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Beyond Walls: Seeing the Power of Prison Education

Six years ago, when Associate Communication and Media Arts Professor Erin Greenwell took her first bus ride upstate to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, she didn’t know what to expect. She had joined a group of faculty and students headed to Crossing Borders, an academic conference MMC has hosted at the women’s prison since 2006. The College has been the sole degree-granting institution at Bedford Hills for more than 20 years, and Crossing Borders gives the program’s instructors and students an opportunity to showcase their work.

“I hadn’t known what college was like in prison, but I remember the presentations blew me away and how deeply moved I was by the depth of the art the students were creating,” Greenwell said. She would notice small things, too, like the way the women hugged their notebooks to their chests and smiled before sprinting off to the next presentation. “So many of the students told me the college program was the only place where they’d felt a reprieve—where they could work on themselves, mentor each other, and have community,” she said.

The experience prompted Greenwell to dive more deeply into prison education. Today she is the College’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education, a role MMC created with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The fellow works to expand mutual learning and connections between MMC students at 71st Street, Bedford Hills, and the Taconic Correctional Facility, where the College has partnered with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison since 2019 to award degrees. The goal, Greenwell said, is to create a one-campus mentality, an approach MMC refers to as “Building Relationships for Inclusion, Diversity, Globalism, and Equity” or BRIDGE.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, extending that bridge became much more complicated. Crossing Borders was put on hold, and Covid-19 restrictions at Bedford and Taconic prevented the College from holding in-person commencement ceremonies for justice-involved students. (It resumed the celebrations last June). Moreover, the Bedford Hills College Program Club, a student group focused on social justice and boosting dialogue with Bedford and Taconic peers, fell inactive.

The good news: Crossing Borders will resume in the spring for the first time since 2016. And Greenwell, alongside Monica Szlekovics, the Bedford Hills College Program assistant, has helped organize a slate of events this semester to bring MMC’s justice-involved students greater visibility.

That includes Looking Inside, an exhibit on display now through December 1 on the third floor of Nugent Hall. (It is simultaneously being shown in Bedford Hill’s gymnasium.) Shot by the photographer Sara Bennett, who spent 18 years as a public defender, it gives women serving life sentences at Taconic and Bedford Hills—four of whom are graduates of MMC’s college education programs—a chance to share their stories in a way they are often unable to do before a judge. Szlekovics and Greenwell organized a panel discussion in October featuring Bennett and Looking Inside participants.

Once the exhibit ends, Greenwell plans to turn the space into what will be called the BRIDGE wall, which will highlight the work of Bedford Hills and 71st Street students and opportunities for activism, with a matching wall inside Bedford Hills’ learning center.

Building Community

On December 7, the College will host its annual Stand Up, Speak Out Arts and Social Justice Festival featuring collaborative work by students at Bedford Hills and 71st Street. (RSVP for the event, which can be viewed in-person and via zoom.)

This year’s festival is centered around the Bedford Hills academic course Writing About Art; its students penned analyses about classic works that will be used as the basis for monologues, dance, video, fine art, and 2-D animation created by 71st Street students. For the project, students in both locations have adopted pen names, which makes the work more freeing and unifying, Greenwell added.

Duston Spear, an artist who has taught in the Bedford Hills College Program for nearly 20 years and teaches Writing About Art, said the festival is a good way to bring MMC into their classroom conversations.

“Being incarcerated and then the further isolation of Covid emphasizes the importance of an audience,” she said. “I framed it for my students like this: They are da Vinci coming up with great ideas, and [71st Street] students in the bridge classes were acting as the atelier, bringing their ideas into fruition.”

Indeed, many of the participants see the power in the exchange. “It feels good knowing [students at 71st Street] see us as their academic equals—as students who, like them, are striving to get a college education,” said Tami, a Bedford student. “Through this forum, we feel like we are part of an academic family. It is humbling.”

A fellow Bedford student, Sara, said it provided hope for the future. “I am reminded that I am worthy and appreciated and that my voice is welcome in the wider community that MMC has built,” she said. “We as MMC students are reminded that incarceration does not silence us, that our voices still have the power to build a better world.”

Along with the festival and other events, Greenwell is excited to see that the Bedford Hills College Program Club, for which she is a faculty advisor, has reactivated with new leadership and new energy.

At the beginning of the semester, members sent an announcement to Bedford Hills declaring their commitment to strengthening the college club, which was read aloud in classes. They also helped moderate and support the Looking Inside panel discussion, said co-president DeSyre Collier, a junior double majoring in Politics and Human Rights and Public Relations and Strategic Communications.

They plan to visit next year, join city volunteer programs that help incarcerated people, and support Bedford Hills and Taconic students on research projects. (Students in the facilities, she notes, don’t have access to the Internet and rely on internal databases and books.) Most of all, she said, they hope more 71st Street students will join them.

“At the end of the day, we’re all having a human experience and need to be in community with others,” she said.

Published: November 21, 2022