Prison Education and Teaching Incarcerated Students

April 27, 2022

Over the 2021-2022 academic year, the Prison Education and Social Justice Curricula working group—comprised of Columbia University faculty, graduate student workers, members of the Justice-in-Education (JIE) initiative, and local prison education workers—has been meeting regularly to develop courses to be taught in prison contexts and to prepare for the challenges involved in this new kind of teaching.

Since 2015, Columbia faculty who want to teach as part of the JIE initiative can offer Columbia courses to students at various city, state, and federal facilities in New York, such as Rikers, MDC Brooklyn, Sing Sing, Taconic, Queenboro, and Edgecomb. Some of our working group participants—including Jean Howard, Kate Suffern, Julie Crawford, Julie Peters, Jeremy Dodd, and Jason Resnikoff—already have experience teaching in prison contexts.

But this was not true of all our participants. Indeed, the majority joined the group with a desire to teach in prisons but without detailed knowledge of what the process entailed. In our initial meetings, we spent time listening to and learning from those who have experience dealing with the unique circumstances of prison education. While we want to offer the same kind of education in prison contexts that we offer on Columbia’s main campuses, it is important to remember that prison education has its own challenges—for instance, there are specific procedures for the clearance of instructors and their syllabi, as well as limited resources in terms of libraries and classroom equipment. To prepare Columbia faculty and graduate instructors for prison education, we hope to codify our learning in the form of a training guide in the coming year.

With the input of formerly incarcerated students and experts in prison education, the group learned about the kinds of classes that students most enjoyed and the disciplines in which there is the greatest need for courses. From our discussion, it became clear that students are eager to engage with the intellectual content of courses from across the whole spectrum of academic disciplines, from Astronomy to Music, from Physics to English. At the moment, more courses are offered in the humanities than in the sciences and social sciences. While Professors Jeremy Dodd (Physics), Jennifer Middleton (Earth Studies), Geraldine Downey (Psychology), and Caroline Marvin (Psychology) have or will be offering courses in these areas, there remains strong demand for courses in biology and chemistry, as well as in sociology, political science, history, economics, and other disciplines.

This is an imbalance we would like to address going forward. One difficulty is the necessity of preliminary mathematics instruction in order take many classes in a discipline such as Astronomy, but a science subgroup, including Professor Marcel Agüeros, is working on a solution to this issue. In terms of the social sciences, we hope in the coming year to recruit more faculty and graduate workers to develop courses in these disciplines for the prison context.

Looking ahead to this summer, fall, and spring, participants in our working group have developed an exciting array of courses that will be taught at a variety of prisons. Professors Jack Halberstam, Tey Meadows, Rebecca Jordan Young, and Mia Florin-Sefton have been designing an introductory-level Gender and Sexuality course, and Mia will be teaching a version of this over the summer. Professor Middleton is teaching an introductory-level Earth Studies course; Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner is teaching a course on “Latino Culture and the Global City”; Professor Dodd is teaching a course in Physics; Professor Howard is teaching a course on “Shakespeare and Global Adaptations”; Professor Peters is teaching a course on “Law and Literature”; and Professor Marvin is teaching a course in Cognitive Science.

In addition to formalizing training processes, expanding graduate worker involvement in prison education, and broadening course offerings in prisons, we plan in the coming year to continue developing an undergraduate concentration in “Frontiers of Justice,” which will allow undergraduates on Columbia’s main campuses to engage in social justice projects in the local community. We are excited about all of these developments and look forward to the work ahead.

Patrick Anson is a PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature. He is writing a part-ethnographic, part-literary-critical dissertation about programs that propose reading groups focused on 20th and 21st century narrative literature as a means to address a range of social problems, from mass incarceration, where a reading group functions as an alternative sentence for people convicted of an offense, to military trauma, where a reading group helps to establish social connections among veterans.

Jean E. Howard is George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University where she teaches early modern literature, Shakespeare, feminist studies, prison literature, and theater history.