Education and incarceration: Examining a system

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Using everything from prison tours to art, college faculty across the country are joining a national conversation on incarceration.

At the University of New Orleans, where faculty are represented by the AFT's United Federation of College Teachers, a series of lectures, panel discussions, films, visual art and student coursework is examining the American prison system at a moment of heightened awareness around racial equity and prison culture. Not only does the United States host the largest prison population in the world, but research shows that African-American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, a statistic that has troubled human rights advocates all the way up to President Obama.

Marianne Fisher-Giorlando, a retired member of UFCT, has studied incarceration for decades. Her contribution to the UNO series was a lecture about women incarcerated in 19th-century Louisiana, but her work around incarceration goes much deeper.

Fisher-Giorlando taught criminal justice at Grambling State University (in Louisiana) for 27 years. She took her students to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary so they'd understand the realities of the system from both sides of the penitentiary gates. The prison, built on a former plantation, is widely known as Angola, a nod to the African continent (though the region's slaves were probably not from Angola itself). It is also called "the Farm" for its 18,000 acres of agricultural land. Prisoners there pick cotton and other crops, much as slaves did when it was a plantation.

The place can have a profound impact on visitors. "A lot of things that I would teach [students] in the classroom, they didn't get until we went to Angola," says Fisher-Giorlando. They were particularly stunned by Louisiana's harsh sentencing laws, notorious for putting people away for crimes that would be treated more leniently in other states. "I can't tell you how many times I saw students talk to one of the guys in Angola and say, 'So you have a life sentence, you get out in 10 or 15 years.' And the guys would say, 'No, I'm here for my natural life.' And the kids would ask again," incredulous that there would be no parole.

Prisoners were so personable students would mistake them for prison employees. When Fisher-Giorlando corrected them, they'd say, "He's too smart to be a prisoner." Their visits changed their entire view of who gets incarcerated and what prisoners' lives are like on the inside.

"It was a really, really important learning experience," says Fisher-Giorlando.

Ben Weber, an adjunct history instructor at UNO whose students also visit Angola, agrees. Not only do they face a man convicted as a serial killer, they also learn from those serving long sentences for much lesser crimes. The "embodied experience," he says, makes a big impact. "It's a lot for the students to think about."

Weber helped initiate much of the event series, which is sponsored by the university's Midlo Center for New Orleans studies and the history department, and continues through the fall semester. He is also directing the UNO portion of the Global Dialogues on Incarceration, a nationally touring public history project based out of The New School in New York City and involving 20 different colleges and universities. His students will contribute their work to the national traveling exhibit. They are also participating in a postcard exchange project with prisoners at Angola called "Stories from Prison / Honoring Loved Ones," which involves performing commemorations requested by prisoners for people who have died while the prisoners were locked up.

Other events during the fall semester series will include a visit from Norris Henderson, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years and is now executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, an advocacy organization for criminal justice reform; a presentation about art and activism for young people; and films about prison life, prison activism and even prison music.

The material is relevant, says Fisher-Giorlando, because as the incarcerated population grows, more and more families are touched by the prison system. As education chair of the prison museum board, an occasional tour guide and a continuing education instructor, she continues to teach about the realities of prison life. She wants her students "to understand that the people locked up behind bars are maybe not monsters. They are human beings, brothers and sisters, and mothers, fathers and children."

"Behind that label 'criminals' are real human beings," says Weber.

[Virginia Myers]