Op-ed: My students in prison are creating new stories

In mid-November, 16 men were the first incarcerated students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. As an educator in the program, I have learned that their stories are crucial for healing and growth — for them, certainly, but also for us who live in this society that practices punishment and exclusion instead of grace and restoration.

There are 406 higher education in prison programs across the country, according to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. And beyond that, complex human stories are as numerous as the nearly 2 million people who sit in prisons, jails and detention facilities across the country.

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The 103 men and women across five cohorts in the Northwestern Prison Education Program have lived complex lives. We don’t ask them about the crime for which they were incarcerated when they apply, but I have learned some of their stories over the years as they participate in class discussions and do assignments. Like many people who commit crimes, some of them used drugs, had mental health challenges and were dealing with grief and loss. Beyond these personal circumstances, my students also lived in tough families, tough neighborhoods and a tough society.

One assignment in my Sociology of Chicago class at the Stateville Correctional Center for men was for students to write a “sociological autobiography.” Throughout the course, we read about deindustrialization, housing discrimination, concentrated poverty, urban disinvestment and unequal school funding. Their task was to place themselves and their lives within these processes. I did not ask them to ponder their actions that led to their incarceration, but many of them did. From these essays and from a large body of social science research, I have learned that almost every crime reflects a cycle — and often a circle — of hurt and harm.

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Not everyone who is hurt — either by another person or by society’s neglect or cruelty — goes on to harm others. Sometimes, they hurt themselves. Sometimes, they suffer silently. Other times, they get the help they need to be OK. My students’ stories highlight the complexity of what lands people behind bars.

My students are likable people. Some of them committed life-ending acts. Others were wrongfully convicted. Yet they all have dreams and families and are earning their college degrees. When I have a guest speaker in my class at the Logan Correctional Center for women, I ask students to introduce themselves with one nugget about who they are. They offer a range of identities. “I am a plumber.” “I am a grandmother.” “I am a dog trainer.” “I am a Christian.” “I drink way too much pop.”

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My students are brilliant people. I had to significantly improve my classroom management skills because of their eagerness to discuss course material. In one class at Stateville, we discussed if a public library in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood should sell or display a painting by artist Kerry James Marshall that it had purchased for $10,000 and was then worth roughly $10 million. Sure, the economic value might be high, they argued, but the value of collective self-worth that the art inspired for residents was far greater. They are talented analysts, writers, debaters and logicians.

I don’t minimize the devastating harm that some of my students have caused others. They surely don’t either. I simply want to portray them in their fullness and in their contexts, as humans, with interests and stories.

Our students have taken a full liberal arts curriculum with all the rigors demanded by a selective university. I use the same syllabus when I teach my students in prison as when I teach my students in Evanston. Just like my Evanston students, they complain whenever they get below an A. And I say, “This is Northwestern! Should you step up your game or should I lower my standards?” They always step up their game.

Across their coursework, they have read novels, solved math equations and completed chemistry labs. They have taken courses in psychology, philosophy and political science. They are more than capable of telling their own stories, and many of them have done so, through poetry, theater, essays and journalism. They have also endured things that most college students have not — such as lockdowns, property confiscation and pens that bend, turning the simple act of writing into a feat of ingenuity. Now, with college degrees in hand, they are looking forward, not backward.

They are creating new stories. It is up to all of us to create pathways for their stories to flourish.

Mary Pattillo is the Harold Washington professor of sociology and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University.

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