Education Behind Bars: The Co-Production of Knowledge by Inmates and University Students

In the arena of diversity and equity, people that seem to receive scant attention are those behind bars. The prisoner population is a marginal if not invisible one. Their needs are many; among them is the need for education, to help them reenter life outside prison with greater opportunity. But benefits are not all in one direction – society has much to gain as it learns from inmates’ perspectives and experiences.

There are a number of higher education institutions throughout the country, partnered with state agencies or private organizations, which are connecting with inmates. One example is Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. Dr. Ryan Alaniz, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the university, leads a 10-week class at the San Luis Obispo Jail called “Incarceration and Society.” The most recent class was comprised of 11 university students and 11 female inmates. On March 25th he visited Purdue, together with student Charlotte Abel and inmate Amber Smith (via recording), to talk about the class.

The San Luis Obispo Jail and another corrections institution called the California Men’s Colony are located just over five miles from the Cal Poly campus. In other words, the university and the house of correction are neighbors. Cal Poly’s motto is “Learn by Doing”; its engineering students and agriculture students build things and grow things to foster their learning. Dr. Alaniz asked the question, “What do sociologists do?” and this led him to create a class where his students interact and learn side-by-side with inmates at the jail.

Ms. Abel showed several charts and provided statistics on the US prison population overall. Her chart “Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment” showed a breakdown by race. The likelihood of imprisonment over a lifetime for white men is 1 in 17, but for Latino men it is 1 in 6, and for Black men it is 1 in 3. For white women, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment is 1 in 111, 1 in 45 for Latina women, and 1 in 18 for Black women. The university students in the class were asked to wrestle with the questions, “What effect is this having on our society?  Has crime decreased since we have locked up more people?  Who is feeling the effects of this the most?” They referenced several books on race and gender in the criminal system, and interacted with the inmates around crime and gender.

The class is designed to co-produce knowledge. It is dialogue-based, not lecture-based. Participants are urged to grapple with issues from class readings and integrate them into their lives. Issues of diversity, inequality, and power are discussed. Empathy and critical assessment of stereotypes about the “other” – are talked about. Meeting each week for 10 weeks, trust builds among participants and enables them to dive deeply into subject matter.

Ms. Abel shared that the class helped reveal her stereotypes and preconceived notions about those behind bars. The experience helped her to put names and faces to those she previously just thought of as nameless and faceless, and the inmates’ stories deeply impacted her. The class also caused her to reflect on her own privilege, how her background and upbringing have afforded her opportunities that others do not have.

Dr. Alaniz spoke about being impacted both as instructor and participant. It is difficult to measure empathy. He reflected on the John Bradford quote, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” recognizing that had he been in the circumstances of any of the inmates prior to their incarceration, he very well might have made the same choices they did, and found himself behind bars. He was challenged to think about society’s value of knowledge, who it is that we respect and learn from. Why do we respect the opinions of the learned, those in academia, business, or government far more than we do those who are marginalized, who have struggled with deep issues and sometimes failed, but from that struggle have valuable things to teach us?

Inmate Amber Smith, who communicated via recording, appreciated interacting with people from another walk of life. She was surprised by the ease and openness of discussion. She recounted how, during one class, she challenged something that Dr. Alaniz said. When the class met the next week, Dr. Alaniz told her that what she said had caused him to think a great deal about the issue. She was moved that her words could have that kind of impact. Amber appreciated the acceptance and sense of worth she felt, and believes that others in custody would greatly benefit from these types of classes. It is clear that the benefits cut both ways.



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