Teaching in Prisons: A Q&A with Anne Freeland


Would you mind speaking a bit about your life and career and how you became interested in teaching in prisons?

I became interested in teaching in prisons when I heard about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, an organization that trains instructors to teach courses bringing together incarcerated and non-incarcerated college students. As a grad student in the humanities just beginning my teaching career, I was figuring out how to approach teaching so that I could feel as fully invested in that part of my academic life as in my research, and this seemed like a good way to do that. My dad was a small-town criminal defense lawyer so I grew up with a sort of common-sense notion that no one belongs in jail prior to having any theoretical or political conception of the issue, and in retrospect I’ve wondered if that was part of the initial draw.

I’m interested in opening up the university to other spaces, and what appealed to me about this model of combined courses in particular was that in connecting incarcerated students to members of the campus student body in a direct and sustained way the process would be bidirectional, not one in which a product is simply delivered from an elite institution to marginalized students. Of course this kind of inclusion of incarcerated students as active participants in the life of the university needs to be an objective of any college-in-prison program, and it can be achieved in different ways.

So I did the Inside-Out training, which was partly led by incarcerated alumni of the program at Graterford Prison, in 2014. That experience turned what had probably been mostly a sympathetic curiosity into a real commitment. I got in touch with the Marymount Manhattan College Program at Bedford Hills and started teaching with that program. I’m now teaching my third semester there.

Can you tell me about the Justice-in-Education initiative and how you became involved with its work?

Last spring I reached out to Jesús Velasco of the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, where I’m finishing my Ph.D., to propose bringing Columbia students into Bedford Hills. Jesús gave his enthusiastic support to the project and put me in touch with the Justice-in-Education Initiative, a program created by the Center for Justice at Columbia and the Heyman Center for the Humanities that provides courses taught by Columbia instructors to incarcerated and formally incarcerated students and fosters conversation about the justice system within and beyond the Columbia community. We weren’t able to get through the red tape to actually bring in students from campus this semester, but the Justice-in-Education Initiative still wanted to support the course, so they are funding it and the Marymount students enrolled will receive a certificate from Columbia in addition to Marymount college credit.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the Justice-in-Education Initiative, and I hope their collaboration with Marymount at Bedford Hills will continue. I think the program’s integration of the goal of promoting public discussion about incarceration with that of providing courses for the incarcerated is crucial. There is a risk of remaining within the rehabilitative dimension of the prison system itself and therefore doing more to perpetuate the current paradigm than to transform it, and so I think prison education programs have a responsibility to orient their work toward social change.

What made you decide to specifically teach Primary Texts of Latin American civilization at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility?

I taught the course on campus in 2014 and really enjoyed it. When I was asked to teach it again on campus this term, I proposed teaching it at the prison, so I’m now teaching it both places. My first two semesters at Bedford Hills I taught upper-level theory courses—Classical and Contemporary Social Theory—and the texts for this one are more accessible, which I’m finding refreshing. A couple of my students from campus will be going to Bedford Hills to join three of the Bedford students on a panel on one of the course texts at a conference that Marymount is holding there, so I’m glad to have an opportunity to facilitate a conversation between both groups of students.

In what ways is teaching at Bedford Hills similar to teaching at Columbia, and it what ways does it differ?

At the day-to-day level from the teacher’s perspective it’s probably more similar than different. There’s a range of levels of academic preparation in both classes. In general students on the inside tend to be more engaged, which of course can make teaching more rewarding. They’re also more demanding, so I find myself challenged in a different way, not because they’re harder to teach but because I’m not off the hook until I’ve communicated my point effectively. I know the Bedford students do the reading more consistently or more carefully because I’ve given the same true-or-false quizzes to both classes just to check that they’ve read and Bedford students get higher scores. (These quizzes have been discontinued for both classes in response to popular protest, but the brief experiment served to prove this at least.) The lack of technology has advantages and disadvantages. On the inside no one is on their phone or laptop, and I’ve never liked PowerPoint, but I wish I could email students, and I like using a blog in my Columbia courses. On the students’ end of course the reality of incarceration conditions their academic experience in a much more direct and profound way.

Have you found that the insights of your students and the overall experience have added to your understanding the texts you have studied? Have they added to your broader understanding teaching and education?

Of course, I learn from our conversations in the classroom and from students’ written work in both contexts. I still have a lot to learn about teaching. In very broad terms, I think the deepened commitment to students that comes from teaching in an environment with a different kind of intensity, with such a high level of student investment, carries over to my teaching on campus.

Anne Freeland is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Previously she earned a B.A. in English Literature from McGill University, and an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University. She is currently teaching Primary Texts of Latin American Civilization at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

This Q&A was part of a 2016 series that explored the ways in which members of the Columbia community were engaging with issues of justice.