I didn’t want to. When, a year ago, Molly Birnbaum ’09 asked me to teach in Wesleyan’s Program at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, I found the idea intimidating. I had long believed in work with prisoners and had done some. But this seemed just too serious a commitment. I pled too busy. Birnbaum, one of two graduate fellows to start up the new program, would not give up. Eventually, I said yes. It was the right decision.

I am too old, by far, to say that the semester teaching 18 male prisoners in Cheshire’s maximum-security prison changed my life. But, if anything can shake up the life of an older man happily in his 70s, this experience did—and not in the sentimental sense of life-changing melodramas.

I am a sociologist. My uncle, now dead, was an internationally famous criminologist. I grew up with crime and punishment in my blood. Yet, save for a book I once wrote on Michel Foucault (the historian who founded modern prison studies), I am not an expert of any kind on the prison system. I probably shared many, if not all, of the social prejudices against those convicted of violent crimes.

My first class at Cheshire shattered that innocence. Early September, last fall, Waverly Duck (a sociologist at Yale, my friend and co-teacher) and I were escorted through locked doors and check points, behind gates and bars, down long, drab corridors. We were told to keep to one side. The prisoners were required to keep to the other. A yellow line segregated insiders and outsiders. A group of inmates, dressed in earth-toned prison-issue uniforms, passed us by on the way back from the prison school to their cellblocks. I overheard one of them say, “They look at us like we are ghosts.”

I took his point. It is indeed hard at first to know the rules of the road. We’d been warned in orientation to avoid contact, including eye contact, with the prisoners. I wondered how this could work in the classroom.

Our students were already in the room when we arrived. Molly was with us. She was an old hand. They knew her, she them. Their relations were familiar but proper. She, with Russell Perkins ’09, the other graduate fellow, had interviewed the 18 of nearly 200 applicants admitted to the program. She knew me well enough, to whisper, “Be yourself.” And so I started.

“My name is Charles. I’m from the outside, you know. So tell me how I should refer to you as group?”
Thus began the sociology. They jumped to the question.

One said, “We are convicts.” Another, “Prisoners.” Another, “Oppressed.” On it went. Then I asked, “So what’s the deal with this guy who said we outsiders think of you as ghosts?”

The discussion, again, was on point: “Well here we are. We’re locked up. Invisible.”

“But today you are students, scholars,” I said.

To that someone else responded, “Perhaps we should be convicted scholars.”

The line stuck.

Agreed as to who and what we were, we turned to the assigned texts and began to discuss Durkheim’s distinction between social facts and psychological ones. This time Ed, a quietly dignified Muslim leader, asked, “What about Montesquieu and Rousseau?” I talked; we discussed. Then José, “What about the Elders of Zion?” I was over my head, floating on the delights of being in a community of convicted scholars.

One tends to exaggerate when the reality at hand runs counter to prejudice. On the one hand, it is true that this is a select group of prisoners. Most of the men on their cellblocks passed the days sleeping and watching TV. The students must study amid the ambient noise of others who do their time in a vacant daze. None of our students had more than a GED; not all were at the same level. Some of the Cheshire scholars found the readings difficult at times (as do, by the way, many Wesleyan students). But others wrote as well as the best Wesleyan students, and a few were geniuses of some sort. José, a Puerto Rican by birth, somehow learned Arabic inside and gave a good third of his oral presentation on the Palestinians in their language. There were many Muslim brothers who spoke Arabic. No one was put off. Another student, Mike, used his native knowledge of Italian to master enough Spanish to make a good bit of his presentation on Mexico in Spanish. Others, like Terrance and Clyde, wrote final essays that engaged philosophical sources far beyond the assigned texts. Another is a brilliant artist who presented staff with a work of art that represented all the elements of the course, including an image of Waverly Duck so true to life that my 11-year-old daughter immediately picked him out of the larger tableau.

Once a week, six Wesleyan students from my on-campus section of the same course traveled to Cheshire for class. They joined small discussion groups, worked with the men on joint research, and used what they had learned in Cheshire in a presentation to some 80 Wesleyan students in the home section of Sociology 152. It was not easy for them. There were a few rough moments. But all reported that they had learned a lot that went well beyond the books.

Still, questions remain. Why do this? What is the point? Some of these men did terrible things. A few are unlikely ever to get out. Many people, including a good many of the prison staff whose children could not dream of a Wesleyan education, think it is just plain bad to do this – that these men should be punished, period!
Why, indeed? Michel Foucault once famously said, “The Carceral objectives of resocialization … are no longer localized in the closed space of the prison but are being extended and diffused throughout the whole of the social body.”

This was in 1976, when Foucault first began to think through the now familiar idea of the Carceral Society – that the whole of society is organized on the rules and regulations first refined in the modern prison.
Sound strange? Think about it. Our schoolwork is reduced to a grade code. Our names are numeric. Our troubles are treated as failures at something officially called “Behavioral Health.” Students who have bad moments are called up before judges before whom they have no rights of representation. The place is preoccupied with legal liability. The lawyers and financial experts take a heavy hand in legalizing university policy. Union staff work is at a pittance, pushed aside whenever possible.

Wesleyan is a good place, but it succumbs. Foucault’s idea is that the carceralization of modern life is not the fault of individuals. Think further of the national and global structures where business as usual is, as the political economist and sociologist Max Weber feared, unrelentingly over-rationalized. The Carceral world is one of exceptions to law, militarization, corporate greed, and standardized culture, obsessed with unsustainable economic growth, normal exclusions, untreated illness, unseen homelessness, and worse.

Why prison education? The short answer is that, whether we know it or not, we are all incarcerated – if only to the extent that our hearts and minds are overwhelmed by the Carceral ethic. So many of us, young and old, fear the next step in life, or regret the ones we’ve taken, because we feel we do not, cannot, measure up. We think our happiness depends on struggling up the ladder of bourgeois life. We climb on, ever behind the curve, blaming ourselves for falling before the ever-receding goal.

Prison programs are not – decidedly not – community service. Prisons are not broken neighborhoods where we go to spend time with the less fortunate. Prisons are the homes of men and women who, indeed, have been convicted of crimes, some terrible. But some of their convictions are for deeds not far from things we have done. We would be cellmates were it not for a father’s fancy lawyer. Convicted or not, we live in a Carceral Society.
When schools like Wesleyan and Bard support education programs in prisons they are, to be sure, doing a good thing for the convicted scholars on the inside. But, the greater benefit of these programs to the whole of society is in what can come when more and more of the convicted scholars on the outside learn the reality of life on the inside.

“They look at us as ghosts.”

Indeed. We are ghosts. We outsiders are ghosts of the lives the insiders would lead if they could. We walk the earth freely giving scant thought to the fact that those on the inside are truly our brothers and sisters in the prison-house of a sad world.

Twitter