of their experience teaching behind bars. This is particularly true now that Congress has lifted the long-standing restriction on federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, for incarcerated individuals.
According to the National Directory maintained by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, there are currently 374 prison education programs operated by 420 higher education institutions, spanning across 520 correctional facilities as of 2022.
Cumulatively, these college programs in prisons have demonstrated their ability to significantly reduce the likelihood of recidivism among participants upon release. However, as my book explores, they also have a profound impact on the perspectives and worldview of the college professors who facilitate them.
This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons License. Read the original article.
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