By Penny Prince
As horrifying statistics on our country’s reliance on mass incarceration continue to make the news every day, many faculty are deeply concerned about the impact incarceration can have upon academic success. How can the imprisonment and warehousing of human beings be a solution to the problems in our society? How much does injustice play a role in all stages of the justice system? Can rehabilitation and meaningful change actually occur in prison? What type of life does one face upon release?
These questions have many of my colleagues at Lehman scratching our heads: what can we as educators do to serve the community of incarcerated people? Even more pressing, what services can we provide to support people and their families, once they are released?
My personal journey into these questions came about through my daughter Elly Kalfus’ dedication to abolishing the penal system. During her time in college, she came to realize that the penal system is rooted in racism and colonialism. She introduced me to books like Michelle Anderson’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, grassroots campaigns like #CloseRikers, and nonprofits challenging the way we think about criminal justice like Mass Story Lab, Just Detention International—and CUNY’s own Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Through these organizations, formerly incarcerated people share how detangling philosophical and academic puzzles in a prison class helped them make sense of the world for the first time; how through reading and writing memoirs, they began to confront their deepest fears and anxieties; how many people in prison are finding their voices and self-esteem through acting in a dramatic play or making music. And I hear the voices of educators whose lives are being transformed through their work with students and families in need of a second chance.
When I learned about the University Faculty Senate Committee on Higher Education in the Prisons, I joined it. This committee is a godsend: it is inspiring to see how several CUNY community and senior colleges are investing time and money into important initiatives in the prisons and beyond, in order to create a more just world, a world of opportunity.
This fall, I spoke with several Lehman College colleagues who already have been teaching in prisons, or who have become professors sought out by formerly incarcerated students. We are building a campus committee to examine how we can serve. It is a giant challenge, one we are committed to meeting, so that we, as educators, can make a difference in the lives of our students.
Penny Prince is an Associate Professor of Music at Lehman College. She serves as chair of the Committee on Academic Evaluations and Standards for the Lehman Senate. She can be contacted at Penny.Prince@lehman.cuny.edu
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Image: 2009, S. Pasela