On a recent Friday night, a student and I were playing dead on the cold linoleum floor of a prison. The woman standing over us was proudly proclaiming the coldblooded murder of her no-good husband and his unwilling mistress. As professor at Columbia University, I’ve asked lots of students to act out this 2,500 year-old scene from Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” That night, surrounded by women who have spent years in prison, the power of those words increased ten-fold.
My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.
When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years – sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation. The culture they inhabit punishes people for asking questions. Solitary confinement is often the reward for any form of precocity. As one woman explained, “If you ask too many questions in here, you’ll be punished for having the wrong attitude.” The lesson is to keep your head down.
My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think and a correctional officer randomly peering through a window in the classroom wall, it’s easy to be distracted. A quick trip to the bathroom is overseen, and class ends not at the scheduled time, but when it suits the schedule of others. Although every aspect of my students’ lives is controlled, down to the details of their drab green uniforms, our class begins at the whim of the correctional officer on duty. “Welcome to our world,” mumbled one student.