A question at the heart of the matter, posed by an educator and program manager who worked at both the Yale and Bard Prison Initiatives, has lingered with me long after we had coffee. It was just before my first and only semester teaching college-credit Art Appreciation classes in prison. She asked me: “does college education held on-site in prisons such as the longstanding Pell Prison Program actually end up legitimizing the prison-industrial complex because it is held within the walls of prison?”
At first, despite my sustained, albeit intermittent involvement with abolitionist organizations over the years, I initially brushed off the more controversial implications of this question. After all, access to equal opportunity for-credit college classes in prison is undoubtedly a step forward, right? After this coffee meeting in January of 2020, I began as part-time Faculty at Asnuntuck Community College’s Pell Prison Program at low-security prisons in Enfield, Connecticut.
As COVID hit and the semester unfolded, I realized with more and more clarity that the classroom I was teaching in was anything other than a neutral educational space. I watched my colleagues teaching at other institutions switch to Zoom, continuing to hold discussions and meaningful group and one-on-one conversations with their students. Meanwhile, I was overhauling my syllabus, trying to fit the rest of the semester’s learning goals into a written packet (there is no access to the internet and almost no access to media and computers in prison). My colleagues finished off the semester and their students received credit remotely while my students were in crowded quarters, many with underlying conditions, sustaining outbreaks, and learning that the work they had put towards the college semester wouldn’t count for credit after all and that the classes were indefinitely suspended.
If given the opportunity, I would teach in prison again because I think the positives outweigh some of the darker implications, but seeing how COVID affected my students so differently from students outside of prison really made me think about my concessions and complicity as an educator within the prison-industrial complex.
Image at top: Anonymous, Prison Industrial State.