News & Features

Teaching and Learning in Prison

Inside the Classroom: This series takes you inside Vassar’s classes to reveal what students are studying today.

Ten Vassar students enrolled in a course on the changing American family are gaining some unique insights on the topic from 13 other students in the class. The course is being taught at Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York, and the other students are inmates at the women’s prison.

Professor of Political Science Molly Shanley directs a class exercise.
Professor of Political Science Molly Shanley directs a class exercise.

Sophomore Kyle Casey says taking a class with these women has been especially enlightening. “[They] bring unique perspectives not only as inmates but as wives, mothers, and grandmothers,” Casey says. “Their life experiences cannot be replicated in a regular college classroom.” And while the inmates’ insights are often “eye-opening,” Casey says, “[They also] remind us each week of our similarities. We all are working hard to create meaningful discussion and pursue our educational goals.”

Casey and nine fellow Vassar students make the hour-long trip to the prison every Tuesday with political science professor Molly Shanley and associate professor of English and associate dean Eve Dunbar for a course called “Family, Law and Social Policy.”

Classmates work on a project together.
Classmates work on a project together.

At a recent class, Dunbar opened the session by asking her students to parse a couple of poems. The students studied the poems for a few minutes, then offered their thoughts on the emotions the verses stirred in them.

Two of the first students to respond were Taconic inmates—something Dunbar says isn’t unusual.

“The first hands that go up in discussion periods are from the inmates,” Dunbar says.

Shanley says that enthusiasm had been evident in previous classes she has taught there.  “They see this as a tremendous opportunity,” she says. “They sure aren’t afraid to speak up, and they’re not always politically correct—they challenge the rest of us.”

Shanley, who taught a similar course at the prison in 2010 and 2011 with sociology professor Eileen Leonard, says Dunbar’s inclusion of poetry and short stories has added a new dimension to the class.

“Initially, we had planned to keep the curriculum Eileen and I had taught,” Shanley says, “but when we met this summer to finish the syllabus, we decided to change it. Eve is a writing teacher, and her approach enables the inmates to appreciate the thoughts and emotions contained in good writing.”

The course explores the dynamics of the American family and the laws and social customs that have had an impact on its evolution over the past 50 years.

“We’re looking at the change from the traditional two-married-parents family to those with [parents who are] single, unmarried, gay and lesbian, interracial, or inter-religious,” Shanley says.

In addition to the fiction and poetry on the subject, the students are reading scholarly journals and other research on topics such as domestic violence, welfare policy, and other issues that affect the American family.

Students are graded on response papers they write every week on a specific topic and on a final paper in which they are asked to synthesize some of the ideas they studied during the semester.

Dunbar says she believes that by teaching the course, she is making a statement of her own about the value of education.

Associate Dean of the Faculty Eve Dunbar shares a laugh with the class.
Associate Dean of the Faculty Eve Dunbar shares a laugh with the class.

“I feel lucky that Vassar allows us to do this,” she says. “I believe everybody deserves an education, and we have the opportunity to be a part of that.”

The class is one of several college courses being taught behind bars that are funded by the not-for-profit group Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. Professors from Nyack (New York) College and Mercy College in the Bronx also teach at Taconic Correctional Facility. While the inmates cannot earn a college degree while they’re inside, they are able to transfer their credits when they leave prison and continue their education.

Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link, lauds Vassar for participating in the program.

“Bringing students from the Vassar campus to the prison to take part in the class makes the college’s contribution unique,” Pica says.

“It’s something that really empowers the inmates,” he continues. “When they complete the course, they say to themselves, ‘I didn’t just do college work, I did Vassar work,’ and you can’t say that lightly.”

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Brian Fischer says the knowledge and self-esteem the inmates obtain from the course is certain to benefit them when they are released.

“Our partnership between Taconic Correctional Facility and Vassar College has unlocked multiple learning opportunities for women,” Fischer says. “[Dunbar and Shanley] should be commended for not only improving re-entry outcomes but for improving women’s lives one at a time.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos © Vassar College/Buck Lewis

Posted Tuesday, November 6, 2012