Date September 16, 2016
Media Contact

Prison education conference generates discussion of Brown’s role

The conference and concurrent multimedia exhibition aim to better understand ways in which increasing incarceration levels have impacted social fabric, culture and democracy — and to explore how Brown might contribute to local efforts to educate incarcerated men and women.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Sept. 16, local and national leaders in the prison education movement convened at Brown to speak about their programs, the state of the rapidly expanding field and Brown’s potential contribution to college-level educational opportunities for Rhode Island’s incarcerated population of more than 3,000 men and women. 

The conference  "The Prison Education Movement: Does Brown Have a Role?" — organized by the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage is part of a series of public programs and events hosted by the center related to this issue. An exhibition titled “States of Incarceration”, the first national traveling multi-media exhibition on the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States, is on display concurrently at the University of Rhode Island’s building at 80 Washington St. in Providence.

Marisa Brown, assistant director of programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center, offered her thoughts on the origins of the conference, Brown’s potential role in the prison education movement and why this issue is so timely.

What prompted the need to organize this conference?

In 1990, there were 600,000 incarcerated men and women in the United States. That figure has jumped to 2.3 million today — about 3,000 of them right here in Rhode Island. This is a colossal change that is having real effects on American families, communities and culture. It is truly a national trauma that does not receive the attention it should. 

The mission of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities is to incubate new knowledge and new practices in the field of public humanities. One issue in particular that we are thinking about at the center is how to join public intellectual work with social engagement and even activism. The prison education movement ties in well with this thinking.

The conference came out of a program that the center and history professor Amy Remensynder participated in last year — the Humanities Action Lab, a consortium of 20 universities and organizations based at the New School that work together on a particular subject over the course of a year. A faculty member at each institution teaches a course related to the subject (this year, mass incarceration), and the students in the class produce an exhibition panel. The combined panels make up a multi-faceted exhibition that travels to each institution. Professor Remensynder was a faculty fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities last year when she taught Locked Up: A Global History of Prison and Captivity.  

Ultimately, the center took on the role of co-curating the traveling Humanities Action Lab exhibition on mass incarceration, titled States of Incarceration.

In thinking through potential ideas for programming around the exhibition, we thought a conference could generate discussion about whether Brown might consider establishing a prison education program. We worked with Professor Remensynder, who has led this charge at Brown for many years, to develop the conference. 

How do university prison education programs positively affect those who are incarcerated?

Prison education programs are powerful tools that accomplish many things at once. They can bring down recidivism rates (some studies show by as much as 50 percent) and greatly enhance former inmates’ chances of finding employment post prison. Incarceration is incredibly expensive: the United States now spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, so reducing the numbers of people who go back to prison is beneficial to our bottom line. That’s one reason why prison education programs are gaining support across ideological and political lines. 

What action steps and/or solutions do you hope will come from the conference?

Our goal is simple: We hope that this conference leads to the establishment of a Brown prison program in which students in prison can take courses for bachelor’s degree credit that are taught by Brown faculty. This is achievable. Other universities have programs like this. But for this to become reality, Brown undergraduates, faculty and administrators will need to band together to make this happen. This conference is a first step in bringing the Brown community together to talk about what a prison education program could like here.

Could a prison education program enhance the education of current Brown students?

It would be an enormous benefit to Brown undergraduates if they were able to take more “inside-outside” classes like Professor Remensnyder’s — classes that are taught both at Brown and in one of Rhode Island’s prisons with the same syllabus, readings, assignments and some chance for discussion between the two student groups — as they would gain another perspective on their course material and even on life. It is these kinds of interactions that can inspire someone to go into public service, and I believe that this is very much in keeping with Brown’s mission to support engaged scholarship across all disciplines. A program like this does two kinds of good: It makes a positive impact on a national crisis outside of the gates of the University, and at the same time, it enriches the education of Brown students.

Man holding a child
An image from Denali Tiller’s documentary “Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated," featured in the "States of Incarceration" exhibition. Photo by Giana Catoni

Can you describe the “States of Incarceration” exhibition? How might the material there inform the conversations happening during the conference?

The panels that are part of the traveling exhibition tell the incarceration story from many different points of view: from the architecture and design of prisons in Texas, to the rise of for-profit prisons across the country, to the particular problem of mental illness in prisons. This is a tough topic, and it helps that the exhibit designers, Matter Practice in Brooklyn, came up with a series of beautiful and spare interlocking panels on little aluminum legs that viewers will see in the gallery so that they are not (or less!) overwhelmed with this content. Many of the panels have iPads that are programmed with additional footage and text, and there is one large piece that asks viewers to respond to questions about their own relationship to incarceration. 

Working with Steven Pennell, the curator of the University of Rhode Island’s gallery, we added local artwork to the exhibit that addresses the issue of incarceration here in Rhode Island. This includes some incredibly haunting artwork made by teenagers when they were at the juvenile detention center, a heartbreaking series of photographs of incarcerated parents visiting with their children that are part of RISD graduate Denali Tiller’s documentary “Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated,” and some very dark meditations on crime and incarceration that were done by local painter Jordan Seaberry. 

Hopefully, those who see the exhibition will come away with a better sense of the magnitude of the incarceration trauma and will want to be part of a solution.  

What prison education programs are faculty and students at Brown already involved in?

The Brown History Education Prison Project is a program in which faculty from the history department co-teach broadly themed college-level history classes to men incarcerated in the medium security facility of Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institute (ACI). These courses are seminar style and issue driven; past themes include “War and Empire” and “State, God and Citizen”. The prisoners are passionate about history, and discussions are always lively. The program, which Amy Remensnyder founded in 2012, has taught more than 50 men so far. It evolved from a program called Brown Education Link Lecture Series (or BELLS), founded by undergraduate Jonathan Coleman in 2008, and is still known as BELLS at the ACI.

In addition, Brown undergraduate Aidea Downey founded the Brown chapter of the Petey Greene in-prison tutoring program in which Brown undergraduates tutor students in the Adult Correctional Institute, helping them with their community college coursework and/or with English as a Second Language classes. 

What are peer universities doing in the area of prison education that Brown can learn from?

Cornell has a program that could serve as a model for Brown’s. A community college near Ithaca provides incarcerated students with a two-year associate degree. Cornell works with this program and offers the next step: courses that come with credits toward a bachelor’s degree, taught by Cornell faculty and post-docs. Locally, the Community College of Rhode Island offers a two-year associate degree to incarcerated students in Rhode Island; a Brown program might provide the next step for students who have completed their associate degree. 

How might Brown's potential role in the prison education movement be distinctive?

Brown could build a program around “inside-outside” classes. Also, Rhode Island is a small state. If we worked with the Community College of Rhode Island or College Unbound — an innovative program that has just started to offer college credit courses in Rhode Island’s prisons — and the Department of Corrections, we could make a real impact on the life trajectories of many of the men and women incarcerated in our state. This is an area where education has a massive impact. It would be wonderful to see Brown commit to taking this issue on.