President Barack Obama's prison reform efforts rank among his most important initiatives. I was privileged to take part in a recent conference highlighting significant work being done at the Bedford Prison for Women in New York, The Crossing Borders VI Conference, organized by Marymount Manhattan College at Bedford, the maximum security prison for women in New York State.
The Crossing Borders Conference is a part of Marymount Manhattan College's (MMC) program at Bedford, and the gathering is, I believe, like no other. Students and faculty from the 71st Street campus meet at Bedford, where student-inmates present their work, as in any academic conference. I used to teach at MMC and was even honored two years ago to be invited as the graduation speaker at Bedford.
The women in the degree program have different reasons to be there, with some sentenced to long stays at Bedford and others who will leave and sometimes go on to graduate school. Some students who had graduated from this Bedford program were in my classes at the Manhattan campus. The stories they were able to share, the research they were interested in and the discussions they brought to the classroom, changed how we all thought about the world we live in.
The degree to which a focus on education changes the trajectory of a person and their families' life is unfathomable. The importance of the program reaches far beyond individual achievements; participating in the college program is a political act on the part of the students at Bedford. By taking part in this program they are taking a stand, showing by example what education can do. Incarceration should not be about punishment, but about changing lives.
The papers and research that the students are doing as part of this program is evidence of their unique take on the world.
Let me provide the proof, here are three examples of papers that I heard and read at a Crossing Borders Conference. One research paper focused on eating disorders of women in prison. Based on qualitative data collected in prison, students theorized the relationship between incarceration and food, how food was used as a reward or punishment, how days were broken up by access to and denial of food.
Another paper explored intimate partner violence in prison, the consequences of having a large group of women who came into prison from violent lives and how that violence manifested itself inside with very little access to help.
The last set of papers I heard told the stories of aging in prison. With mandatory sentencing, more and more people in prison for a very long time, these papers researched the needs of women as they age and how the system is failing them, in terms of menopause, dietary changes, exercise and tackling problems such as women with dementia and Alzheimer's.
The importance of these papers reaches far beyond the classroom, they should be used to influence policy makers who sadly pay way too little attention to the real and complicated lives of women in the prison. The papers they wrote about their lives or about their take on Veblen, Durkheim or Angela Davis, are evidence of the prisoners' engagement with the world. Education in prison is a political project that is important not only to the women in the prison, but also to us as a society.
We are living in a precarious world and country, the economy is fragile and good jobs are harder to find, the level of inequality is unprecedented. In this context, we need to rethink this social project. What is this society that we are a part of?
We are at a historic moment, elections are in November and we wonder where this country will go and what it will become. The students in the program are defying odds by enriching their lives and those of their families and the lives of all of us. The students and their research, are contributing to the needed thinking necessary to change the trajectory of this country. As President Obama is looking at prison reform, I hope he and the policy makers look at programs, such as Bedford, to see and hear what stories the women are telling.
In an interview with Chinua Achebe he says: "There is that great proverb--that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It's not one man's job. It's not one person's job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail--the bravery, even, of the lions."