Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for this newsletter here.
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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.
The prisoner and the professor
A prisoner from Mississippi and a professor from New York make an unlikely research team.
Leigh Ann Wheeler, a historian at Binghamton University, was first introduced to Glen Conley in 2017 by a prison chaplain familiar with her work on Anne Moody, a civil rights activist who published Coming of Age in Mississippi in 1968.
Conley, who is serving life without parole, began doing research on Moody after he read her autobiography through a prison book club. He was writing his own book of poems, Reflections in Black: Remembering Anne Moody and Others Who Paved the Way, and asked Wheeler to write the foreward.
Since then, the pair has been collaborating: co-authoring book reviews, presenting at virtual academic conferences, and engaging with Wheeler’s undergraduate students in class discussions. In 2021, Conley is believed to be the first prisoner in Mississippi to participate in an academic conference when he was invited to present on Moody to the Western Association of Women Historians.
“Scholarship…behind bars is possible, but achieving it is not a simple process,” Conley said.
While they’ve met in person several times when Wheeler travels to Mississippi, they primarily rely on phone calls and the U.S. Postal Service — limited to 5 pages printed from the internet at a time — to collaborate.
“Phone calls are pricey. I can’t call him but must wait for him to call me. Mail is slow. Email and texting are not available. In-person visits are infrequent and difficult to arrange,” Wheeler said.
When Conley, who is currently working on his master’s degree in theology from Nations University, was at a different prison, he often had to rely on prison staff to conduct online searches and locate primary sources. They were often reluctant to help him:
“On numerous occasions when I asked…for assistance I was told that they already had enough to do and had no time to do volunteer work for inmates. One teacher even opined that inmates should be doing hard labor, not academic research.”
Staff often gave him nicknames such as “Mr. Smartass” and “Dr. Know-it-all.”
“Not to mention the dirty looks,” he added.
A new kind of collaboration
Their co-writing process involves Conley sending handwritten drafts, Wheeler typing it up and sending his typed draft and her own revisions back, and then editing over the phone.
“I would read him my latest version and we would edit it together on the phone with me rereading passages aloud, him correcting, arguing sometimes over the word,” she said. “I was also surprised to discover that such a writing collaboration is possible, and over the phone…and with the possibility…that someone else is listening in and, possibly, even recording our call.”
Currently, Wheeler and Conley are working with a group of 20 others in the Anne Moody Scholars Workshop to produce an edited collection of essays and website on the activist.
For Wheeler, working with Conley has given her new insight into what she thought she knew about prison. “I’ll be honest — as a ‘liberal’ I was, of course, concerned about mass incarceration, but I had no real understanding of how this vicious phenomenon affected people who are imprisoned and their families,” she said.
“Glen’s insights on prison, race, feminism, and a whole host of other issues are really interesting. I treasure our conversations and know that they are deepening my ability to understand and…to know that I can’t fully understand what his life is like.”
Expanding research access in prison
An obsession with Oscar Wilde and access to an offline database fueled Stacy Burnett’s passion for learning when she was incarcerated in New York from 2017 to 2019. As a student with the Bard Prison Initiative, she had access to a computer lab with the offline index of JSTOR’s digital library.
“I could read the abstract, then hand write a request for the article that someone would review and print outside the facility,” she said. “A staff member would then bring the printed copies into the facility to provide them to me.”
“The affinity I developed for Oscar Wilde was acquired by sheer force of will, powered by the joy of discovery.”
Now, she wants to make that same resource available to other incarcerated students and anyone else in prison who is interested in doing research.
Burnett manages the JSTOR Access in Prisons Initiative, which is making its research resources available to correctional facilities for free through an offline database of abstracts on a thumb drive. Prison librarians and education staff are able to customize the media review policy to fit the regulations of the specific facility.
A recent report from the Vera Institute found that while 3 percent of incarcerated students had no access to academic research materials, 70 percent of students in prison education programs had access to academic research materials through the college library. Twenty-two percent had access through a searchable database of academic literature or a combination of literature provided by instructors and access to a prison library.
“The critical thinking and analysis skills developed along the way not only enriched my education, but also prepared me for the rigors of post-release life,” Burnett said. “The time I spent with JSTOR in prison taught me research skills and how to make better life decisions.”
Find out more about the JSTOR Access in Prisons Initiative or email firstname.lastname@example.org. JSTOR will be hosting a one-hour round table discussion to introduce its Student Advisory Board on July 28 at 3 pm EDT. More information and registration here.
In case you missed it, Open Campus also collaborated with JSTOR Daily to produce “The Last Class, 28 Years Later”, on the rise and fall of Pell grants for prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Storytelling through qualitative research
The latest special issue of the Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed publication, is focused on racism in prison higher education. The journal is published by the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, produced by the University of Oklahoma Outreach.
Editor-in-chief Cristobal Salinas Jr, an education professor at Florida Atlantic University, helped found the journal eight years ago with the goal of creating a space for scholarship that often is excluded from mainstream research journals. They often publish work that has been rejected other places.
“It’s an open-access journal, very intentionally, to give access to people that might not have access to university libraries to do research,” he said. “We welcome ideas that are going to advance historically marginalized communities that are often not engaged in research.”
The special issue, curated by guest editors, includes many authors who are currently or formerly incarcerated collaborating with faculty teaching in prisons. The topics range from academic pathways for formerly incarcerated students to the need to include more faculty of color in prison education programs. Some of the articles include poetry and artwork submitted by incarcerated students. “This research is not only qualitative research, but it’s also storytelling,” Salinas said.
The journal includes alternative formats that are not often used in formal academic publications. The opening article, written by Pedro Carrasquillo who is incarcerated in Connecticut, was written with a typewriter and a handwritten note. “We were going to type it so it’s consistent with our format, but then we decided to screenshot it how he submitted it,” Salinas said.
Carrasquillo prefaces his contribution with a comment on the challenges of doing academic work behind bars:
Learning to read behind the fence
For the Salem Statesman Journal, education journalist Natalie Pate did a deep dive into the relationship between literacy and incarceration in “Learning to read behind the fence.” With support from the Education Writers Association, Pate and photographer Brian Hayes traveled to three prisons in Oregon and one in California, observing classes and interviewing educators and incarcerated students.
“A child’s ability to read is a key indicator of the likelihood they will graduate high school,” Pate writes. “Further evidence connects low literacy with the likelihood an individual could end up in prison — and keep returning.”
Pate’s narrative intersperses the individual stories of people in prison with an analysis of the policy and practice of literacy education in Oregon’s prisons. I asked Pate why she wanted to do this story. Initially, she and her editor realized that there had been very little media coverage of the topic of literacy in prisons, and none that centered the voices of incarcerated people.
“At the heart of it …reading and writing are tools most of us use every day,” Pate said. “They help us to understand and be understood by others…To not have that, especially as an adult in an isolated setting? It was hard for me to imagine. I wanted to explore that and look into how to make it better.”
Literacy is not only a requirement for completing high school and getting into college programs, it’s also crucial to communicating and holding down a job. “In a nutshell — literacy is so important,” Pate said. “For everyone.”
Check out photographer Brian Hayes’ gallery for the project here. Thanks to Hayes for giving us permission to publish the photo of Mark Dean.
Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at email@example.com on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka. If you are a prison educator or a librarian interested in receiving print copies of College Inside, please reach out.
To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Charlotte West, Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.