Teaching Writing in an Unorthodox Classroom

By Toni Chianese

Photo: Four Women Earning Bachelor’s Degrees from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility

I work at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women as a writing tutor. Since coming to college and reading In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott, a repertoire of prison literature, I have wanted to work in a prison environment. While it took some research and persistence on my part to locate an opportunity, not to mention an application process, a TB test, and background check, when I finally started my volunteer position at Bedford, I quickly discovered that it was exactly what I wanted to do.

The women are getting their bachelors degrees in sociology (the only major offered). It takes a great deal of time to get this far. They must already have had their high school diplomas when they were booked, or obtain their GED while in prison. After this, if they stay on good behavior for at least a year, they can apply for the college program. Once enrolled in the program, it typically takes inmates between 10 – 12 years to earn their bachelor’s degree.

I am a teacher’s assistant to Ragnhild Utheim, an anthropology professor here at Purchase. I also work with students one-on-one during my office hours, as well as collectively in class, discussing issues like human rights. Hearing them discuss human rights has grown my understanding. Before teaching in the prison, I thought about human rights as positive entitlements. Now, hearing these women talk, I see human rights as tokens that can be used against you. People in a higher position of power can take your rights away as punishment. This perspective is clearest to me while reading their senior capstones.

The students are all researching projects that focus on a variety of humans’ rights breaches, ranging from issues like health care available for aging prisoners to how post-partum depression is falsely diagnosed as clinical depression, making victims of post-partum depression responsible for their actions in their mentally impaired states. I help them collect empirical articles to support their claims and while doing so, I learn about the absence of human rights that exists in our nation. I talk with them about how they read each article and how it relates to them and to me. I also talk to them about life at Bedford Hills Correctional and how it differs from life outside of the penitentiary. I urge them to tie this into their papers as well. Talking to them gives me the knowledge to think dynamically about every topic posed. Since I began working there, I think about what the inmates would say. While watching the news or even just talking to a friend about a controversial topic, I am always sure to present the issue from my students’ perspective. I’m their tutor, but I’ve learned so much from these women.

These women may be in prison, but in our classroom they are treated like college students. Seeing how the women work collaboratively and teach one another, I’ve realized just how important this program is. Education forges a path that leads to a better life, one of autonomy. Because of everything I have learned and taught, I feel privileged to work at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

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