By Sarah Hildebrand
On my second day of teaching at Otisville Correctional Facility, the prison is on lockdown when I arrive. The COs (Correctional Officers) are taking part in escape drills, my students are confined to their dormitories, and I am denied access to the campus. One CO says I’ll be lucky to get 45 minutes of my normally 3-hour long class that meets only once a week. I sit in my car, reworking my lesson plan for the first time, then the second, then the third as our class time keeps slipping away.
When I’m finally brought to my classroom, it’s empty. By the time my students trickle in, we have about one hour left. This is how I learn that prison pedagogy is bricolage—a lesson in the art of making do.
I can’t speak for all prison educators, but my classroom logistics were unpredictable. I went an entire semester never knowing how long class would be, who would show up when, and how difficult each assigned task might be to implement. Although lockdowns were few and far between, other obstacles prevented my students from reaching our classroom. While some were able to consistently arrive at our starting time, many couldn’t get there until 20-30 minutes later due to the mile-long walks between buildings.
Some students went missing altogether. They had meetings with lawyers or medical call-outs. One disappeared for a month into solitary confinement. In any other situation, he would’ve failed the course, but how do you fail someone for being tortured?
These obstacles made me more flexible in my teaching. Rather than simply wait for everyone to arrive, that time at the start of class became designated for individual conferences, with the group lesson beginning afterward. For those who were absent altogether, we figured out ways to make up the work. Deadlines often became malleable to account for the many setbacks that were outside my students’ control.
While many complications revolved around issues of time, this was not the only limitation within the prison classroom. Otisville lacks many of the resources of traditional CUNY campuses. A semester-long, independent research project becomes a formidable task, putting incarcerated students at a severe disadvantage. They had no internet access to search academic databases. No access to tutors or librarians. They barely had access to books. While the prison has a library, it holds mostly legal textbooks. The closet in our classroom had been converted into a second, more academic library, but could only be accessed during class hours.
Because my students knew far more about the prison system than I did, they often proposed their own solutions to problems of access. Their vast knowledge helped further decenter authority in the classroom since I was no longer the expert who could guide them through the process. When they began struggling to cobble together enough sources to satisfy the research component of projects, they borrowed books from others in their dormitories. Some leveraged relationships with friends and family on the outside in order to obtain news articles through the mail.
Some of this information was censored on the way in—my students showed me articles almost entirely blacked out with permanent marker—and not all students had these types of connections to procure information to begin with, further stratifying the class. But by generously sharing their combined strengths and resources, they were able to pool enough together to allow everyone to complete assignments.
I found workarounds of my own in order to assist them. I became less rigid about the types of sources allowed to fulfill requirements. To ensure academic rigor, this decision was followed by detailed conversations about how to test credibility and attend to authorial biases and gaps in the literature. But we also discussed the value of honoring diverse forms of knowledge—from personal anecdotes to articles from popular media outlets.
Our methodologies also became more diverse. While my traditional Composition students conduct mostly secondary research, sifting through academic databases and books, my incarcerated students conducted substantial amounts of primary research. We borrowed from the social sciences to learn about designing and implementing interviews and surveys so they could generate their own data. Many of their projects became interdisciplinary because it was difficult to get substantial credible information while looking through only one lens. By working at intersections, their critical thinking skills were challenged and propelled into development.
While the structural limitations and lack of resources were often frustrating, they also led to innovation and learning opportunities that I plan to integrate in classes on the outside. It would be helpful for any CUNY student to think about how a text from another discipline might interact with their project, or about what “nonacademic” texts might add to scholarly conversations. These discussions help the research process become more inclusive and collaborative.
Teaching in carceral settings presents many challenges, but I’d like to think they can be creatively overcome. Ultimately, prison pedagogy is defined by flexibility—by your willingness to make do. Educators must think quickly and feel comfortable navigating uncertainty. They need to build trust with their students and rely on them for information. My students and I fought back against the lack of resources and limitations imposed by the system of incarceration through our combined knowledge. Regardless of how much time we had for class, we made the most of it together.