National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice

Below are my note from the session on Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice. Some of my notes here are not as in depth, because this panel was so interesting to listen to! Take the time to check out their programs!

Brenda Dann-Messier, United States Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education

Brenda, being in a government, spoke to the audience as a government official, similar to a stump speech. While I could be more critical of what she had to offer, she did offer information about what the U.S. Education Department was doing for prison education. I would refer many people to check out their website and see what is available; especially the following:

Rebecca Ginsburg with Education Justice Project

Rebecca’s talk focused on creating a more humane learning environment in prison classrooms.

The biggest challenge we face in higher education in prisons is us; what we, outsiders going inside prisons, bring into our programs such as our attitudes and biases. Some of the ways to address these are to be aware of the following items:

  1. Micro-aggressions: These are subtle, demeaning insults against specific people that are verbal and often non-intentional. For example, if someone states “You are taking that too personally.”

  2. Cultural humility: This term is when one adopts a courious attitude with a humble approach to learn about others. This takes emphasis off of our own experiences. An example of lacking cultural humility is when you are speaking to a group of black men and you are telling them about what black men think.

No one works with a prison education program to hurt others feelings, but the question is: Can we come as we are? This is especially important if our privilege has never been challenged.

Suggestions to improve the learning environment is to create safe spaces where people can voice struggles and feelings, support difficult dialogues and the skills to talk about oppression, provide space to have such conversations, and build cultural humility.

Rob Scott with Productive Prison Landscapes Program of the Education Justice Project

Rob began his talk by introducing us to the higher education in prison list serve. He also made the clarification that though the conference had been using the term correctional center/institution we really mean prison, for our system is one that is clearly punishment focused and not one that has programs and services that really try to rehabilitate/correct those behind bars.

Rob introduced to many and encouraged to all the use of critical pedagogy in our work.

He also suggested that we reject and challenge sectarianism; Party A cannot liberate party B without party B’s involvement. We need to stop doing things to others but with others.

As we work together we need to reject positism. We can take a stance that it is not only recidivism that we focus on, because we also need to stress the importance of knowledge.

Keyes Stevens with Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

Keyes project focuses on giving educational opportunities that giving educational opportunities that give students the insights to see that they are learners and that they can succeed in learning. See pictures from the project here (photos by Ann Hermes).

She stressed that we need to be just as compassionate to correctional staff as much as we are with our students.

With her program in Alabama, the DOC  as of a partner to her program as higher education institutions are to the point that they advocate for her program and have asked for it’s expansion.

EJP Radio Launched


The EJP (Education Justice Project – provides upper level undergraduate classes at Danville prison) launched their first radio show last week, Education Justice Radio!

They feature their students’ voices and have a new student select the music featured each week.


Third Annual Conference on Higher Education in Prison – This April

prison conference

Check out this upcoming conference in April! Their conference schedule will be posted mid-February.

The Saint Louis University Prison Program will host the Third Annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (April 26-28, 2013); the central focus of the conference is “Building and Sustaining Programs”. This recently established annual conference is an occasion for college-in-prison program leaders scattered across the United States to meet and strategize with the intent of promoting and implementing higher education curricula in prisons across the country. The conference brings together academics and activists from across the country to meet and strategize about how to sustain and increase higher education experiences (for-credit and non-credit) in correctional facilities in the United States. Conference panels will include discussion of: pedagogy, post-release/reentry issues, fund-raising challenges, and the various models of education programs around the country.

conference picture

Welcome to the Arctic: Drug Tests, Catalogs, & Winter Coats

Last week was exciting as I made two trips to a nearby prison in preparation to gain clearance to spend my practicum with the Education Justice Project.

The first of my two days was the formalities of being welcomed to a correctional facility, but I was able to see more of the facility than I had at the EJP’s open house. We saw the medical building, the outside the industry building, etc. We were shown around by the Chaplin, who I asked as many possible questions as we were being processed for finger prints & more to gain our final approval.

When asked what he liked about his job, he spoke about making a difference; when asked about the biggest challenge, he discussed not having enough time to accomplish all he wanted to. I was surprised to find out that his duties included collecting and maintaining numerous library collections: one of each major religion (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and I believe one more) as well as a collection for a bible school that began teaching classes.

The following day I was able to see most of his collection as well as be in my first general population prison library (unlike the EJP’s library which is only for their students). The general library was by chance open when we were there for law research. It was busy! Patrons were filling out forms, looking at law books, library workers were busy helping others and putting books away, and the counselor (who is the interim-librarian) was helping a handful of patrons with their questions. The interim-librarian showed us around briefly and as he had to assist patrons, a library worker showed us how to check out books, what patrons were currently working on, what his role is at the library, and… his homemade sign welcoming patrons to the arctic, for the heat was being replaced and almost everyone was in the gloves!

My primary reason for visiting was to spend time with the EJP’s library manager to discuss what I could potentially do to help out in their library with their library workers.

I was able to show her the catalog I began working on in Microsoft Access to help their collection be searchable on computers with the restriction of having no Internet access. Their current system is using Microsoft Excel and primarily printed out copies of the catalog sorted by title, author, and subject headings. Below are some screen shots of my work in progress (1st picture of searching page, 2nd of data entry):



While discussing the potential new catalog, I was shown the library workers’ list of their own subject headings they want to use that is more friendly to them than the Library of Congress’ subject headings. Sandy Bergman would be proud!

By the end of our visit, we decided that for my practicum I will assist in:

1.) Library instruction- will provided to each of the six classes within the spring semester for patrons to become familiar with resources & searching

2.) Create & maintain subject guides – create to support classes & popular topics

3.) Catalog support – help set realistic goal, assist in software research & recommendation (including making a catalog in Access); recommend how to catalog items that are not the traditional book

4.) Assist in making the space & collection more user friendly

5.) Documentation & training – documentation will be written for all essential library functions & library workers will assist in library instruction, subject guide creation, etc. for skill building

I’m very excited to continue working with the EJP, their library, and being able to work with their library workers… I can’t wait!

Education Justice Project’s Open House

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Education Justice Project (EJP)’s open house at the Danville Correctional Center (DCC). It is at their EJP library in which I hope to be able to complete half of my practicum and spend 50 hours in my final semester working in their library.

There are two libraries in DCC, the EJP’s library (only EJP students have access to) and the prison library (the past librarian Liz Robson just retired – learn more about her at: Prison Reference Services On Little Finding – A Perspective From 20 Years Ago).

This visit was my first in a prison facility. Besides being in a rural part of the state and on a much larger scale, it felt similar to the jail setting setting. Most of our time was spent in the classrooms or the library. One of the other visitors stated at the end of our visit that he kept forgetting he was in a prison until he noticed that everyone’s shoes/shirts where the same color, a guard would past the door, etc. and these realizations would pull him back to reality to the space we were in.

We were able to visit two of the four four-credit classes that was in session that night. I sat in on a class about sustainability and one that had a new visiting scholar every week on various topics.

The classroom in which the sustainability class was held had more technology than I had expected to see. There was a projector, computer, speakers. Across the hall was a computer lab. Later I was told that the library also has to offer 10 laptops (out of 15, for 5 are not in working condition).

The 2nd class I observed is a Discovery class where each week is a different them and guest lecturer. The week’s theme I was able to see was hip-hop feminism with scholar, Ruth Brown, Ph, D. The students explored her work Wish to Live: The Hip-hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader.

After this class I asked a gentleman to catch me up to speed on what happened in the first half of the class, for I saw mostly Q and A. He had read Wish to Live three times, asked specifically to have Ruth Brown come to their class, and he wants a degree in Women’s Studies. Over the summer they had a gender/women’s studies reading group that has now formed into a feminist club! A feminist club in a men’s prison! This student was so excited and enthralled in the topic of Women’s Studies and had so much to say that I barely got a word in! 🙂 He shared parts of his life experience, especially how women’s studies opened his eyes in part because he has two daughters and how he wants his girls to be treated. Knowing what he wanted for his girls led him to examine how he treats all women, which then led him to examine patriarchy, the oppression of women, & intersections of race and class.

So, later in the week when I was at a book sale that profited an organization that helps prisoners have access to books, I scooped up all of the books on women, girls, and race that were contemporary. One that I got that I hope they will enjoy is YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American.

When I went to pay for the books I found, the librarian working the sales table said, “Looks like you have some heavy reading.” I told her that they were not for me, they were for the EJP’s library for the feminist club to read. The librarian’s response was something along the lines of: “Well, who do they put in that club? All of the wife beaters?” and then went on to say something else about turning men into women.

What!?!? I was super upset that I didn’t know how to respond. I felt that her response devalued the students’ interests and experiences.

My experience so far with the EJP so far has showed me that their program offers a space where critical and free thought is welcomed and encouraged, a space of growth, and a space where students behind bars’ lives and voices are not only heard but are deeply valued.

I hope that my work fosters a similar environment and my patrons will know that they are valued.