Prison: Where Undergrads and Inmates Take Classes Together

We can simultaneously improve students' learning experiences and enhance prisoners' opportunities, writes Jeff Schatten.

November 7, 2019
 
 
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There is a paradox in higher education: the more elite the institution, the further removed the students are from the diversity of experiences that make up the mosaic of the United States. A student can spend four years learning about the sociology of income inequality or the double standards in the criminal justice system without ever leaving lush campus life with its coffee bars and Pilates classes.

And while many college students rarely leave their campus bubble, more than two million people are behind bars. Many would do anything to have access to a college education to better their development as well as their opportunities after incarceration. We can simultaneously improve the undergraduate learning experience and enhance opportunities for inmates by bringing college classes to prison, an out-of-the-box offering that more colleges and universities should embrace.

For the past three years, I have taken Washington and Lee University students to a medium-security prison to learn about leadership, side by side with inmates ranging from a few years to many decades older than themselves. This past semester, about a quarter of my students held murder convictions, another quarter were incarcerated for other mostly violent offenses and the remaining half were typical idealistic liberal arts undergrads. In this setting, both inmates and college students were equal class participants. While the students in the class studied leadership, the actual course topic was of secondary importance. This took a back seat to the mission of enabling both populations to have a deep, extended experience with a group of people ostensibly unlike themselves. Both groups, it turns out, would challenge many preconceived notions and stereotypes.

When they first met, both sides were nervous. One undergraduate remarked in her journal, “There was a real fear walking into the classroom, catching sight of 10 gnarly-looking men in jumpsuits lining the back wall.” An inmate reflected, “I have to admit that I was a little nervous, and a little more ashamed, to be around people my own age who weren’t going to be wearing the same colors as me.” And yet within the first hour, a sense of comfort settled on the room, both populations collaborating on icebreakers and other activities to set the stage for a semester together.

One crucial aspect of this course is to face “the other,” to test how close contact impacts conceptions about a different population. One of the inmates wrote, “I honestly didn’t think we would be able to get along. I thought they would be too judgmental, but I guess I was jumping to conclusions. They are some of the coolest people I’ve met [in] my 23 years of living.”

Many of the Washington and Lee students struggle to come to terms with their classmates’ crimes. As a part of the course, students look at psychological studies that showcase the ways in which personality and values do and do not change over time. This deep, enduring question of whether people have the capacity to change sits at the forefront of the experience.

One undergraduate wrote, “In terms of my feelings towards the offenders, I go through cycles of doubt and fear, then respect and comfortability. Take Mr. X for example. Last week, I was a little frightened by what he might have done to get into prison. I was scared about him manipulating me and felt a sense that I wasn’t safe around him; however, even if he has done something awful, the more I allow him to talk about his situation, I still don’t feel safe necessarily, but I have grown to feel more comfortable around him.”

Naturally, some students find it challenging to look past criminal behavior, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. One noted, “Throughout the first week, the majority of the inmates in the class seemed like relatively harmless people, but as more and more of their offenses came to light, I began to realize that there had not been a strict screening process regarding their crimes, some of which are downright horrifying. While it has not made me uncomfortable in the classroom, I can’t help but look at some of the men with disdain and disappointment.”

One of the core goals for this prison class is for the “outside” students from my college to be able to develop perspective. In response to learning about the inmates who had spent time in solitary confinement, an undergraduate reflected, “I, as a privileged student at a prestigious college with, let’s be honest, great prospects post-graduation, spend my days complaining about the work I have due the next day, or the fact that I really don’t know what I am going to do once I finish my final year of college.”

The experience is humanizing. One of the greatest harbingers of bigotry and hatred is a simple truth: aside from some small interactions at restaurants and gas stations, members of different socioeconomic classes rarely spend an extensive amount of time getting to know one another. A Washington and Lee student captured the enduring effect of this class when he wrote, “These people are so much more than a jail sentence. They are fathers and brothers and mentors and friends who have seen the best in me over the past four weeks. They are people I want to work with, laugh with and be around. They have scared me, fascinated me, and above all, amazed me with their humility and sincerity.”

Almost every incarcerated inmate will, at some point, get out of prison. And one of the variables that predicts recidivism is whether a formerly incarcerated person can secure employment, which both grounds them financially and enables them to have the narrative that, yes, they do fit in as a contributing member of society. In that regard, one inmate wrote, “I hope each Washington and Lee student will take something from their time with us. I know that for me it gave hope. Hope that when I am released from prison, there may be a more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate generation in positions of leadership throughout corporate America and society in general.”

One of the undergraduates reflected the same sentiment: “Before coming into this class, if I were reviewing a job application for my theoretical company and I ran a background check and saw that someone was a convicted felon, I would’ve thrown it in the trash. Now that I know the people in our class, you can’t just completely define a person by a crime they committed.”

It is the role of the university to prepare students for life after college, just as it is the role of a prison to enable inmates to develop the skills to be successful in life after prison. Colleges and universities are distinctly positioned to help move the needle for both those objectives by offering courses for students and inmates. At academic conferences, when I tell professors from around the country about my class, they tend to respond by saying, “How amazing,” or asking, “Why is this not done everywhere?” My response? “It should be.”

Bio

Jeff Schatten is an assistant professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University. He is the host of the podcast “Demystifying Organizations.”

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