Cliopatria‘s Ralph Luker alerts us to a wonderfully moving essay, Uncaptive Minds, by Ian Buruma in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine: “What teaching a college-level class at a maximum-security correctional facility did for the inmates — and for me.” Here are a few excerpts:
The main business of Napanoch, N.Y., is a maximum-security prison, Eastern New York Correctional Facility, also known as Happy Nap….
There is … a reason that inmates call the prison Happy Nap. Eastern is more relaxed than other maximum-security prisons, or “maxes,” in upstate New York, with less hostility between staff and prisoners, and as a result fewer U.I.’s, or “unusual incidents” — stabbings and the like. It is said that the farther upstate you go, the harsher the prison conditions can be. Among New York’s maxes, Eastern has one of the best reputations. It is one of only three maximum-security prisons in the state where you can still get an education — not just in manual skills, but a proper college education with a degree at the end, thanks to privately financed initiatives….
The Bard Prison Initiative now runs an associate degree program at Eastern. There are plans to introduce a bachelor’s program soon. Inmates have to go through an application process like any prospective college student: an essay, test scores, transcripts (G.E.D.’s for those who didn’t finish high school) and an interview by Kenner and his colleague Daniel Karpowitz. “The admission process,” Kenner said recently, “is emotionally the hardest part of our work. Up to 200 apply for 15 spots.” Only 50 students, out of a prison population of more than 1,200, are now enrolled….
My class of nine consisted of a Puerto Rican, who had been to the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York’s prestigious magnet schools; two white military veterans; a Vietnamese-American; four black men, two of them Muslims; and one young white man who had been incarcerated since he was 16.
I had been assured … that the students would be enthusiastic. This was an understatement. But as I learned in my first weeks of teaching, the main difference between these students and those on the Bard campus was their polite formality. I was invariably addressed as “professor,” not so much for my sake, I sensed, as for their own self-respect. Somewhat patronizingly, I suppose, I had expected talk about sword-fight movies and Oriental wisdom. Instead, from the very start, questions of a far more sophisticated kind came quick and fast: about the economics of the Opium Wars in China, about the criminal activities of unemployed samurai, about the impact on Japanese cultural identity of Western ideas. One of the black Muslims, a tough New Yorker, mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville in the context of the Meiji Restoration.
The students were smart, streetwise and funny, and I found it impossible not to be charmed by them. They were also clearly grateful to be in class, where they were treated as intelligent adults. It is easy to feel a little smug about dealing with these men, to feel a sentimental solidarity with them against the guards and the rest of their oppressive world. This soon leads to the kind of phoniness that any inmate can see through in an instant….
It is a tricky situation. Education widens the gap between students and corrections officers and can easily increase hostility. Many of the officers have not been to college themselves and probably don’t expect their children to either. But higher-education programs should also make life easier for the C.O.’s, since the prisoners who benefit from them are more inclined to behave themselves. Indeed, a C.O. once told a colleague of mine that life at Eastern was a trifle dull. At the previous institution where he’d worked there were shakedowns, stabbings on the galleries, mayhem in the solitary-housing unit. At Eastern, a guard was liable to fall asleep.
My second class was on the failed samurai rebellion in the 1870’s against the Westernized Meiji government, on which the movie “The Last Samurai” was very loosely based. I mentioned a book, by Ivan Morris, titled “The Nobility of Failure,” and explained the admiration in Japan for rebels who die for lost causes. We discussed how this ethos compared with the American celebration of success. Perhaps, I said a bit facetiously, there was no such thing as a noble failure in America. One Muslim among my students laughed and said, “This room’s full of them.”…
It was obvious to me, as a teacher, how precious education was to the students, not only because they could practically recite every sentence of the books and articles I gave them to read but also because of the way they behaved to one another. Prisons breed cynicism. Trust is frequently betrayed and friendships severed when a prisoner is transferred without warning to another facility. The classroom was an exception. We talked about Japanese history, but also about other things; one topic led to another. One day a guest lecturer spoke about pan-Asianism in the 1930’s — the Japanese aim to unite and dominate Asia by defeating the Western empires. My Vietnamese student remarked that he was a pan-Asianist with “a small a,” but that really he was a “panhumanist,” for “we are all one race, right?” One of the black students snorted in a good-natured way. The Vietnamese smiled and said: “I know we have disagreements about that.”
There cannot be many places — in or outside prison — where blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims and Caucasians can discuss race and religion without showing hostility. A Muslim student, a big man from the Bronx, said he’d encountered little animosity to Muslims in prison. “Sure, that’s because we know each other,” another student said. I found this surprising, since prisons are not known for racial or religious tolerance. But perhaps they were referring not to the prison system in general, or even to the narrower confines of Eastern, but simply to the class. Then a black student, in for robbery, piped up: “If I hadn’t been in prison, I’d never have met any Jewish guys. I had all the stereotypes in my head, you know, cheap and mean. But now I’m hanging with a Jewish guy the longest time.”
Eastern is different. But why? Why was Eastern more receptive to the Bard Prison Initiative than other prisons in the state? Why is Eastern “the place to be”? Several men pointed out that “the tone is set by the top.” The superintendent and his deputy both started their careers as teachers.