Section: News

Students connect through prison education program

Next fall, 11 Kenyon students will drive 50 minutes to the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, where they will sit down with 10 incarcerated students for their English seminar, In Transit. The course will be taught by Assistant Professor of English Kathleen Fernando, and it will span five hours on Monday evenings, including time for transportation to and from the Mansfield prison facility.

“My hope is that we are going to be able to break down boundaries,” Fernando said about the course. “For Kenyon students, it’s an opportunity to see incarcerated people as human, in a humane light, because often we think of incarcerated individuals as inherently criminal.” 

In Transit has its roots in the summer of 2016, when Maya Street-Sachs ’17, looking to learn more about education in prison, centered her John W. Adams Summer Scholars Program in Socio-Legal Studies project on researching various models of prison education. “Her project was basically exploring education in prisons,” Fernando said. “In the sense [of] college students going into prisons and learning with prisoners.”   

When a Collegian reporter reached out to Street-Sachs on Facebook, Street-Sachs said her idea for the class emerged from the national trend of universities and colleges making an effort to take part in the education-in-prison movement. “I was firstly inspired by all of the education-in-prison courses and programs that already exist (regardless of economic/logistical/social barriers within institutions),” she said in a Facebook message. “I knew Kenyon could join this list.”

The research indicates that prison education decreases overall recidivism rates and leads to better lives for prisoners when they return to their former lives, Street-Sachs said. “The data shows that educating those behind bars (the vast majority of whom will enter back into society within a few years) strengthens and empowers individuals, families, and communities,” Street-Sachs said. “[It] lowers the recidivism rate immensely, lowering our prison population in the long run.” 

Street-Sachs said that it was difficult to “[create] a learning environment that would serve as an open space for all students involved.” By putting college students into a prison setting, there are going to be “obvious themes and problems” such as “privilege, race, etc.,” she said. The course will also include literature that focuses on that state of flux. “In Transit means one is in travel, but also it means transition,” Fernando said.

Fernando hopes students will “come out of this class seeing the incarcerated individuals as readers and thinkers, rather than criminals.”

“As an institution, and as a community, we are very ready for a class like this,” Fernando added.  “After the elections last year, there’s been a shift. … Students want to do something different. [They] want to contribute to their communities.”

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