Community Education Project: A Prison Education

I teach in prison. I do so as an expression of my belief that as a professor, I have power; but, this power can and should be loosened from the traditional campus and redirected to create space for incarcerated students to build a classroom. The classroom I teach in, and the program I help lead, are not meant to contribute to discourses about incarcerated people transcending their imprisonment or meant to reinforce the idea that I am offering students something and they are the happy recipients of my presence. In other words, the power transfer we are attempting in my program is not a simple story of empowerment, whereby I give students a product or let them in on education. Indeed, our presence at the prison is complicated and can make our students’ lives harder instead of easier. They build the classroom as much as we do. They are our co-teachers and we are their co-learners.

Since 2015, Stetson University faculty members have taught at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, FL. Our program is called Community Education Project and was founded by a small group of three dedicated faculty, all of whom still lead it. What started as a reading group meeting in the prison’s visiting park (my colleague Pam used to bring in a small whiteboard and hold it up while gesturing!), has grown into a credit-bearing program with a dedicated classroom, on-site and off-site library, and computer lab.

I joined in leading CEP soon after its founding, in early 2016. In this post, I briefly share basic information and news about the program, and include some details about how we do the work and contextualize it. I’ll periodically post updates about CEP and our work with incarcerated students to this blog. I hope that by reading this post and future installments you will get a sense of what we are up to and why.

Details of the Program 

Community Education Project’s (CEP’s) mission is to provide high-quality higher education for incarcerated people residing in Florida. CEP is supported by grants from the Laughing Gull Foundation, the Nina B. Hollis Institute for Educational Reform, and a diverse community of Stetson University faculty, staff, and student interns. CEP is led by a horizontal team of four faculty Co-Directors: Dr. Pamela Cappas-Toro, Dr. Andy Eisen, me (Dr. Melinda Hall), and Dr. Jelena Petrovic. The program has operated at Tomoka, a state prison for men, since January 2015. Since that time, CEP has grown into a credit-bearing program with a 20-student cohort. With support from Laughing Gull, this cohort is set to grow to 30 in the fall of 2019. CEP offers full courses throughout the year, during the fall, spring, and summer terms. Stetson University faculty and guest speakers also give short-term workshops and guest lectures.

When CEP considers new opportunities, we consult our program’s core principles. These include benefit to students, benefit to the larger community, responsible deployment of resources in pursuit of our mission, and, importantly, the decolonization of collaboration and learning. It is this final point which I would like to highlight. By using the word “decolonize” in our core principles, CEP refers to bolstering and elevating voices of marginalized persons and leveling or redistributing power dynamics and differentials in the classroom. For instance, we use a co-teaching model in our language learning and public history projects in the CEP classroom.

CEP’s Co-Teaching Model

The co-teaching model is an apprenticeship arrangement that allows an apprentice to respond to the model of their co-teacher and immediately implement pedagogy under supervision. While this model is increasingly common, especially in the field of education, reports from learners in the literature do not deal with asymmetry between teacher and student in a co-teaching arrangement. In our classroom, the co-teaching arrangement exists across the asymmetry of incarceration/non-incarceration, where co-teachers experience fundamentally different freedoms in the classroom. In the prison setting and other resource-hungry contexts, the scarcity of teachers makes co-teaching a helpful strategy. Co-teaching is a way to maximize resources and to share power in the classroom. Further, our classroom includes a mix of skill levels that changes depending on the subject matter and coursework. Those with longer sentences often take younger incarcerated people under their wing. Co-teaching is a way to take advantage of this circumstance to develop and formalize variable and multiple teacher-student relationships across skill levels and expertise in a single setting. These dynamics are a potent analogy for other asymmetries impacting education settings nationally and internationally.

Pam Cappas-Toro and Andy Eisen have already collaborated with incarcerated students in the classroom on teaching and scholarly projects. This work will soon be published. Dr. Cappas-Toro and two students [names withheld] will publish “Pedagogy and Authorship behind Bars: The Challenges on Becoming a Spanish Language Incarcerated Co-Instructor and Co-Researcher” with the Modern Language Association’s Book Series Teaching Literature and Writing in Prisons. Meanwhile, Dr. Eisen is collaborating with other students [names withheld] on a public history project investigating slavery and Indian Removal in Eastern Florida. This work in progress will be published by Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians and The Journal of American History.

Upcoming Events

On March 21st and 22nd,  we will host a gathering at Stetson University for other Florida programs with similar missions. Our fabulous Bonner interns are helping with this event, and we have high hopes that it will instigate great conversation and future collaboration.

In Spring 2021, we will host a higher-education in prison conference at Stetson, with support from Laughing Gull. This conference is for incarcerated students to present their work and for prison educators to share and collaborate. We can’t wait to work on this culmination of our first three years with Laughing Gull support and for-credit courses!

For readers involved in similar programs, or who have questions about CEP, I’d love to hear from you! Please email me or join the comments.

4 Responses

  1. patricksodonnell

    Informative, moving, and inspirational: thank you! This topic has long been an interest of mine (although I never had the opportunity to teach in a prison) and thus I happen to have a list of titles related, broadly, to incarceration and education (culled from my bibliography on punishment and prisons):
    • Bernstein, Lee (2010) America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
    • Brottman, Mikita (2016) The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison. New York: HarperCollins.
    • Chevigeny, Bell Gale, ed. (1999) Doing Time: Twenty-Five Years of Prison Writing. New York: Aracade.
    • Davies, Ioan (1990) Writers in Prison. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
    • Desai, Ashwin (2014/ Unisa Press, 2012) Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
    • Franklin, H. Bruce (1978) The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Franklin, H. Bruce (1998) Prison Writing in Twentieth Century America. New York: Penguin Books.
    • Fyfe, Janet (1992) Books Behind Bars: The Role of Books, Reading, and Libraries in British Reform, 1701-1911. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
    • Harlow, Barbara (1992) Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
    • James, Joy, ed. (2003) Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
    • James, Joy, ed. (2005) The New Abolitionists: (neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
    • Karpowitz, Daniel (2017) College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
    • Kathrada, Ahmed (with Tim Couzens) (2016) A Simple Freedom: The Strong Mind of Robben Island—Prisoner No. 468. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
    • Kornfeld, Phyllis (1997) Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
    • Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe (2016) Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison. New York: The New Press.
    • Mbeki, Govan (1991) Learning from Robben Island: The Prison Writings of Govan Mbeki. London: James Currey/Athens, OH: Ohio University Press/Cape Town: David Philip.
    • Miller, D. Quentin, ed. (2005) Prose and Cons: Essays on Prison Literature in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
    • Scheffler, Judith A., ed. (2002) Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women’s Prison Writings, 200 [CE] to the Present. New York: Feminist Press.
    • Schorb, Jodi. (2014) Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700-1845. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
    • Schreiner. Barbara, ed. (1992) A Snake with Ice Water: Prison Writings by South African Women. Johannesburg: Congress of South African Writers.
    • Sweeney, Megan (2010) Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
    • Waldman, Ayelet and Robin Levi, eds. (2011) Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons. San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s Books and Voice of Witness.


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