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From Class to Prison: A Memorable Learning Experience


Well, it took a few years, but during Fall semester 2013, things finally got to the point that I decided to send my students to prison—actually, I took them there, myself. I teach a course entitled, “Behind Bars: Cross-cultural Representations of Prison in the 20th Century,” in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, which focuses upon cultural productions (literature, film, art) from various prison contexts, especially the Soviet Gulag, Holocaust concentration camps, and the American prison system. I have always thought about the possibility of incorporating field trips into my courses, on the assumption that a field trip would augment my students’ learning; for logistical reasons and time considerations, however, I had yet to try it out. Naturally, I figured: why not start small and get my feet wet with a class field trip to a prison?

The field trip is a familiar go-to in education. It hold the promise of demonstrating the real world relevance of in-class concepts and skills. Educational researchers often speak of “authenticity” in education, which can mean introducing real world applications into the classroom or, in the case of the field trip, bringing the class into real world experiences. While many of us in higher education may associate the class field trip with the K-12 experience, field trips can also contribute to students’ learning at the university level, provided that the goals of such trips are intentionally informed by the course’s learning objectives. At the University of Pittsburgh, field trips are employed in a number of schools and disciplines, whether to museums in History of Art and Architecture, to temples in Religious Studies, or to field sites in Biological Sciences or Anthropology. And in the professional schools, where the term “field trip” may have less currency, clinical practice, field work, or internships constitute essential components of the curriculum.

In the case of my course, the relevance of a fieldtrip to a local prison lay in its relationship to the literature and other cultural productions students were reading. Representations of American prisons form a major unit in the course, as do critiques of potentially problematic features of the American prison system, including privatization and racial disparities. My hope was that students would compare their own impressions of the prison with the representations they had read/viewed, as well as against each other’s representations of the prison visit. It is one thing to engage with the text of Angela Davis’s rather jarring argument that prisons may be obsolete—it is quite another to come literally face to face with the racial demographics of American prisons. Additionally, my students readPrison Memoirs of an Anarchist, bythe infamous anarchist Alexander Burkman, Henry Clay Frick’s would-be assassin. Burkman’s account, an early classic of American prison literature, depicts his own imprisonment in the very prison we visited, State Correctional Institute, then known as Western State Penitentiary or more simply “West Penn.” My hope was that they would be able, in some sense anyway, to situate Burkman’s depiction within their own observations of the prison, which, at least architecturally, remains largely the same as it did over one hundred years ago when Burkman resided there.

State Correctional Institute (SCI) is located on the North Side of Pittsburgh, at the base of the bluffs below the Ohio River Boulevard, right at the edge of the Ohio River. The prison is only barely and briefly visible from the Boulevard, and it is not particularly visible from any major roadway, save for the view as one crosses the McKees Rocks Bridge, looking toward downtown. Anecdotally, most Pittsburghers with whom I have spoken do not know the prison is there (generally they assume instead that I must mean the jail, located in a prominent position downtown right next to and easily visible from 376). Indeed, the interior of SCI feels, in spite of its being a working prison with numerous inmates and sizeable staff, like a forgotten place. Much of the facility, including the older cell blocks, date back to before the turn of the 20th century. Previously a maximum security prison (Western State Penitentiary), the facility closed briefly in 2005 and reopened in 2007 as SCI, with a new minimum security designation. Today, the prison primarily houses inmates in drug treatment programs as well as special needs prisoners. New arrivals are housed separately until they become “known quantities,” and any inmates with behavioral problems are housed in a separate, higher security cell block (a block which we did not visit). In other words, the prisoners in the general population are generally regarded as less dangerous (though the release forms we signed indicated in no uncertain terms that there is risk associated with entering any correctional facility).

Our tour included the prison yard, historic and modern cell blocks. After the initial screening process, we entered the prison grounds. The first thing that became apparent to my students and me was that we were approaching a large number of men, all dressed in identical burgundy pants and jackets, filing in and out of a one-story building: contrary to my own expectations, we were literally walking amongthe inmates, with no bars or walls separating us. In fact, although watchful guards stood close by generally, we regularly found ourselves weaving through processions of inmates from one part of the complex to another, as we passed the cafeteria, crossed the prison yard, and as we entered and exited the cell blocks. At times, guards asked (and sometimes ordered) inmates to let us pass, while at other times the inmates made way for us of their own accord.

At one point, as a few guards determined among themselves which cell would be best for us to enter, I assumed that they were looking for an unoccupied one—not so. The guard who led us to the cell calmly opened the door and asked the inmate inside, resting on his bunk, to come out so that we might enter. Surprisingly cheerful, the inmate appeared happy to oblige—though I remain cautious about presuming anything about his actual feelings about this invasion of privacy, which must certainly be one among many on any given day. There was, undeniably, an uncomfortable zoo-like character to our excursion. It was impossible to ignore that we had come to this place to observe not only the structure of the prison, but the human beings contained within it. Eye contact was, of course, unavoidable, particularly as inmates appeared equally curious about and interested in our presence there. One of my students neatly captured my own feelings, saying, “I didn’t know what expression to have on my face.” What does one do, as a free person, when confronted with one who is not? Smile? Look away? Attempt expressionlessness? To directly address any prisoners is against the rules, though not all of my students could resist the natural urge to respond when a few of the inmates said “Good morning.” In the yard, among the general population, and especially on the special needs cell blocks, the question of “where to look” was not an easy one. In the latter facility—one of the more modern constructions built in the 1970s—we listened to our guide in the middle of the block’s 2-story octagon, as the eyes surrounding us peered at us from their cells through their slender windows. More than once I asked myself. Should I be here? Should my students be here?

Our class took place within a week or so of the tour (actually, after two tours, since the largest group permitted is 15), on our final day of class. We focused upon student impressions of the visit: what they saw and heard, and what they didn’t. How what they saw met or did not meet their expectations. How their view of “prison,” had shifted in any way. Because I chose not to make the trip mandatory (both because of the risk factor and potential student fears, and because tours are only given midday on weekdays, making student scheduling conflicts an issue), it made sense to have students who participated in the field trip to provide basic level descriptions of the prison to those who had not attended. Students expressed familiarity with certain elements they had observed (based upon their readings/viewings in the course, or upon depictions of prison from popular culture), and surprise at other elements (with the most striking realization being that we were able to walk among the general population). In general, students spoke in personal terms about the experience—how they felt (some expressed intense curiosity, others intense fear), the relationships between prison staff and inmates which they observed, and the kinds of connections or lack thereof they experienced with the inmates they observed. I attempted to call attention to the specific ways in which they chose to represent what they saw, in speech…to have the students themselves turn a critical eye toward their own perspective, as they had to the many authors we had analyzed thus far in the course. I did not “test” them on the field trip; instead, I found our final discussion to be a particularly helpful way to synthesize and conclude many of the themes which we had encountered earlier in the course, in a way that was more powerful and authentic a simple summary provided by me might have been. If nothing else, I’m confident that, even if my students were to take nothing else away from my course, many years from now, they’ll remember that, on a field trip for my course, they went to prison.

By Joel Brady, part-time lecturer at Pitt and a Teaching and Learning Consultant at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education

photo credit: jimforest via photopin cc

photo credit: EasyPickle via photopin cc

MARCH 2014


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From Class to Prison: A Memorable Learning Experience