From Prison in Illinois to Publication in The New Yorker with Help from a Philosophy Professor


Fifteen inmates at Statesville Correctional Center in Illinois took a course on mass incarceration with Northwestern University philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey. It was an interdisciplinary course with a range of guest lecturers, including Alex Kotlowitz, a writer and a senior lecturer in journalism at Northwestern. He gave them an assignment to write about their prison cells, and, according to the university, he was so impressed with the results that he helped them edit their work and get five of the pieces published in one of journalism’s most prestigious venues, The New Yorker.

In introductions to the pieces in The New Yorker, Kotlowitz writes:

I talked with the students about storytelling, and had them complete an exercise in which they described their cells. I was so taken by what they wrote that I suggested that they develop these stories about the space, which, for some, had been home for twenty years. Over the past ten months, I have worked with them from draft to draft to draft. This process was not without obstacles. Sometimes, Jennifer couldn’t return my marked-up drafts because the prison was on lockdown. One student missed class for a month because, after surgery, he had to wear a knee brace, which the prison considered a potential weapon. Another student was transferred to a different prison. (I continued working with him by mail and phone.) One despaired at my comments and edits, writing to me that “this must be my last draft because clearly I’m incapable of doing it correctly.” But with encouragement and gentle nudging they kept going.

Here are the five essays that were published:

The stories will also be done on radio, with actors hired to read them.

Lackey says:

I’ve had a longstanding interest in prison education in large part because of the transformative impact it can have on the lives of the prisoners, both individually and collectively… I reached out to Stateville to offer to teach the first class I offered at the prison, which was an ethics course. The second course, on mass incarceration, is the one that Alex visited, and it emerged because the students at Stateville expressed great interest in examining the causes and impact of incarceration in the United States, including their own.

More information here.

illustration by Eleanor Taylor

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