Why I teach in prison

The first time I taught in prison was 20 years ago. I was a naive, brazen and book-smart college student. I registered for Buzz Alexander’s “Society and Discourse” English 111 course, knowing only that I would co-facilitate a theater workshop with another college student at a nearby prison a safe distance from Ann Arbor, where I was living.

My first major assignment in his class was to engage incarcerated boys at a detention center, aptly named Boysville, in writing an original play that would be performed for an audience. My co-facilitator was a dance major and friend of mine from a very different class background than me. She strived for perfection while I strived for completion. We worked well together. The boys ranged from ages 9 to 18 and were all sex offenders. I don’t remember what our play was about. But I do remember the shyness in the room, and the boys’ deferential appreciation for our sheer existence — never mind my partner and I were inexperienced at coordinating a play among 12 kids. Yet we performed a play.

Buzz did it so we would learn about the injustices of poverty in this society and the institutions that perpetuate them. He did it so we could connect with our peers and those on the inside. Buzz shaped the course of my career.

Today, I teach English literature courses at Franklin Correctional Facility in New York state with the North Country Community College’s Second Chance Pell Program. The Second Chance Pell Program is a highly selective college degree track program offered to eligible prisoners. The intention is to educate in order to prevent recidivism. There are 69 participating colleges and universities in 28 states.

My college students inside the prison are just as serious as my students were at Columbia University, where I spent four semesters teaching undergraduates. My students at Franklin read the assigned readings a few times over and come to class with rigorous annotations and inspired questions. I do not think about where else I could be during our class sessions because I am so absorbed in the discussion and what I am learning and seeing anew.

I think back to Buzz and how he would let our class discussions reach a fever pitch of passionate discord over an assigned reading before he would gently guide us out of the fray. I do not have this level of mastery and deftness in my own teaching, yet. I do know that everyone deserves at least one phenomenal teacher with unshakable resolve and willingness to guide students to think through the discord and to come out with a bit more humility and understanding than before. This changes lives. Everyone deserves a Buzz, even prisoners.

If any progress is to be made by locking individuals up in prison, it will come from prisoners’ experiences of education within those prohibitive walls. Prisoners deserve educational opportunities in order to improve their lives. According to Prison Education News, access to education in prisons reduces recidivism around 55 percent. Fortunately, education and arts-based programs are more common than when Buzz started teaching his college course nearly 30 years ago, although resources for programming and even access to knowledge still remain scarce and often prohibited in prisons. Pell programs in prisons are still few and far between, with no guaranteed future. In Pennsylvania, prisoners now have to pay for reading material, only available in e-books and from one vendor with a limited selection. Just this year, New Jersey prisons banned “The New Jim Crow,” which they have since rescinded. Prisoners’ access to knowledge is often under attack in prisons, and the question we need to ask is why? What are we trying to suppress by suppressing books and classes?

I am familiar with the narrative that prisoners don’t deserve rights because they committed a crime. I disagree because of the grossly inequitable and racist criminal justice system in this country. However, I can understand why college, the Second Chance Pell Program, is an especially sore issue among critics.

When asked by a correctional officer why I teach on the inside, and why his daughter who is not a prisoner couldn’t attend college on a Pell grant, I responded, “It doesn’t cost much to send prisoners to college on the inside, and the long-term benefits far outweigh programming costs.” This is a contentious and fraught issue among those of us on the outside with exorbitant college debt. The truth of the matter is that college should be free for all of us, not that we should forfeit opportunities for prisoners. This is not a zero-sum situation.

I entered my first prison as an open-hearted college sophomore who couldn’t get enough of Marx and De Beauvoir. Reading these immortal thinkers and receiving guidance from my teachers like Buzz gave me richer, more complex humanity. I learned that learning means changing. Prisoners should have access to this experience, too. Society will be better for it.

A few days ago I heard the news that Buzz is suffering from late-stage dementia. His partner, and another phenomenal teacher, Janie Paul is taking care of him at their home. He cannot speak, but he can hear. She reads letters from his former students to him. Sometimes he is alert and shows understanding. It is with great pride, respect and deeply felt love that I get to call Buzz my teacher. Thank you, teacher. I hope you can hear this.

Sabrina Alli lives in Saranac Lake.