By Drew Leder
Marymount Manhattan College, long involved in prison education, was facing a quandary. How could it more involve its main campus students and faculty with its prison education programs? As great as the win-win payoffs could be, the obstacles were equally great. After all, the prison programs, located in Westchester women’s maximum and medium security facilities (Bedford Hills and Taconic respectively) were 40 miles away from the main campus on New York’s Upper East Side. Then, too, there were the socioeconomic and racial divergences characteristic of our society, and the unique barriers imposed by the carceral system. For example, outside students under 21 were not permitted into the prison except under special and, to the school, unacceptable, conditions. How to build bridges between worlds so separated by bars and barbed wire, time, travel, and red tape?
MMC decided these difficulties could not be insurmountable. In response, the College developed the BRIDGE Program (Building Relationships for Inclusion, Diversity, Globalism, and Equity) with a focus on bringing the main-campus and prison students closer together. An annual conference, open to all, held within the maximum-security prison; art-based collaborations involving incarcerated and free students; celebration of imprisoned students’ work at Honors Day—such special public events characterized the early stages of the BRIDGE program.
But the question arose of how to embed this contact both deeper into the curriculum and more broadly across campus. Too often, out of sight was out of mind. Many Marymount Manhattan students simply didn’t even know these prison education programs existed. This is just one manifestation of our collective ignorance (from the root word ignore) concerning the 2.2 million men and women behind bars in America—of their suffering, but also of their talents and aspirations. In a culture of mass incarceration, the U.S. holds almost one-quarter of the world’s prison population, over 60% being men and women of color. Marymount Manhattan is not a privileged world set apart, but comprises fellow students who are anything but privileged, often coming from communities beset with poverty, addiction, violence, and trauma.
The BRIDGE Program wanted to “up its game.” A generous Mellon Foundation Grant helped make this possible. One result was the creation of a first-of-its-type position: The Ferraro Fellow for Prison Education and Public Philosophy. Teaching in prisons off and on since 1992, also writing books and articles with and about prisoners, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the first Fellow—though the baton will be passed.
Our focus became how to embed prison engagement more deeply into MMC’s curriculum and culture. The goal was to have a student hear about these programs starting in first-year orientation, up through Commencement when fellow-students from Bedford Hills and Taconic would also be graduating. Along the way MMC students would have multiple courses and events that would bring them into contact with our incarcerated student population. So, too, for faculty. There would be many doors through which they could enter the prison, either literally or through interchanges from a distance. This mode of civic engagement could become a hallmark of MMC education, not an after-thought. But, still the question, how to do this?
A primary answer has been the new CourseLinks program. The multiple barriers mentioned above make it impossible to simply merge many classes across the different campuses. But why not link them up from a distance? A course taught on the main campus could link to a concurrent prison course. The professors would agree to share at least one common text, and use common prompts to provoke student writing and discussion. The professors could then communicate with each other how their respective students and classes responded, leading then to a second session in which each class processes what they heard from the other.
These links could be interdisciplinary: for example, a text by Gandhi could form a link between a Bedford Hills literature class and a main campus course on 20th century history. Perhaps more importantly, the discussion would cross worlds. The main campus and prison students would bring to bear very different life experiences; perhaps very different interpretations and applications of the text—such that each class could learn from the diversity of response. If there are commonalities, that too is a learning experience: we aren’t so different after all. Either way, the main campus students could grow in empathy, understanding, and a sense of personalized engagement with those often relegated to the status of “Other.” For the imprisoned students this could help strengthen their bridge to the college world, and the larger world they look forward to re-entering.
The initial response to the CourseLinks invitation was fantastic. No fewer than eight CourseLink pairings, involving 16 classes and 18 professors, formed in the spring semester though the program had been announced but two weeks before the start of classes. A Bedford Hills Film class linked up with a main-campus Dance class, each watching Rashomon with a focus on the stylized movements used by different characters in this celebrated Japanese film. A Bedford Hills Philosophy course studying incarceration and human rights linked up with a main-campus course on radical labor and artisanal movements, using French philosopher Foucault’s treatment of the body as a pivot. How are bodies “disciplined,” that is, controlled and rendered docile, in prisons and in factory settings?The classes would have much to learn from one another. In other Linkages, Literature met Religion, Writing met Journalism, and so on. Most of all, the main campus met Bedford Hills/Taconic. For some professors the CourseLink, involved just one or two class sessions. Other professors were interested in sustaining the bridge across multiple texts and conversations. Each pairing found its own style of pedagogy and communication.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 also had its say. This, too, is a reminder that we all live in one world.
Both the main campus and the prison campuses had to switch mid-semester to remote instruction, in the latter case without the benefit of technological interfaces. CourseLinks were seriously hampered, but not severed. As I write, many professors are still making these conversations happen, albeit from a distance. But they were always to be from a distance: the exchange between 71st and Bedford Hills/Taconic necessarily involves remote learning. This need not stop bridges being built across the divide.
Building New Bridges
Looking ahead, the BRIDGE Program is far more than CourseLinks. On the curricular level, innovative courses are being developed by Erin Greenwell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Arts. Digital media available on the main campus will be used to express creative ideas generated by the imprisoned students. These are then featured in a “Stand Up Speak Out” exhibition and event at 71st Street. In another course, those recently released from Bedford Hills/Taconic will have the opportunity to record extended “TED Talk”-like video/audio messages to help those still incarcerated, and those around the country grappling with post-release re-entry issues. Ideally, other classes (marketing, philosophy, politics and human rights, and so on) can also help with these projects, creating interdisciplinary courselinks on the main campus.
Then, too, the question arises of how to actually get faculty to make a prison visit. As a faculty member, I can say that even a one-time engagement can be eye-opening and transformative. After all, I was going to teach one mini-course in the summer of 1992, and here I am still involved 28 years later. The discussions I have experienced with the talented men and women in prison have been some of the best in my college career: for them, the classroom was a zone of freedom. So MMC has also inaugurated a CourseVisit program, encouraging faculty members to offer up their skills and expertise by guest-teaching a single session for a Bedford Hills/Taconic course. Again, the alliance between campuses strengthens. Personal relationships are formed. Hopefully, the regular prison education professors, who do amazing work under severe conditions as a labor of love, will feel more supported by the main campus. The incarcerated students get to meet new faculty and hear fresh perspectives. As with CourseLinks, there is the potential for multiple win-wins.
Moreover, these low-stakes involvements (guest-teaching one session) can pay high dividends. Faculty members who make even a single visit into “the belly of the beast” may later speak about it in their classes, perhaps choose to join CourseLinks, even consider teaching a course at Bedford Hills/Taconic full-time. Students who attend a single on-campus event may later join the Bedford Hills Club (a faculty-moderated student group), or choose to take a CourseLinks class interfacing with prison students.
I know how transformative such contacts can be. My own daughter came into a maximum-security prison with me several semesters when I was volunteer-teaching. It vectored her life-ambitions in a new direction: she recently graduated with a Master’s in Social Work focused on criminal justice social policy. MMC students come to 71st to be part of the life of the city, seeking a creative and engaged college experience. The BRIDGE Program helps provide this, with its emphasis on social justice engagement mediated through personal relationships.
National Leadership in the Field
Here MMC also has the capacity to exert national leadership in the field. Why?
First, there are many prison education programs around the country run by colleges and universities. The Bard Prison initiative in N.Y. State is one famous example (less well-known is that it was influenced by MMC’s own pre-existing program). Such programs have been stimulated by President Obama’s “Second Chance” initiative re-introducing Pell Grant funding for prison higher education. This program has been strongly supported by Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, suggesting that is one of the only issues that evokes truly bipartisan agreement in our hyper-polarized times. After all, a Rand Corporation meta-study suggested that prison education serves not only humanitarian ends but protects public safety, reducing re-offense and then prison recidivism by 43%, while saving the public $5 for every $1 spent. Liberal or conservative, there’s a lot to like.
However, most of these college-run prison education programs experience a disconnect similar to that at MMC: there is limited, if any, engagement, of their main-campus students and faculty. A few full-time faculty members may take on the challenging task of prison teaching, perhaps as a course overload. Some students may even co-take a course with prison students through the “Inside Out” model. But the full benefits of an alliance with a prison program will not be realized for the large majority of either the “inside” or “outside” students so long as campuses remain isolated from one another.
Here’s where the BRIDGE Program, and the CourseLinks initiative, could serve as a national model. It shows how classes concurrently taught on the main campus, and the prison campus, can be linked together. It provides a mechanism whereby main campus and incarcerated students can, from a distance, “meet” one another, discuss common texts and topics, and learn from the interaction. Learn what?—empathy across racial, religious, and socioeconomic boundaries; the ability to take in diverse viewpoints informed by very different backgrounds; a sense of civic engagement on the part of main-campus students; a sense of inclusion and accomplishment for those currently incarcerated, who are often deeply engaged with the educational process.
There may then be many other colleges and universities that could apply the MMC model. Admittedly, it is far from perfect. Contact from a distance cannot be the same as in-person meetings. (MMC does have in the works one “combined class” bringing together incarcerated and main campus students.) Moreover, security concerns block direct student-to-student conversations and transmissions within CourseLinks: class responses are exchanged back and forth professor-to-professor. It’s not an ideal pedagogy. The desire to build a bridge runs into the reality of many walls.
But we cannot let “the best be an enemy of the good.” The BRIDGE Program is developing encouraging approaches with, so far, excellent outcomes. This is all in a pilot phase: with trial runs and assessment these initiatives will seek to get better. The “best” might involve large-scale changes in our criminal justice system, even in our society as a whole. But in the meantime, MMC is seeking to create maximum impact and connection.