Teaching and Learning Danville’s Prison

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THREE YEARS AGO, I APPLIED FOR A JOB teaching a basic Western
art history survey course, at a men’s prison in Danville,
Illinois. It would be my first job out of graduate school
and one that has since shaped my ideals for education and
pedagogical approach. I had never set foot in a prison. I
didn’t know the architecture or the culture of prisons. I
couldn’t imagine how the narrative of art in Western,
white culture could be relevant to anyone in prison. I
couldn’t conceive of how anything could be relevant in a
place where adults do not possess the autonomy to cook
their own food, do their own laundry, or move freely even
within the walls in which they reside. But I was intrigued,
nervous, and excited. So, of course, I accepted the job.
The Danville Correctional Center is one of seven prisons
in Illinois—out of a total 45—that offers academic
community college courses. Students at many state prisons
can take vocational courses, but budgets for academic
courses continue to shrink, leaving skills like analytical
reading, art history, and algebra behind. The state of Illinois
was, in fact, once considered a national example of
what was “correctional” about prisons. In 1953, Southern
Illinois University started the first ever, post-secondary
education in a prison. Many states followed suit, creating
772 campuses serving 1,287 prisons.
Studies have revealed, time and again, that educational
programs in prison lower the recidivism rate and keep
prisons safer for guards and prisoners alike. These benefits
often extend to prisoners’ communities and families, as
incarcerated people left prison and returned home with
new knowledge and skills. Many wardens and guards have
also said that programs are good for the prisoners. However,
academic programs also provided something else. They
gave prisoners a different chance—recognition of academic
success and employment on the outside and abilities to
gain knowledge, interest, and drive on the inside.
As U.S. prison populations grew, so too did budgets and
anti-rehabilitation sentiments. In 1994, Clinton signed the
infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
that prohibited Pell Grant funding to people in prison. College
in prison programs around the country collapsed and
people in prison were left with little to no educational
opportunities. Only a handful of community college programs
managed to survive, mainly due to the vigor and
persistence of a few concerned administrators.
While students at Danville have access to education,
the shrinking status of these programs makes teaching a
wholly different experience, from that at any other community
college or university. Take for instance a common
assignment: the research paper. Research for a paper often
involves using the Internet, viewing documentaries, and
reading journals and books. In Illinois state prisons, there
is no Internet. At Danville, computers are limited to classes
where students learn on old PCs. There are communal
TVs at the prison, and some students have their own, purchased
from the prison commissary. But their cell-mate
might also have a TV; so watching what you want—even if
it is for school—is always a negotiated task (imagine 2 TVs
going at the same time in a very small prison cell). The
prison does have cable, and a prisoner can request a
movie/documentary to be played; but that would be for
the whole prison, not for one or a few students. The prison
library is a logical place for screening documentaries, and
research in general, but that too is a limited activity.
The librarian at Danville told me that Illinois prison
libraries lost funding in the 1990s. Federal law requires
that prisoners have access to a law library and this is the
backbone of Danville’s library, with a very small section for
fiction, non-fiction and reference. There are 1,845 men in
the prison, built to house 896. Of these, only the first 25
to sign up from each housing unit (there are 4 units) can
go to the library Monday through Friday. Many men only
use the law library since the general library is outdated,
virtually unchanged for a decade. When I required my
class to write a paper on an artist’s work, not only had
many students never written a research paper, but there
were no resources to do so. I emailed artist friends, asking
for book donations for the simple class assignment. U-C
Books to Prisoners also donated books for the ‘cause.’
Despite the few educational resources available in the
prison, the experience of teaching there is wholly different
for other reasons. Students take classes voluntarily, often
against the odds. Attending college in prison in hard, there
are few quiet places to study, many students work all day
(classes are at night), and school is just not cool in men’s
prisons. But the students want to learn. They are hungry
for information, even white Western art history. Many students
are acutely cognizant of their knowledge deficit and
are eager to learn everything. Students ask lots of questions,
debate each other, and never let me off the hook
with a simple answer.
Teaching in prison is simultaneously one of the most
depressing and inspiring experiences. Depressing because
prisons are always horrible places. Inspiring because it is
there, in the most dismal of places in America, that students
say education transforms lives. Some students say that their
education has “saved” their lives. Others talk about creating
new relationships with family on the outside. One student
was in friendly competition with his daughter over who
could get the higher grade in a college class.
While many of my students on the outside attending
state universities and private schools pay handsome sums
for their education, they are often expected to get a degree
in order to get a job. The end result is concrete. Pursuit of
knowledge for the sake of information, exploration, and
experimentation seems less of a concern. In prison, however,
because of the obvious reason of confinement, perhaps,
education is primarily for the pursuit of knowledge.
This makes the experience of teaching both challenging
and rewarding.
Recently, I visited a maximum-security prison in New
York State and spoke briefly with a Deputy of Programs
there. He was adamant about the need for programs of all
kinds in prisons, saying that many prisoners didn’t have a
“fighting chance” growing up and so the least society
could do now is to provide them an education. But many
states are in a financial pinch, having to provide for all the
people they’ve incarcerated, of which more than half of the
2.3 million has never committed a violent crime.
Programs of any kind for incarcerated people, let alone
higher education, are not popular among taxpayers,
though it makes perfect financial sense. One common sentiment
from conservatives and liberals alike is: “I can’t
afford to send my own kid to college, why should this guy
get to go?” The experience of teaching in prison only invigorates
my belief that everyone deserves free access to education.
Surely then, we could exchange America’s carceral
landscapes, in favor of more humane ones.

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