Doyle Faculty Fellow Nolan Bennett reflects on redesigning his Ethics of Incarceration course to include class sessions at the DC Central Treatment Facility, allowing the class to learn about the justice system alongside incarcerated students.
The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once remarked that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What then could we say of mass imprisonment in the United States, a nation with 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of its prisoners? How should we understand American democracy if one in 23 adults are under some form of state supervision, if one in 10n children have had a parent incarcerated, or if one in three black men born today will enter prison at some point?
I had this quote and these questions in mind when I redesigned my course The Ethics of Incarceration this semester to include monthly sessions at the DC Jail with a cohort of students from the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program. The foundation of the course—our weekly meetings on campus stayed the same as I’ve taught it before. Students first learn a set of philosophical and sociological arguments on punishment (spanning from retribution to restoration) before we consider a catalog of case studies on problems of penal policy and law, ranging from the constitutionality of solitary confinement and life sentences to the ethics of prison privatization. The class challenges students to address penal policy from a variety of perspectives both methodological and normative, culminating in an extended research project.
Yet in the first years of teaching the course, I felt dissatisfied by the disconnect between those carceral spaces we study and Georgetown’s campus. Reading memoirs, welcoming guest speakers, and taking tours to correctional facilities could only do so much. As a faculty fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, this semester I changed my course so that once a month we joined a cohort of incarcerated students at the DC Central Treatment Facility. We were able to achieve this with the help of the Department of Corrections, the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program, the Center for Social Justice, and a Curriculum Enrichment Grant from CNDLS.
As a faculty fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, this semester I changed my course so that once a month we joined a cohort of incarcerated students at the DC Central Treatment Facility.
Over four Saturday morning sessions, we read up on and interrogated issues of rehabilitation, reentry, public safety, reform, and prison abolition. We grappled with big questions: How do we help citizens return if their communities lack the opportunities and conditions they deserve? Is it enough to abolish cash bail—as DC has done—or do the systems of pretrial assessment that replace it offer their own issues? How do we shift the language we use to empathize with those who move through the criminal justice system? In the most stirring session, we discussed the tragic and unjust story of Kalief Browder: the young man from the Bronx who was unjustly jailed at Rikers Island for three years without trial. Even in those difficult conversations, there was little voyeuristic or unequal about our Saturday morning sessions: We met not as faculty and students, nor inside and outside citizens, but as equal participants to learn and collaborate.
We met not as faculty and students, nor inside and outside citizens, but as equal participants to learn and collaborate.
Anyone who’s had the opportunity to teach or learn in a correctional facility can tell you of that profound experience. Our Saturday mornings were full of hard questions, vulnerable moments, awkward icebreakers, humility, and humor. In our last meeting, we assessed Congress’s proposed First Step Act, asking in small groups and then as a collective what we would add to that bill, what we would ourselves do in the future to ensure a more just American society.
In reflecting upon the class and those sessions, one of my students, Shakera Vaughan, offered these words:
“I looked forward to those Saturday mornings when I’d get the chance to talk with real people who have been on the other end of our justice system. Hearing the thoughts, opinions, and views of people who are currently incarcerated allowed me to see the full implications of the struggling and overwhelmed criminal justice system. It’s almost as if a barrier had been broken and a new side of knowledge that typically isn’t accessible to students was now attainable. The Ethics of Incarceration course expanded our community awareness to include the role we play, as members of society, in incarceration.”
The Ethics of Incarceration course expanded our community awareness to include the role we play, as members of society, in incarceration.
I am grateful to the students in the jail and on campus who have shared their experiences and intellect with me. I look forward to our next collaboration.
This story is adapted from a post by Nolan Bennett that was first published on the CNDLS website.