Amherst Magazine

Two and a Half Hours a Week

By Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne '01

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Greg was flipping through pages of class readings. He was looking for a specific example to support his point about changing gender roles among Cambodian refugees fleeing the Pol Pot regime. He flipped one page, then another and another.

“I can’t find it right now,” he told a classmate. “I don’t have a highlighter.... I’d like to have one, a couple different highlighters, so I could...” His voice trailed off as he mimed the act of marking up the passages by topic.

Greg had pored over the readings; every page bore the penciled-in marginalia of a determined student. But he isn’t just any Amherst student, and the giveaway was that he had only a pencil at his disposal. The Hampshire Jail and House of Corrections has strict rules, and as long as Greg was imprisoned there, he had to follow them, even during the two and a half hours each Wednesday that he spent taking Regulating Citizenship, an Amherst political science course taught by Kristin Bumiller, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies.

Most of the cinderblock visiting room at the jail is painted an institutional cream color that might well be called “bleak” in the Benjamin Moore catalog. One wall, though, showcases a colorful mural with a number of scenes that are meant to be uplifting: a man in a graduation cap and gown, family crowded around in pride; a multicultural group of men and women holding hands around the earth; what looks like a camel wearing an orange robe, a city of skyscrapers on his back, his angel wings poised for flight. Crooked posters of the beach at sunset hang on the other walls, extolling such gems as “Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” This is made-to-order inspiration, with none of the real thing. Posters and paint cannot hide the red line taped in front of the door that leads out of the jail, the red line that no resident of the facility can put even a toe across. Luckily for the students in Bumiller’s class, inspiration was dependent not upon the decorations but upon the conversation occurring within the room.

For 13 weeks last semester, 10 students serving terms in the Hampshire Jail and 11 Amherst students met in this room for Bumiller’s course. They read and discussed Foucault, Locke, Thoreau, Arendt and Kafka, among others, as they examined what citizenship means and how the state can take it away.

Is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained and corrupted?
    —John Dewey, Democracy and Education, from the course readings

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Today, there are few educational opportunities in U.S. prisons, and the ones that do exist focus mostly on secondary education. Programs for college credit are scarce, despite research by the U.S. Department of Justice showing that convicts with some college education are less likely to end up in jail again. In 1994, Congress ruled that prisoners are ineligible for Pell grants for higher education, a decision that proved disastrous for college-level education in prisons. In 1983, 41 state prison systems offered post-secondary education courses, enrolling nearly 5 percent of the total prison population, according to a 2005 Ford Foundation report. By 1997, only 21 states offered such programs, and less than 2 percent of the prison population was enrolled. In 2005, enrollment was back near 5 percent, but the educational focus had shifted: two-thirds of the offerings were vocational programs as opposed to courses that count towards a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

One of the most important of these programs, and the one that got Bumiller into the Hampshire facility, is the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which is run by Lori Pompa, a professor at Temple University. In 1997, Pompa took one of her Temple classes to a Pennsylvania state prison. When the students talked with several prisoners, a man serving a life sentence suggested that Pompa ought to turn these conversations into a semester-long class. Pompa agreed, and Inside-Out was born. For seven years, the program existed only at Temple, but Pompa realized that others might be interested in a similar partnership. In 2004, she began to offer training for professors to take the program back to their own colleges and universities. Today, the program has trained 130 professors from 33 states and has enrolled more than 5,000 students.

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When Bumiller first heard about Inside-Out, she was intrigued. She had long wanted to teach inside a prison: much of her research has to do with discrimination, power and social justice, and a prison seemed a natural place to examine how all those social influences come together. Pompa’s program held special appeal. “I think what drew me to this was that the inside students and the outside students learn as equals,” says Bumiller. “That’s what is so exciting about this: having groups of people that interact with each other in ways that they wouldn’t without this program.”

Last spring was Bumiller’s third time teaching the course. She began the semester with the question “What is a citizen?,” and went on to ask students to consider how we theoretically imagine a citizen; how democratic societies exclude people from the rights of citizenship; and what impact poverty, consumerism, education and war—and imprisonment—have on a society’s definition of itself. Bumiller wants her students to understand how a democratic society decides who belongs and who does not. “I’m deliberately creating a class that is focusing back on prisons in the United States,” she says, “by getting people to imagine and learn more about other contexts where people are living in highly restrictive conditions.”

The jail itself can function almost as a text. Once, Bumiller remembers, she led a discussion on the bureaucratic authority behind a uniform and how the uniform itself becomes a symbol of power. As she spoke, a prison guard, dressed in uniform, came into the room and stood behind her to take the first of the afternoon’s two head counts. The class laughed. “I thought it was one of those perfect learning moments,” Bumiller says. “It’s one of those things that create clarity by concrete example. Sometimes, the situation or the scene itself becomes an opportunity to learn something about how power operates, without putting the inside students on the spot and having them tell their story.”

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Professor Kristin Bumiller and students on
the last day of the semester.

Bumiller’s emotional investment in the course and the students is apparent. That commitment comes partly from her belief that most of her students shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place. One in 100 Americans is currently in jail, according to the Pew Center on the States, and this fact strikes Bumiller as evidence of American society’s failure to provide for its citizens equally. If it were up to her, only those who pose a violent threat would be in prison. The rest would benefit from social support systems such as job training and job provision, education and mental health and addiction services. “They need to have employment, they need to have social connections, and they need to have mental and physical health,” Bumiller says. “That’s my ultimate goal: not just ‘get everyone out of prison’ but ‘create a system that is going to encourage people’s success in society.’”

But she is not in charge of that system. Her response, then, is to provide access to the best education she can within the limits of the prison system. For the traditional Amherst students, she is unabashedly political in her goals. “I want them to leave with a sense of the real tragedy of the incarceration rate in the United States,” she says. The course costs the college about $5,000 per semester, an amount that covers course packets, transportation for the outside students and entertainment, such as pizza on the last day of class. Amherst’s Office of the Dean of the Faculty paid the first two years; last year, the college’s Center for Community Engagement footed the bill.

Students have to follow a number of special rules. A dress code, much of it set by the Hampshire Jail, is laid out in a contract that the entire class must sign. The students cannot wear clothing that resembles staff uniforms or prison clothes; they cannot wear sleeveless shirts, spaghetti straps or anything else “that reveals the skin inappropriately”; they cannot wear jewelry, underwire bras “or other items sensitive to metal detectors.” Also forbidden are hooded sweatshirts, tank tops, white T-shirts, bandanas, hair ties, colored shoelaces, baseball caps, coats and open-toed shoes. Bumiller recalls with a laugh that on the first day she taught in the facility, an Amherst student showed up for the van in a Che Guevara T-shirt. She had to send him home to change. “Amherst is okay—but not Che Guevara,” she said.

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The rules go well beyond a dress code. In class, the traditional Amherst students are called “outside students,” the others “inside students.” Bumiller wants them to see one another as equals. According to the contract, outside students are not in the class “to study the inside students, to ‘help’ the inside students, to find out why the inside students are incarcerated, or for the inside group of students or outside group to ‘teach’ the other group.”

Students know each other by first name only. (To maintain that sense of privacy, Bumiller asked Amherst magazine to use only their first names.) Students are not allowed to exchange contact information. After the end of the semester, they can never communicate again. The regulation is in place as a security measure. “I certainly never felt any kind of danger, threat or trepidation about any of the students in the course,” says Martha Saxton, an associate professor of history and women’s and gender studies who, after learning about Regulating Citizenship, taught a history course at the jail last year. “On the other hand, since all systems are imperfect, it’s possible you could get someone in the course who isn’t completely reliable and who might, when [the course is over], do something foolish.”

Of course, for the students to even have weekly access to one another is far from a given. Not every jail is willing to have a professor come in and teach about civil disobedience, as Bumiller does every year. The Hampshire Jail, which is roughly 10 miles southwest of the Amherst campus, has, for some of its prisoners, a focus on rehabilitation and education, with classes on everything from Spanish to GED preparation. There is a classroom, called “the school,” in the main building that has computers (without Internet access), books and movies. Several inside students describe the Hampshire Jail as “a jail, but not really” because of the focus on rehabilitation and education. Robert, one of the inside students, speaks of Sheriff Robert Garvey as someone who genuinely believes in “helping you address the issues that need to be addressed, making sure that when you are released, you can be a part of society, living in it rather than surviving it.”  Robert adds, “He doesn’t want us treated like inmates. He wants us treated like people. When you have a sheriff that will give you a two-liter of soda and pizza for the jail passing inspection, that says a lot about a facility.”

The perception is so strong that a popular name for the jail is “Camp Hamp.” Still, when the bulletproof-glass doors clank shut in “the trap,” a holding pen near the facility’s entrance, where only one door can open at any time and only with the approval of an unseen guard in a booth, there is no denying that this is a place that functions upon the denial of freedoms.

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
    —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from the course readings

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The inside and outside students last semester studied the same readings, dressed in similar clothes and were, in most cases, about the same age, but it was hard not to hear echoes of their vastly different lives. Once they began talking, it was easier to distinguish between the two groups in the room. It was not an intelligence difference—the inside students brought as much intelligence and arguably more passion to the course. It was more the way each group had of speaking.

The Amherst students tended to pad their comments with academic jargon, dropping in words such as “acculturation” and “assimilation.” The inside students’ comments came from a less lofty place, and perhaps a less showy place, but they were just as insightful. In a small-group conversation on how Cambodians received refugee status after fleeing the Pol Pot regime, I heard the following exchange:

Marcella: And then also there was this whole movement to not allow any communists in, that the biggest goal was to screen out all communists, so any sort of little implication that they may have had some sort of communist leanings would automatically disqualify them. But because there [were] so many people, [the decision about communist leanings] was based on hearsay and people just talking bad about other people—
Greg: Or somebody else trying to get you to not come....
Marcella: ...Based on these totally arbitrary facts—
Greg: Throwing you under the bus gives me a better chance to get in than you.

In 15 words, Greg had just summed up the point of the questions that Bumiller had raised during the class session.

Bumiller acknowledges that the inside and outside students leave class having learned different things. For the inside students, she says, it’s about opening a door. She aims to give them the chance to talk about their points of view with people who want to listen. “They are getting a sense that they are confident in their own abilities to learn,” she says, “and that they can take full advantage of the situation, just like any Amherst student.”

Some of the inside students described the class as an escape. “It’s been really great to have you guys come here,” said Geremie, an inside student, at the last session. “After our second class, I was really upset it was over, like, ‘Wow, we have to go back to jail now.’ Our time here was really like we weren’t even in jail. So thanks, everyone, for embracing us like we weren’t inmates.”

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For the purposes of Bumiller’s class, they were not inmates. The inside students get Amherst credit for the course, meaning that if they go on to college, they will be a few credits ahead. Bumiller describes herself as a tough grader. She won’t publicly discuss her grading for the course, except to say that, so far, everyone has passed. At least one of Bumiller’s students has written to her to say he’s gone on to a university. (The national Inside-Out Program does not keep official numbers on what happens to its students after release from prison, but Pompa, the founder, says the program has transformed many lives.)

The Hampshire Jail selects eligible students from residents of a unit in which men live in dorm-like rooms and spend the bulk of their days in various classes and programs. Bumiller then interviews each potential student individually. She is interested, she says, in students for whom the course could be a springboard to community college or beyond. “I saw this as an opportunity,” says Robert, one of the inside students. Tony Jack ’07, who took Regulating Citizenship his senior year, saw such commitment in his fellow students. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to Head Start,” Jack says, referring to the early education program for at-risk children. “This could be their head start.”

Every outside student I spoke with used the word “experience” when asked why he or she had taken the course. They wanted to experience a jail in so far as they could. (One student admitted that she really had no idea what the topic of “regulating citizenship” would be about.) “If you haven’t committed a crime,” said an outside student named Chris, who’s in the Class of ’10, “if the state hasn’t stepped in and started to change your life yet, it’s easy to not even think about the ways that the state can come in and change lives.”

Robert wanted the outside students to see people like him in a new light. “I just hope that they realize,” he says, “that even though we’re here, we’re still citizens. Eventually we’re going to be part of society again, so don’t cast us off. Even though we’ve made mistakes, that doesn’t mean we can’t change, that we can’t be good people.”

Beyond making them think in new ways, the class also made the outside students behave in new ways. “I think Amherst students regularly go to class without doing the reading,” Bumiller says. “If they come to this class without doing the reading, and they’re sitting next to an inside student who has read it three times, has markings all through it, has five pages of notes, I think they feel pretty embarrassed.” For an Amherst ’08 named Marina, doing hours of homework was more about a sense of responsibility she felt to the inside students. “We can’t be disrespectful and not put in the effort, because we’re part of this class and we’re making the experience for these people. We knew that for them it was a privilege.”

Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.
    —Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, from the course readings

The second-to-last class was about prison abuses. “Jails are predicated on violence,” argued guest speaker Phil Scraton, a penal abolitionist from Northern Ireland. It was as if Scraton had turned on a faucet. Stories came pouring out; stories that were worse than the outside students could have imagined, stories that the inside students had come to accept as normal.

Robert told the class he’d spent 19 months in solitary at another prison where, he alleged, he was beaten severely. He believes he was in solitary due to a case of mistaken identity. “Eventually, I just stopped asking questions,” he told me later. “I stopped asking what was going on. ... I stopped asking for the phone, I stopped asking for the showers.” (He said he got a shower about every three days.) “And I stopped asking for my food to be hot, because my food was coming cold. Eventually, I just gave up.” For Robert, totalitarianism is reaching the point where you stop asking, “Why am I here?” Totalitarianism is policing yourself so well that the existence of an actual prison becomes almost irrelevant.

Robert’s story continued to resonate after the class had ended. “To know him well,” Marina says, “and to know that he was just forgotten about by the system for such a long time, is really upsetting. He’s really kind and thoughtful. There is no place for that in solitary.”

There’s something compelling about reading scholarly work about prison abuse and then hearing from those who live inside the system. “There is something about the visceral,” Marina says, “about hearing the clang of the trap, about holding your badge up to the person you can’t see and saying, ‘Now, I’m subject to you’—that was pretty powerful.”

Chris ’10, who describes himself as a political centrist and as the most conservative member of the class, says that Regulating Citizenship fundamentally changed his views on the prison system. “I was unaware of how horrific it was and how unjustifiable the abuse and conditions really are,” he says. “That was something that I had not thought about before.”

It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. ... Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
    —Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, from the course readings

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Marcella was pissed. Robert was resigned.

“What?!” she exclaimed.

“He came to this building when he wasn’t supposed to.”

“Why’d he come down here?”

“To work on his project.”

“But it’s the last day!”

Robert shrugged.

Marcella had just been told that one of their classmates, a baby-faced inside student named Mike, showed up at the prison “school” a half hour earlier than he was supposed to the day before, and because of that, even though he was in the school and with the prison-employed teachers, he was punished. (Jail officials confirm that Mike was kept from the last class for showing up at the classroom early the day before. However, they add that Mike had told the guards he was going elsewhere, and that this was his third disciplinary offense, which automatically results in a suspension from programming activities.)

How do you punish a man who is learning? Take away the opportunity to learn. The guards would not let him come to class that day, the last day of the semester and his last chance to see the outside students.

The students were angry, none more than Marcella. When her small group took its place at the head table to give a presentation on prison monopolies of the phone and commissary systems, she opened by saying, “Mike is also in our group, but he is not here today, apparently because he was working a little too hard on this project. So I am going to read Mike’s portion of the paper. I’m not really going to summarize it, because I don’t feel right speaking for him, so I’m just going to read his words.”

Later, when each student was presented with a certificate for completing the course, Bumiller took Mike’s certificate and said, “I will make sure Mike gets this, and that he passes the course.” Marcella came away thinking that, even in prisons with a rehabilitative focus, “the power struggle will always take precedence,” she says. “I understood the prison in a new light.”

At the end of class, the students gathered in a double circle, the inner circle facing the outer. Bumiller asked a series of questions: Name one thing you’ll remember from this course. What is fugitive democracy? Imagine where you’ll be in 10 years. “Out of jail,” Greg responded to that last question. “Hopefully I’ll have a good job.”

The students milled around, wistfully enjoying their last few moments together. The Amherst students left first, crowding into the trap, dutifully showing their badges to the guard in the booth. For Marcella, as well as for some others, this was her very last Amherst class. Senior Week in Cape Cod with eight friends beckoned, as did graduation, a month of kayaking and then, of course, real life.

The inside students watched the outside students leave. They put away the chairs and tables the class had used and ate the last of the pizza. They waited in the classroom until they absolutely had to leave. The only thing awaiting them on the other side was the long walk back down the prison’s bleak hallways to their unit. They were back in jail—their regularly scheduled date with freedom had just walked out the door.

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne ’01 is a freelance writer in the Boston area. Her last piece for Amherst was about David Stoeckle ’68, a surgeon who treated victims of last year’s Virginia Tech shootings.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04