From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2014

We speak often at Goucher of the transformational impact that a liberal arts education has on our students. They undergo significant changes not only in the classroom, through the events we hold on campus, and during their studies abroad, but also by participating in myriad activities in the community and the region.

All of this has an effect on the faculty and staff as well, and I want to tell you about a transformational experience I personally had toward the end of the semester last spring.

For some time, several teachers and students involved with the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) had been urging me to visit the two Maryland correctional institutions in Jessup, about 30 miles from Towson, where they lead, attend, or assist with college and preparatory classes offered to 60 inmates. One evening I was able to shake loose and accompany
Amy Roza, director of GPEP, on her rounds. What I saw, and participated in, was quite remarkable.

Surprise #1: Our first stop was at the women’s prison, where I observed a small class during a guest lecture on environmental issues by Gina Shamshak, assistant professor of economics. The discussion was lively, and it was clear that the students had thoughtfully and meticulously prepared for it. What caught me off guard, however, was the composition of the group. One of the young women, for example, seemed to fit an undergraduate stereotype. She was tall, poised, articulate, quick to smile, likely in her mid- to late-20s. I was almost certain I had seen her around campus and assumed she must be one of the undergraduates participating in GPEP as a teaching assistant or tutor. But when I inquired, I was stunned to learn that she was one of the inmates in the class.

Surprise #2: At the men’s prison down the road, I dropped in on a somewhat larger English composition class taught by Phaye Poliakoff-Chen, lecturer in English. Pressed to make a spontaneous presentation, I fell back on some case studies from my first-year Frontiers seminar on free speech. One of the cases I discussed was Snyder v. Phelps, which involved the notorious habit of the tiny, fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church of holding anti-gay protests outside military funerals In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a margin of 8–1, had famously upheld the right of the church’s adherents to conduct such public demonstrations, even at the risk of offending the grieving families, so long as they complied with regulations concerning their distance from the actual funerals. “Who was the dissenting vote?” a member of the class demanded to know. When I revealed that it was Justice Joseph Alito, one of the most conservative justices on the court, the student went on to compare this vote to others Alito had cast over the years.

I did not say it then, but I have to confess that my first thought was, “What a shock that this guy—perhaps imprisoned for committing a violent crime—knows so much about the Supreme Court!”

It should not be a shock, of course, when you think about it, just as it should not be startling that a young incarcerated woman can look just like anyone else we might encounter in our daily lives. The joke—or the embarrassment—was entirely on me, and Alexander Crockett ’14, one of the mainstream students observing the exercise that evening, had a good laugh at my expense.

This was, in a sense, a liberating moment, as well as a transformational one, for me. We went on with our conversation about free speech issues, and I found that the comments from the 20 or so men in the room—of all ages and many different backgrounds—were every bit as enlightened and nuanced as one would expect from Goucher students on campus in Towson. They asked me tough questions and made astute observations, and eventually a few of them invited me to return sometime to teach a full semester-long course in the prison on free speech.

Surprise # 3: I was flattered to be asked. So it is that I came to understand, in a more than theoretical way, why GPEP is such a successful and important program, and why Goucher must seek outside funding to keep it going. With one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, the United States in effect writes off a vast number of potentially productive citizens and denies them access to higher education. Some of them, we now know, may have been wrongfully convicted, or handed outrageously long sentences for offenses that might not even have been prosecuted in other countries. Education may be the best chance these men and women have to become productive members of society once they are released. A recent study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, indicates that prison education reduces recidivism, saves money, and improves employment opportunities for inmates.

The kind of education we are offering in Maryland prisons has far-reaching benefits, not merely for these 60 inmates, but also for our students, our faculty, and society at large. The program has already increased awareness within the prisons of the importance of education. Faculty participants have expanded the scope of their teaching and discovered new relevance in their disciplines. Students from our campus have had a unique opportunity to broaden their own perspectives and deploy their education on behalf of others. And the incarcerated students are proving themselves capable and motivated, as they too engage a liberal arts curriculum and master the skillset most sought after by employers: critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Some might call us naïve, but we know we are making a difference. Goucher can be proud of the positive role it is playing at the leading edge of social justice and progressive change.

For more information about GPEP, visit www.goucher.edu/gpep.