When someone says the word "prison" we immediately have associations and assumptions about what it is like based on media portrayals and pervasive stereotypes. We see prison as being this place where “bad people” are sent, and that they “deserve” to be there. This is not always the case.
As a part of a Sociology & Anthropology Senior Seminar this semester at Ohio Wesleyan University, myself and the other nineteen departmental majors, have a joint class with twenty inmates of Ohio Women’s Reformatory of Marysville, Ohio. Every Wednesday at 4:50 PM we depart campus and make the twenty-five minute drive to the institution with our two professors, Dr. Mary Howard and Dr. John Durst. When asked to describe how this course is different from a typical class at Ohio Wesleyan, Kelsey Morrison says, “It forces us out of our OWU safety bubble, literally, and encourages interaction with views we otherwise don’t hear on a liberal campus."
This course has been in the works a long time, and was first conceptualized by Dr. Howard in 1987 when she was the director of Women Studies. She says, “Bill Louthan, who was Provost at the time, supported the idea but as it turned out, the prison system was forced by public outcry to close down all rehabilitation programming. Through recent tours with SOAN Senior Project classes we noticed the return of multiple skills training projects and the addition of Inside/Outside college level courses held within the prison. We did not design our course as any kind of mission for the prisoners. If there was any intent in a joint class of 20 OWU students with 20 ORW students, it was to learn from each other.”
From 1980 to 2014, incarceration rates for women in the U.S. have risen by 700%. (The Sentencing Project) Disproportionately, women of color are incarcerated as compared to white women. A report by The Sentencing Project found that the imprisonment rate for African American women was about 2x the rate of white women, and for Hispanic women it was 1.2x higher.
The women in our course are a select group of individuals from the institution who have proved themselves as open to learning in a self-help program developed for those who have passed through many other personal developmental hoops. Many women in the course have commented to myself and other students that not everyone in the prison is happy and that many do not choose to seek self-improvement programing.
Upon arrival, belongings are stowed away in the vans, cellphones are left in our bags, and with our state IDs in hand, and maybe a pen and paper, we make our way to the metal detectors. IDs are traded for visitors passes after our identities are checked against the volunteer registry, we sign in, and have our hands stamped.
Many times we would have to wait up to twenty minutes for everyone to go through security, including other volunteer groups and another class of students from Ohio State, until finally we are sent, five at a time, through a large metal door into a small room.
After one door shuts, another opens to let us out onto the prison grounds. Five by five we re-group and head across the yard to class. Right in the middle of the yard along our way is a track which encircles a new softball field. The buildings are older and actually look a lot like the architecture of OWU’s campus. It doesn’t look like a prison, it looks a lot like a college campus.
I’m used to the routine by now; diligent not to forget my ID on Wednesdays, making sure to wear closed toed shoes, taking my coat off to go through the metal detector, asking our supervising officer to escort me to the restroom, and not worrying anymore about not feeling my cellphone in the back pocket of my jeans.
Class is discussion based, and focused on articles selected by the Ohio Wesleyan students, who take turns leading the class and the conversation. MaryKate Caja says, “the only requirements are to read, reflect and discuss. There are no projects or exams, which has been really great to remember the value in learning to better ourselves rather than to get a good grade on an exam.”
Caja goes on to say, “I also have found the value in learning again, something that I think gets lost on a lot of students, especially seniors, because we are so used to learning to the test.”
Every week I look forward to this class, in fact I have not missed one. I have learned more from these women and from my fellow majors than I have in any other class throughout my college career. My whole life I have struggled with anxiety and depression, and it’s always really hard for me not to be pessimistic. The first day of class we were discussing the book The New Jim Crow about how the system of mass incarceration in the United States is the newest form of institutionalized racial oppression. All of the women in my group were talking about how they believed when they got out of prison that they would be able to land on their feet, get a job, make money and support themselves and their families. They were not worried about being discriminated against because of their status as a felon.
Further, they all could not stop talking about how happy they were. How lucky they were to be in the system. How they have been able to learn what is truly important in life and who they are as people. Normally I am a very participative student, but I was at a loss for words. All of the education I have recieved in my major so far screams that the odds are more than against these women when they get out. That there are structural barriers that will keep them from succeeding. I did not know how to comment or discuss those things because they were so optimistic and positive.
But what really hit me the most was how happy they were. And that made me wonder what about me, in the state of freedom, opportunity, and privilege that I am experiencing right now, has made me eternally unsatisfied. I still have not figured it out yet, but I know that I have been forever changed by these women and their stories, their faces, their smiles and laughs. They are incredible people, and they are living life despite what anyone else would see as a state of imprisonment. This is not to say that they have not struggled. We saw women weep and share stories of shame and guilt for their actions, and for leaving their children without a mother. Yet, they were still hopeful for the future.
Caja says, “I thought that these women would be less normal than me--I thought they would be kind of aggressive or scary but I was dead wrong. These women are people I would actually be friends with or talk with on a regular basis! They are normal, have feelings on a lot of different topics and have taught me things I would never have known.”
They were eager to learn from us and each other, and to share their perspectives about our readings each week. Many times I saw their eyes and minds opened by the articles and discussions that we had. A few women personally thanked a few students for picking certain articles because they felt truly changed by them. We had powerful discussions about class, race, gender, and deep societal issues. Johanna Meyer says that this course, “It's probably one of the most honest experiences you will have because this class forces you to emotionally confront society and its ills.” Even when there were differences of opinion, everyone made the point to listen and try to understand others’ points of view. “OWU students stepped up to the plate in every way possible. Our group discussions about important social issues were punctuated by frequent laughter. Everyone of the 40 students contributed to a sense of shared respect, hopes for everyones' futures, and an investment in learning,” says Dr. Howard. I do not see these women as inmates, I see them as human beings, and peers. Dr. Howard goes on to say, “ Had there been stereotypes about anyone caught breaking laws, they are, for the most part, gone. We all have learned to be better listeners and to step out of the competitive atmosphere of academia and not make direct, hostile attacks on views that challenge our own.”
Sociologist Bruce Western explains the current inevitability of prison for certain demographics
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Diana Jasmine
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