A new sociology class pushes boundaries in an unexpected setting: a women’s prison.
By Christopher Hann Photography by Peter Murphy
There was really no way to know what would happen when nine female students from Drew sat down with a dozen convicted criminals for a course inside New Jersey’s only prison for women.
But it was clear to Kesha Moore, the assistant sociology professor who had created the course, that the students’ first class was not proceeding according to plan.
Inside a classroom at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility near Clinton, Moore had divided the weekly class into groups of four and five. Each group consisted of Drew students and inmates—“outside” and “inside” students, respectively, according to the course nomenclature. The students were analyzing the role of prisons in American society. But when it came time for a student from each group to present to the class, only the Drew students volunteered. To Moore, the dichotomy was clear, and a little troubling. She believed that the success of the class hinged on the students’ collective willingness to be equal participants. They needed to give voice to their ideas and allow those ideas to be challenged. They needed to have skin in the game.
But the inmates were holding back. “They wanted the outside students to translate for them,” Moore recalls. “I told them, ‘That’s not how the class works. My job as the instructor is to help you have the sociological terms, or whatever it is you need, to make your argument.’”
The next week, when Moore met separately with the inside and outside students, she learned that each group harbored some ambivalence about the other. Heather Greco, a junior from Union, N.J., says that she felt hesitant, for example, to express any support for the criminal justice system, unsure about how her incarcerated classmates would react. (Only later would she hear the inmates themselves voice similar support.) Prior to the course, some inmates had confessed reservations to Moore about their ability to weather the academic load. They also worried whether the Drew students—younger and more educated—could possibly understand where the inmates were coming from. “We felt like they were going to look down on us,” says Rashida Smith, 32, of Newark, who has served 11 years for charges including conspiracy to commit aggravated manslaughter.
Moore’s message to both groups was simple: She wanted all her students to be heard. She recognized that the inmates lacked the confidence “to take on their role as students,” and she reinforced to them how essential their contributions were. And that, apparently, was all they needed to hear, for over the next 12 weeks Moore’s students engaged in robust debates about a litany of social problems—broken families, sexual abuse, domestic violence—that lead so many women to acts of crime. At times the discussions achieved an intensity that few had ever experienced in a classroom. Emotions were raw. Voices cracked. Tears flowed.
For Moore, the course was the culmination of a long-held dream. A second session is planned for this fall.
“It’s hard to describe how it became such a powerful experience,” says Christa Hendrickson, a senior from Lake Park, Minn. “I think it’s just that you form bonds with these women, and the fact that you connect with these people in prison. It makes the prison system so much more real to you. They’re actual people. They’re not theoretical masses that you read about in books.”
It had taken Moore three years to win the bureaucratic blessings needed to make the course, called “Engendering Prison,” a reality. She modeled the course on a national initiative known as the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, founded by Lori Pompa, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University. Moore’s class was the first Inside-Out course held in a New Jersey prison and among the first all-female classes anywhere in the nation.
Inside-Out courses are not designed for college students to study inmates but to learn alongside them. They are also not meant to create longterm friendships: College students cannot contact inmates once the semester is done.
In class, inmates are identified by first name only, and their criminal history is taboo. The goal, according to the Inside-Out mission statement, is “to ignite transformative learning experiences through collaboration and dialogue across profound social barriers.” That might sound like a mouthful, but Moore contends that the alchemy created when college students and prison inmates gather in a classroom setting is vital to the learning experience.
Moore’s curriculum explored the impact of gender, race and class on the American prison system (because her students were all women, class discussions invariably focused more on incarcerated women). The class studied what Moore describes as “pathways to prison”—the circumstances that often lead people to commit crimes. Research has shown, for example, that female offenders are more likely to have been victims of crime, often physical or sexual abuse committed by a parent or partner. “You have this population of young women who are much more vulnerable to abuse, more likely to use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate,” Moore says. “Young women who use drugs are more likely to be depressed than young men who do.”
The class also examined how social and economic position can influence who goes to prison. “Some people who self-medicate get drug treatment because they have insurance, so it doesn’t lead to incarceration,” Moore says. “Or they self-medicate with prescription drugs.”
As a scholar, Moore, who is 36, has focused on urban sociology and race and class inequality. She says she approached her Inside-Out class more as a sociologist than as an expert in criminal justice. “I wanted this kind of humanizing experience,” she says. “I wanted all of my students to be able to understand how their personal biography intersects with the social structures of inequality that fuel our prison system.”
“Inside” student Dayna Nicholson was released shortly after the course ended.
The subject of human behavior captivated Moore long before she arrived at Drew in the fall of 2004. Growing up in northwest Philadelphia in the 1980s, she saw the prevalence of crack and the attendant rise in violent crime conspire to disintegrate neighborhoods across the city, including her own. As a student in one of the city’s elite magnet schools, an hour’s bus ride from her home, Moore saw the decline of her own neighborhood from afar. Yet the evidence was all around her, and even as a privileged 12-year-old she could not help but wonder how the forces of race and class and poverty and crime had conspired to wreak such mayhem on the place she held so dear. “I always wanted to understand my own life,” she says, “my own family, community, and the changes I have seen.”
At the University of Michigan, where Moore earned a master’s degree in community organizing, she helped design the school’s AmeriCorps program and, as a VISTA volunteer, organized tenants of Detroit’s Brewster Homes, the first federally funded housing project designed for African Americans. “I learned what a powerful educational experience it is to actually work with people that are affected by the issues you’re studying, and find ways to combine scholarship and action,” Moore says. “That’s the way I see myself as a researcher and also as a teacher.”
It was her commitment to experiential education that hooked Moore on the Inside-Out model.
In July 2005, she took Pompa’s one-week training workshop for instructors, which included three days inside the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, a maximum-security men’s prison outside Philadelphia. It was the first time Moore had set foot in a prison. The training made an indelible impact, and Moore hoped to replicate it for her students. “If I could create the opportunity to have that experience,“ Moore says, “we’d have the possibility of having what I had.”
The day’s lesson was “Parenting in Prison.” Moore had the students engaged in a role-playing exercise designed to explore the impact on families and social institutions when a mother is sent to prison. The exercise hit especially close to home for a handful of the inmates, themselves mothers. Moore asked inmate Jeanne Dimola to portray an incarcerated mother. When Dimola, 46, arrived at Edna Mahan three years ago to serve a seven-year sentence for armed robbery, she left behind two children.
Another inmate, Dayna Nicholson, played the role of a caretaker for the children of the incarcerated mother. Nicholson, 35, the mother of four sons, was serving a five-year sentence for resisting arrest and endangering the welfare of a child (she was released from Edna Mahan in February). Inmate Tina Marie Reynolds, 32, played a social worker at the children’s school. Reynolds, a mother of two, is serving a four-year sentence for reckless manslaughter, having pleaded guilty to allowing her newborn daughter to drown in the bathtub where she had given birth. Dimola started the discussion, and it was not difficult to imagine that she was speaking from experience. She talked about not being able to celebrate holidays with her children, and she worried that their caretaker would fill their heads with horrible ideas about her fitness as a mother.
Nicholson said her role as caretaker gave her a new appreciation for the woman—her ex-husband’s wife—who cared for her sons. Though she had felt only anger in the past, Nicholson said, she had come to appreciate the sacrifice that the caretaker had made. She said she felt like she owed the woman an apology. Then she broke down and cried. “That was intense,” Drew senior Katharine Dolin recalls, “because she claimed she never cried.” In fact, the discussion left many in the class in tears. Gonzalez cried as she told how her classmates made fun of her because her mother was in prison. Reynolds wept, too, as she recounted her own children’s experience in school. A few Drew students left to retrieve a roll of toilet paper from a nearby restroom—de facto tissues that promptly got passed around the room. Watching the discussion unfold, the emotions in the room reaching a pitch, Moore found herself unable to speak.
“What they brought to that role-playing exercise was so powerful,” she says. “They just approached it with so much integrity. And I became speechless, so I couldn’t question them and probe and do my usual teacher thing, challenging them to explain the material, because I was caught in the moment. I was just overwhelmed with the severity of the problem, the pain, the complicated nature of it.”
After class, walking back to the prison parking lot with the other Drew students, senior Shannon Daley told her classmates, “It got real today.”
That, of course, was the point—to grasp the reality of a prison system that now incarcerates 2.3 million people, more than in any other country in the world.
“I learned a lot, but it was a kind of learning that you don’t get in a regular class,” Daley says. “It’s putting the effects of race, class and gender in a very personal context. We’re sitting with people who have had these things play a role in their lives. It’s hard to ignore when they’re sitting in front of you.”
In December, Moore’s class gathered in the prison gym for a graduation ceremony of sorts. The students had selected Rashida Smith and Maria Gonzalez to deliver speeches to an audience that included top brass from both participating institutions: Edna Mahan administrator William J. Hauck and Drew President Robert Weisbuch. Smith says the course gave her insight into her own experience, revealing the detrimental effects of her decision to drift from a stable home to a life on the streets, a life that led her to be implicated in the 1996 shooting death of a Newark man. In a short essay she wrote when applying for the class, she told of her desire to become a motivational speaker. “I felt like I had something to offer the class,” Smith says. As she stepped to the lectern to deliver her speech, dressed in a prison-issue khaki V-neck shirt and pants, she wore a gold necklace with a pendant of Christ on the cross.
“To the Drew students,” Smith said, “we thank you and admire your openness, humbleness, intelligence and acceptance. Although most of us are different in class, race and culture, none of those factors diminished our purpose, which was to embrace change and learn together. We are saddened that our journey together has to end here, but know that we will never forget any of you.”
Then it was Gonzalez’s turn. A sociology and Spanish major from Kearny, N.J., Gonzalez delivered an unambiguous indictment of the nation’s prison system. Speaking of the inmates, she said, “Each and every one of them is ambitious, intelligent, lovable, charismatic, funny, and they all had something unique to offer. These women have taught us more than we could have possibly taught them.”
As Gonzalez continued, her voice caught and tears welled in her eyes. “I can promise you,” she said, addressing the inmates directly, “that your voices will forever be heard not only in my memories or my peers’ memories, but whenever we discuss social injustices or when we help reconstruct our social structure. No one can take our class experience away from us. We have the power to strive for success, fight for our dreams and never ever settle for anything that we do not think is just.”
Returning to her seat, Gonzalez embraced an inmate, Ivelisa Figueroa, then another, Coleen Alexander, a gesture that seemed to fulfill Moore’s goal to humanize the prison experience.
“I want all my students as individuals to find value and meaning in the class,” Moore says. “But my commitment to bring higher education into prisons is because it lessens the gender inequality. It lessens the race and class inequality. It lowers crime rates. It makes a safer community. That’s what I wanted to figure out how to do when I was 12.”
—Christopher Hann is a freelance writer in Lebanon Township, N.J.
Theology Behind Bars
Inmates and Theo students study together in prison.
Prisons, says Margaret Atkins T’07, are “designed to dehumanize the incarcerated.” In an attempt to restore prisoners’ humanity, Atkins founded the Partnership for Religion and Education in Prison (PREP) in Drew’s Theological School. The new program brings inmates and Theo students together in college-level theology courses taught by Drew faculty.
Atkins launched PREP last fall at two New Jersey prisons—the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton and Northern State Prison in Newark, a facility for men. That semester, Professor Emeritus David Graybeal taught “The Search for the Good Community” at the women’s facility, while Associate Professor Chris Boesel taught “Letters and Sermons from Prison” at Northern State.
“It is incredible to watch the rehumanization that happens when outside students and inside students interact as equals,” says Atkins. “They do not walk away the same people they were when they walked in.”