An Update from the Far-Away Reference Desk

It's hard to learn when you can't go to a library, use the internet, and rely on volunteer teachers. But motivated people can do it, even when incarcerated.

September 14, 2017

Through a strange twist of fate, I got connected to a volunteer teacher who was trying to piece together resources to teach incarcerated women at the Indiana Women's Prison. There's no funding for college courses in Indiana prisons apart from a handful of vocational training programs, so everything is done on a wing and a prayer. One teacher in the program described how affirming it was to bring liberal arts instruction into a place where it mattered. Alex Tipei wrote:

Teaching at Indiana Women’s Prison persuaded me that humanities scholars would do well to go to prison — not because volunteering in these institutions is the "right thing" to do (it is), but because, as individual instructors and members of an academic corps, we have much to learn by participating in such programs. . . . Stripped of the gadgets that adorn the 21st-century lecture hall, I zeroed in on writing compelling talks and provoking lively debates. I thought more about what I put in and left out of lectures — about what information my students, deprived of internet access or a research library, needed to contextualize a text, an argument, or an assignment.

I, too, wondered what it would be like to support research being done by students who don't have access to libraries or the Internet, so I gathered up several dozen volunteers who helped locate primary and secondary sources on the history of women's prisons and the religious "homes" that many women were committed to in the 19th century. We call ourselves "the Far-Away Reference Desk" and I was able to send copies of articles, book chapters, purchase a few books, and provide some basic information about women's health issues. I got questions through a prison email system that charges 50 cents to send an email - a dollar if it's a long message. Luckily I was able to prepay some of the back-and-forth. People in Indiana's prisons earn between 12 and 25 cents an hour if they are able to get a prison industry job. Think how many hours of work it would take to buy a book at that rate.

But oh man, it's so rewarding to get questions from people who really want to know, who think there's scholarship out there that they can use to understand their world, solve problems, or just satisfy intellectual curiosity. Sure, our college students at the Little College on the Prairie are often excited about their research, but with information all around them, they're not so thirsty. In prison, it's an information desert. 

If you'd like to help bring a bit of water to this particular desert, there's a GoFundMe campaign for the Indiana Women's Prison Higher Education program to buy basics like paper and pencils and a few books. There's also an Amazon wish list for students needing workbooks and course texts. (Choose as a destination the address for Carol Foster, who coordinates the program at the prison.) There are other prisons needing similar support, of course, and loads of books to prisoners programs around the country. I only fell into working with this one by a twist of fate, but there are surely opportunities close to you.

If you believe education matters or that books can improve lives, this is one small way to act on that faith. 




Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top