“The Best Students I Have Are Inmates”


Christia Mercer (Columbia) reports on her experiences teaching philosophy to inmates as part of the new Justice-in-Education Initiative, sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, and calls for greater attention to the educational needs of prisoners, in an op-ed in The Washington Post. She writes:

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…

There are roughly 2.2 million people in a correctional facility in the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country in the world. According to a 2012 study, 58.5 percent of incarcerated people are black or Latino. According to the Sentencing Project, one in three black men will be incarcerated. Although more than 50 percent have high school diplomas or a GED, most prisons offer few if any post-secondary education…

The pleasures I’ve found teaching in prison are among the richest I’ve ever had. But the pleasure I find in this pedagogical delight is matched by the pain of recognition that their intellectual exploration will cease without volunteers like me.

Readers may also be interested in a post from last year in which several philosophers who teach in prisons described their experiences.

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