“My Mind Opened with the Cell Door”: Higher Education beyond Campus
I take my title from a 2014 life-writing by Charles, an inmate at Hutchinson (Kansas) Correctional Facility, who wrote a narrative account of his journey into incarceration as one of cognitive learning and self-transformation. I share his title to show that my mind opened, too, as a college professor on a journey of learning beyond campus boundaries. By documenting some of the journey, I hope to suggest that higher education can learn and grow from bringing itself into incarcerated spaces. I will offer a brief argument for the pragmatic viability of more colleges offering college-credit coursework through neighboring prisons, and then explore some cognitive journeying into shared literary experiences with incarcerated participants and an undergraduate co-teacher during a year in an all-male, medium-security prison context (April 2014-June 2015). I offer a few journal entries throughout to provide context and experiential texture.
My desire to start a creative writing class at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) came in some sense from observing in the last 20 years how higher education in the United States broadly seems to be less and less public service-oriented, and more and more a narrowly privatized, profit-driven venture. This change caused me increasing cognitive and moral dissonance in terms of basic values that brought me into higher education, I had come feeling that employers and communities benefit from having an educated, reflective workforce, and thus that public investment in higher education benefits all. I came of age when Kansas was an open-access state in its public universities, with the lowest tuition in the nation. I watched from the inside as Kansas, like many states, increasingly reduced public funding and support for education at all levels. The resulting rise in individual tuition and reduction of access to higher education, except under conditions of punishing debt, made the context of teaching feel less and less healthy. I felt complicit and uncomfortable with students bearing heavy loans to pay my salary. That feels very personal at a small college.
I suspect many colleagues also feel similar dissonance and concern at small private colleges such as Bethel College. A shared sense of mission comes from deep values concerned with wanting higher education to empower the marginalized and underserved, some version of which is stated in a high percentage of college mission statements, and strongly so in Bethel’s. It is particularly important to keep bringing the mission and vision statements of small, private colleges into real and practical connection with the broad social crises of the day. My cognitive, spiritual and moral dissonance comes from feeling that the college’s struggle for economic survival often does not seem to flow in a way that can connect to the peace and justice concerns stated in its own vision statement. During the same time of the privatizing of higher education, the scale of mass incarceration as part of crisis-level, increasing segregation of society and life opportunities came into focus with Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
To open a cell door in 2014, to attempt to bring higher education into a wider conversation, and to offer a literary reading and writing course to an incarcerated population felt like a meaningful attempt at crossing lines of segregation and marginalization. Although it was not possible to offer the inmates college credit at that point, it seemed important to develop a path to higher education. To open a cell door also offered higher education the opportunity to engage a broad social crisis rather than define itself as a small, private, separate space – and to transform itself with a wider conversation. Given the broad ramifications of mass incarceration that Alexander documents in The New Jim Crow (a few details on the scope of the crisis will be offered later in this article), I feel increasing urgency for education at all levels to be part of preparing ex-inmates to rejoin society and rebuild community.
Writing in Forbes, David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler make a compelling case for the affordability of offering college-credit courses in a prison context in terms of state and public costs. They show the pragmatic cost savings for the state if the tremendously high recidivism rates, that follow tremendously high incarceration rates, can be reduced. They offer existing studies showing a strong reduction in recidivism for ex-offenders reentering society with exposure to liberal arts thinking and employable skills. “Every inmate who leaves the system saves that state an average of $25,000 per year. Nationwide, more than 650,000 people were released from state prisons in 2010. By cutting the reincarceration rate in half, $2.7 billion per year could be saved” (Skorton and Altschuler).1
Their model is the current prison education project at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. At Cornell, the college coursework offered inside prison walls points to the transformation of teaching and learning for the faculty and students involved as well as that of the incarcerated population. Cornell University partners with a local community college to grant two-year associate’s degrees, but its own faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students carry out the wide range of courses offered. Approximately 50 undergraduate students open cell doors and function as teaching assistants as part of their curricular work toward teaching or other majors. Cornell’s prison education project partners with Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation to help with funding. Skorton and Altschuler quote the professor who worked with the foundation as articulating the importance of liberal arts experiences: “Ninety-five percent of men and women in prison are released to society. Do we want people returning who have learned only to hone the tricks of the trade, or do we want people coming back to our neighborhoods who have had a chance to learn the kind of analytical skills and be exposed to the ethical values that a liberal arts education is able to impart?” (Skorton and Altschuler)
I would say that Bethel College is already interestingly well positioned to create a pragmatically viable program on a similar model. Training for existing programs is well-established with Offender/Victim Ministries of Newton, which already partners with HCF. The insightful present and past leadership of Libby Schrag, Nathan Koontz and Jerrell Williams has joined with the purposes of the community-ethics focus of the Schowalter Foundation to make significant contributions in the south-central Kansas area. Bethel College has a deep history of interacting in a local correctional facility through the M-2 prison visitation program and prison arts initiatives going back at least into the 1990s (with the work of professors Marles Preheim, Raylene Hinz-Penner and John McCabe-Juhnke). HCF has an open approach to rehabilitation programs, compared to many prison contexts, and already provides a GED program.
The key to a partnership offering college credit for classes in prison would be for state and national governments, and indeed the tax-paying public, to develop consensus on the importance of and the cost savings involved in making higher education part of the journey toward reentry into society for the high number of persons currently incarcerated.2 I recognize the extreme experiment in privatization and reduction of state investment that Kansas represents in the nation’s political public-private relations of the last few years, and I offer this argument as an alternative, more sustainable, long-term vision.
In our first session, Matt introduces himself by saying that he came from Chicago to go to college in Kansas, but ended up incarcerated instead of graduated. [Rhyming provided by a breakout of rhymes in the classroom.] Ten years later, he feels now that he missed out on his opportunity for higher education and is curious about what it is like. He wonders how to gain access to an education now. One of my reactions over the next few days back in my college classroom is to think about the segment of my current college attendees who are, in contrast, fighting their education, resisting it, doing only the minimum, thinking they already know what they need to know, and not really open to more dimensions. I realize persons such as Matt are perhaps more ready for and desiring of higher education.
Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, documents that the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of people of color in the national population than South Africa did during the apartheid era (6), and demonstrates a higher incarceration rate proportionately than nations considered repressive rather than democratic (8). Studies show that the drug convictions responsible for this high incarceration rate occurred during a time of declining overall crime rates (Alexander 6-8). Therefore, Alexander has come to see mass incarceration as part of a broader social segregation movement, a web of practices of social stratification and social control. The prison complex is one important aspect, because “the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history” (8). The larger issue is that “something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates,” which she compares to the era of Jim Crow discrimination:
“Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a [former] criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow” (Alexander 2).
So in this context, it was particularly important and moving when my students asked to read about someone who had been able to make a successful life after coming out of prison. We read the autobiography of Nathan McCall, who served a short sentence for shooting and almost killing a black male, and then a longer sentence for burglary of a white business (the difference in sentences received and the systemic racism [in relatively recent years] behind them is one of the driving examples behind the title of the book). Writing as a confessional and a critical accounting of the world, McCall identifies scenes from his life that function as recognition scenes in the Aristotelian sense – that the individual recognizes self and causation and also societal factors, and still takes responsibility for all3 (150). Yet this African-American man became a successful reporter for The Washington Post in 1989, wrote Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America in 1994 and currently teaches African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Marlin, who is white, shares with our class that his mother thinks the prison is segregated, and that this comforts her. [Laughs all around.] He looks a little conflicted and seems to be wondering if he should have revealed that. I see him as wanting to be perceived as a leader in the classroom but my concern is that he tends to dominate some of the conversations rather than make contributions to discussions and also make spaces for colleagues to speak. Is that a whiteness issue?So far, this is the most difficult dynamic.
In general, the men encourage each other more than my college students encourage each other in class. I tell them this – how important their sense of community is, and how valuable to come to class knowing that their efforts will be seen and valued. I ask if they can meet and talk about our books outside of this class, especially if I can’t make it once in a while. They say no, that prison culture doesn’t allow them to comfortably have a sort of self-help support group outside of a structured class.
This is a recognition scene for me: how humanistic the classroom space is – how important it is. This is something I take back into my college teaching. I need to really work on developing that dynamic of communal support among students. Remember: Recognition scenes are what causes the reversals in outcomes in Greek tragedy – to know the causation then causes one to decide to leave the society, or take one’s own life.
In McCall’s life-writing, learning to connect with reading – really connect – in prison is presented as a turning point. McCall was not a good student or writer before going to prison. His account of being changed by literature, and putting himself on a path toward higher education after prison, starts with reading Native Son by Richard Wright:
“The book’s portrait of Bigger captured all those conflicting feelings – restless anger, hopelessness, a tough façade among blacks and a deep-seated fear of whites – that I’d sensed in myself but was unable to express. Often, during my teenage years, I’d felt like Bigger – headed down a road toward destruction I couldn’t ward off, beaten by forces so large and amorphous that I had no idea how to fight back. I was surprised that someone had written a book that so closely reflected my experiences and feelings.
“I read that book every day, and continued reading by the dim light of the hall lamps at night, while everyone slept” (McCall 164).
McCall’s connection to reading deepened as he followed his questions about deep social issues:
“Before long, I was reading every chance I got, trying to more fully understand why my life and the lives of friends and had been so contained and predictable, and why prison – literally – had become a rite of passage for so many of us” (McCall 165).
He recounts the journey into working hard at language, a passage I loved and pointed out to our group, some of whom were struggling with basic reading comprehension: “… I realized that my limited vocabulary made me miss the full meaning of much that I read. I decided that whenever I came across an unfamiliar word, I’d stop reading, look it up in the dictionary, memorize it, and use it in a sentence before I resumed reading. I then recorded the new words in a loose-leaf notebook and practiced using them in conversations. It took me months sometimes to get through a single book, but my speed and comprehension got better over time” (McCall 172).
McCall speaks about his self-work in his parole hearing and brings all the intensity of his learning and transformation to the moment when the parole board asks him to show that he can effectively carry out his plans to be transformed:
“If a cat hasn’t given serious consideration to his future, really thought it out, that’s the question that cold-cocks him. That’s the one that renews his lease for another year. If he’s wasted his time and neglected to improve himself, he can’t answer that question convincingly. He’s down for the count. […] I told them all I’d done to improve myself in the nearly three years that I’d been locked up, and shared my plans to go home to my family and to enroll at Norfolk State…. The bottom line was, I came straight from the heart. I came from so deep within the heart that I surprised myself. But I meant every word I said. I was changed. I knew it, and I wanted to make sure they knew it” (McCall 221).
On the day of his release, McCall reflects on his journey of learning in prison:
“Although it had been the most tragic event in my life, prison – with all its sickness and suffering – had also been my most instructional challenge. It forced me to go deep, real deep, within and tap a well I didn’t even know I had. Through that painful trip, I’d found meaning. No longer was life a thing of bewilderment. No longer did I feel like a cosmic freak, a black intruder in a world not created for me and my people” (McCall 223-224).
McCall goes to Norfolk State University, majors in journalism and eventually is able to work for newspapers. He makes it to The Washington Post. However, much of his writing reveals that his colleagues see him as a black intruder, that he is not treated fairly, and that he has to hide his history in prison. In college, he feels he was taught “to endure” racism rather than transform society (239).
My participants’ responses were very revealing. They support Alexander’s contention that ex-inmates live in a Jim Crow-like discriminatory context., Rudy, the most academically prepared and most insightful discussion contributor in the class, said he did not think he would have the opportunity to work for a newspaper even if he could get into college after serving his time. He thought it unlikely he could achieve early parole. He had not read The New Jim Crow then (I wonder if he has by now), but he felt that his scope of future opportunity would not be wide open. He did not think anyone with a prison history would ever be hired to write for a newspaper currently. This was a particularly sad reflection, since the inmates had requested an example of success after prison.
Makes Me Wanna Holler was my transition book. I took it with me as I came to the difficult decision to leave higher education in the summer of 2015 and as I started a new job working for the Social Security Administration in Chicago. My public service values and my restlessness with the privatizing of higher education was part of my thinking at the time. Nathan McCall’s experiences of racism from white colleagues caused me to reflect on all of that more. Perhaps his writing also helps me now see that the government agency I have newly joined is working very deliberately at building a diverse workforce to help serve the full diversity of the greater national public as a mission. My manager and instructors are people of color. As a white person, I realize how segregated my work and higher education experiences have been – I have only had one class taught by a professor of color, and I have never worked in a diverse work place before now, especially not one where people of color had management power and responsibility. That was my reversal.
A few entries in my journal from the year partnering with the prison suggest what Michel Foucault described in his history of prisons as a sort of swarming of disciplinary mechanisms from local law enforcement sites into societal contexts. “The swarming of disciplinary mechanisms: The mechanisms [of the disciplinary establishments] have a certain tendency to become ‘de-institutionalized,’ to emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once functioned and to circulate in a ‘free’ state; the massive, compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted” (Foucault 211).
Win a Glock 17, says the poster in the East unit hallway. “Bang!” exclaims star-shaped cartoon letters in a star-shaped sound-effect bubble at the upper right. To be given away at the upcoming employee appreciation ceremony. $5 tickets are being raffled. The sign says that the Glock 9:19 (a later model based on the Glock 17) is the weapon most widely used by off-duty law enforcement.
My reaction is to think of this poster as evidence of a kind of swarming of disciplinary technologies into everyday life. Guns of enforcement become rewards, objects of desire and pleasurable recreation, deeply embedded into community lives.4
Foucault defines “discipline” in a way that for me connects academic disciplines with the “correctional facility” use of physical and spatial discipline. “One can [therefore] speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine,’ to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’” (DP 211, 216). Panopticism refers to the use of surveillance to cause individuals to always feel self-consciousness from a systemic perspective on expectations and to therefore internalize the values of a system as an enforcement tool. This idea has become increasingly important and haunting in our increasingly technologically surveilled society. I have failed, I would say, in all my attempts at teaching modern critical theory, to get across the depth of structural social dynamics Foucault is getting at – that the modern human self is formed as a self through this structural dynamic. Inmates, however, are very quick to grasp this idea and its ramifications.
My first glimpse of the Central Unit of Hutchinson Correctional Facility when I arrive for my tour and fingerprinting is that it architecturally has a lot in common with the administration buildings of the small colleges in central Kansas, including that of Bethel College. All are constructed with large limestone cut blocks and have a fortress-like feel to them. What eerie familiarity.
It turns out that the similar prison buildings, college buildings and city halls were built in the same approximate era (late 1870s to early 1900s; the current HCF administration building was built in 1906), and that stonecutting was one of the first trades taught as a correctional program (Cook). The local college administration buildings from the turn of that century share the architectural shape and height, some with ziggurat-like steps to architecturally evoke power with hierarchical step imagery. For prisons, the height functions as panoptic perspective from which to surveil the surrounding land and people. For colleges, the height asserts a vision of institutional power, and borrows from city hall architecture the association of authority with the power that forms individuals as citizens and as subjects – of a governmental nation-state, and subjects of areas of study (and of subjects in a sentence, as the grammar of society works). So students are disciplinary subjects in at least three senses. This is all a study of associations, of the imagery and impact of architecture, and I tend to feel it as an example of early 19th-century disciplinary swarming – that educational functions thus share associatively in the correctional facility’s power enforcement and of the nation-state. Today, my fear is that that contributes to students’ misreading of what education is – it needs to be something other than surveillance and policing and control of student behavior.
“‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology. And it may be taken over either by ‘specialized’ institutions (the penitentiaries or ‘houses of correction’ of the nineteenth century), or by institutions that use it as an essential instrument for a particular end (schools, hospitals)” (Foucault 215).
I notice how HCF uses the 19th-century vocabulary of disciplinary power, which may have a slippery relation to correction. I notice how “discipline” can clearly refer to academic disciplines in this passage, and that this passage authorizes an analysis of power throughout the academy and its aftereffects in society. I wonder how colleges contribute to the mass incarceration problem. I do not know, but I feel the proximity strongly, the eerie familiarity.
The concept of disciplinary swarming also helps me understand Alexander’s broad description of an informal web of discrimination and social stigma, when she sees it as an extension of prison limitations of freedoms into a social context after time has been served. In one chapter, she explores labor pricing – far below minimum wage in prisons – and its ramifications (Alexander 152). A few of my journal entries confirm a prison economy that could contribute, as Alexander fears, to debt that will hobble an ex-inmate’s attempts to function in a post-prison economy, forever marginalizing her/him economically.
Journal entry: spring 2015 Driving to HCF with Will: we share a lot about our love of literature. Will is a fan of George Saunders’ writing, so I bring an audio recording of the author reading his latest book. We listen to the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” during the 40-minute drive. We have a simultaneous recognition: the “spiderhead” in the story is the control room in a prison where guards control drug experiments on incarcerated persons who have either agreed to or been coerced into participation in various studies. The control room’s spatial relation in the story matches the spatial layout of our situation in the HCF East Wing. There is a central, glassed-in, fortressed guard room, and a few classrooms are available on two hallways (spiderlegs) from the control room (spiderhead). After that, we refer to the guard’s room as the spiderhead.
An undergraduate, Will Shoup fulfilled the requirements of his service-learning scholarship at Bethel by working with me in the prison writing project for two semesters. He attended every single week, and made the 40-minute drive with me both ways. We developed a lot of teaching partnership. On the drive, he helped brainstorm approaches to curriculum and discussed topics likely to have tension. He functioned in the classroom to help facilitate dialogue. He asked participants many insightful questions. He was always willing to offer his close reading of a paragraph that we as a class were grappling with and trying to understand fully. He would really unpack sentences in depth and help explain how punctuation shapes tone and idea. He helped respond to comments from participants.
Like me, Will was struck by how supportive inmate participants were of each other. Like me, he felt college classrooms tended not to have students listening to each other enough as part of the collaborative learning experience, often with a basic disrespect for others not like themselves. Will often expressed a sense of the value of a wider conversation that helped him contextualize some of his experiences, making me think seriously about the importance of getting young undergraduates into a wider range of human contacts and experiences. He was also able to help me understand some of the dynamics in the room when there was some gender tension between a female professor and an all-male inmate cohort. He would bring his creative writing to share when the class had assignments due, and help us learn to workshop together, demonstrating openness to criticism and helping us all pull multiple layers of implications from language and ideas forward with a college vocabulary. I admit too that it was important to have a colleague along for the trips down the hallways through four locking gates. It is an intimidating trip going into a prison alone.
On the way home, we ended up processing how much we had learned from our participants. They understood the books we read together from different racial and economic standpoints. They saw different historical aspects and character aspects as significant. And we were both shocked at some of the struggles we witnessed with literacy and comprehension. We recognized that not all the participants finished all the books or engaged them in the same way, and tried to adjust tasks and assignments to appropriate reading levels. And we were both troubled by how insightful and compelling the stronger persons were – how we wished for them the opportunity to join us at the college.
Like me, Will felt the recognition of friendship and relationship in our ritual of shaking hands with everyone in the room upon entrance and exit. When we were planning with the men which sessions we would miss because of upcoming holidays, we found out that they usually did not have visitors at holiday times. For some, it had been years since they had seen loved ones. The humanistic, relational importance of the connection with incarcerated lives reshaped the importance of the classroom for me. I began to see the prison as part of the community, and I want college students to see ex-prisoners as integrated into any community in which they will live. I see a venue for transforming higher education – and for intervening in a discriminatory future for a disproportionately large segment of the population – in the possibility of future partnering between higher education and prison education projects.
Driving to HCF with Will: He interrupts our conversation to point out a murmuration of starlings swooping in gorgeous, unpredictable, strangely rapid movements en acrobatic masse. There was a vision of doing things collaboratively no one individual could possibly imagine doing without causing a collective wreck, yet there it was.
Thank you to Libby Schrag, director of Offender/Victim Ministries, Newton, for providing the encouragement and structural framework, access to volunteer training, direct contact with Hutchinson Correctional Facility, and for meeting with me multiple times to help me understand the context. Thank you to Greta Hiebert, interlibrary loan magician at Bethel College, for gathering 10-12 copies of The Things They Carried, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fault in the Stars and Makes Me Wanna Holler from libraries across the state and trusting me to carry them to jail and get them back again. (And then waiting patiently for the odd copy or two). The participants would not have had access to reading the same book together without this truly wonderful service. Thank you to Will Shoup for faithful service in community and sharing teaching energy and insights. Thank you to the participants at Hutchinson Correctional Facility for sharing insights and life experiences. I wish you the best in your future life transformations. Thank you to Hutchinson Correctional Facility for openness to rehabilitation programming.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Benko, Jessica. “The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison.” New York Times Magazine. 3/26/2015. Online. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/the-radical-humaneness-of-norways-halden-prison.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0#
Cook, David. “History.” Hutchinson Correctional Facility. 1/10/2014. Web. http://www.doc.ks.gov/facilities/hcf/history
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
McCall, Nathan. Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Saunders, George. Tenth of December. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.
Skorton, David, and Glenn Altschuler. “College Behind Bars: How Educating Prisoners Pays Off.” Forbes. 3/25/2013. Web. http://www.forbes.com/sites/collegeprose/2013/03/25/college-behind-bars-how-educating-prisoners-pays-off/#49a7a0583b0f
“What Are the Most Popular Guns for Law Enforcement?” Criminal Justice Degree Hub. Web.
Whitehead, John W. “Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison Industrial Complex.” 4/10/2012. The Rutherford Institute. Online.