speaking with high school students about prisons/pages to prisoners

Earlier today, Joanne and I went to Bloomington South High School to talk to 4 classes of High School Students about prisons, prisoners, and the work we do with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project. The experience was challenging, and interesting, and generally positive, even when missing the alarm and waking up only 15 minutes before I was supposed to meet Joanne at the school.

We had been invited to speak by an IU student who was student teaching in a 10th grade English class. We were asked to speak as part of a unit where the students were reading the book A Lesson Before Dying where one of the protagonists is imprisoned and sentenced to be executed.

Others from Pages to Prisoners had spoken to school groups in years past, and Abbey said she had been somewhat disappointed by the outcome. So, Joanne and I came up with an activity to try to make our talk more engaging and to make the talk more of a dialogue between us and the students and to encourage their own critical thinking rather than just listening to and ingesting our oppinions about the criminal justice system. The activity was simple. With the classes we brainstormed ideas, pereceptions, and stereotypes that came to mind when we thought about prisons and prisoners. We also brainstormed ideas about why people in prison might write to us for books. We talked a little about the places where we got these perceptions about prisons. We wrote these words and ideas on the blackboard as we brainstormed them. Then, we passed out book request letters that had been filled and gave the students a few minutes to read the letters. We pre-selected these letters and made notes about their content. We didn’t want to pick letters that created an idealized perception of prisoners, we tried to pick a set of letters that gave an accurate representation of the letters that we tend to receive as a whole. We picked ones that showed a variety of the types of books people request, their motivations, and some of the things they mention about the conditions of incarceration and the psychological implications of being in prison.

Then, we asked the students to describe things that they had found interesting about reading the letters. We made an effort to tie the discussion of the letters back to the ideas we had brainstormed. I tried to ask open-ended questions (thanks mediation training!) to get the students to talk about their letters. “What did the letters you read say about educational programs?” “What kind of restrictions do the letters talk about?”

We closed the presentation by showing some prisoner art left over from the Prison Art Show from this past summer’s Plan-It-X fest.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting the experience to be like, but it definitely felt different. I was hoping that there would be this amazing transformative discussion with the students about prisons that challenged all our perceptions and expanded to social justice topics beyond just prisons. That didn’t materialize, but the teachers said that the students were more attentive than usual, and most seemed to participate in some degree. It’s been so long since I was a 10th grader that I’m not really sure what critical thinking skills are present. More than anything, it just seemed like the students had been conditioned to zone out when someone got up to speak in front of them and to only respond to really directed questions. I found this to be pretty difficult.

One thing that I found really uncomfortable was realizing that some of the students had family who had been incarcerated, or had been to jail themselves. It felt really fake to be standing up in front of a room talking second-hand about things that were really familiar to them. Using the letters helped make the words less my own and more those who were incarcerated, but I still felt a little akward. In the last period, there was a girl who was really outspoken about having a brother who was incarcerated and seemed really spot-on with her analysis and criticism of the prison system. It was awesome and I hope that she continues to feel comfortable talking about her ideas an experience.

Joanne has a great ability teaching and engaging people. She also has a much better handle on prison statistics than I do, and she was a lot more confident and kept things together through the first couple of classes, but I felt like it got easier as the day went on. It definitely helps to have 2 people doing the activity, with one person leading the brainstorming and the other writing on the board, or with one person talking and another keeping a stack of questions, or remembering the general outline as conversations tended to be winding, or filling in additional analysis or points that were missed.

Joanne said that in the future, it would have helped to have an outline to organize the discussion of the letters more, and this seems like a good idea, though it is nice to let the students direct the course and topics of the conversations by their interests.

In talking to the students yesterday, I tried to draw a parallel between the difficulties getting access to educational and other programming  that someone might experience in prison due to frequent transfers between facilities with the experience of switching schools. In my mediation training, a woman said that over 90% of the students in the public school are in transit (this seems high, but I haven’t had a chance to fact check).  The Monroe Community School Corporation has a program to try to keep elementary school kids at the same school in a given year, even if their family moves to a different part of Bloomington.  But there are a lot more parallels between the education system and the prison system today.

Discipline, and particularly, the way it can be applied arbitrarily, and without any room for dialogue or explaination, is one similarity and a big one that I think resonates with many students.  My friends, who are in elementary school, go to a school where one of the control mechanisms in the classroom is a card system.  When an authority figure perceives a child as misbehaving, the child is made to change their card from green, to yellow, and eventually to red.  I’m not sure what the consequences are for each level, but the troubling part is that the system doesn’t allow for any discussion or the child’s perspective in why discipline was applied.  Also, it’s a school-wide mandate, so teachers don’t have much flexibility in deviating from this system.

While doing my mediation training, a woman from the juvenile probation district came and talked about the issue of truancy, and how she thought it was symptomatic of other conditions that students face in their lives, rather than the problem itself.  More than punishing students for truancy, they aim to find solutions that made going to school more workable given the difficulties in the students’ lives.  It’s a good example of a point where corrections and schools converge.

Finally, I’m reminded of the video on the school to prison pipeline that was part of this past summer’s media that matters film fest.
I think doing this presentation in the future, I would like to focus more on these parallels because I think it would engage the students more and empower them to think more critically.  It might make them look at things they find undesireable about schools as systemic faults that they could choose to try to change or not abide by, rather than an unpleasant inevitability.