By Maia Dawson ’24
A philosophy student writes an essay, pen to paper. He then hands it through the bars of his cell to a passing Corrections Officer. That CO gives it to a liaison, who gives it to a staff person, who gives it to Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan.
It’s Spring 2020 and there is no Zoom in Cheshire Correctional Institution.
After pandemic hiatuses, Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education (CPE) is planning to return to in-person teaching this summer. The program currently operates in Cheshire and York correctional facilities, both in Connecticut.
Gruen has taught for the CPE since its beginning in 2009. Before the pandemic Gruen taught an advanced seminar on social contracts. The students would carry around A Theory of Justice, a book written by John Rawls over 500 pages long. “At that time it was blue, when I was in graduate school it was green. But it was great to watch them walking around prison with this big theory of justice book,” Gruen said in a recent interview.
During another class, a study of freedom and equality, Gruen remembers her students asking about how they can get more of both. They wanted to form a student government, which was not allowed. So, they diverted those questions to essays and discussions. “They were involved in the material in a way that was much more vivid to them than the students on campus,” Gruen said.
When they studied Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, different kinds of questions arose: Who was Hobbes talking to? Who was he talking against? Who is this Locke guy? What was his background? Who was he living with? What is Rousseau’s story? Did he have sisters? Did he have brothers? What was his context? Up until then Gruen had never considered the lives of these philosophers. “Now I try to contextualize them,” she said.
Tushar Irani, associate professor of philosophy, learned about the program through Gruen. He taught once in-person in Fall 2018, and again last spring through Microsoft Teams. He says his role both times was mostly to “enable the conversation to run, and occasionally synthesize something.” Discussions and debates among students would emerge organically and happen regularly. That remained true while teaching remotely, since all the students were in the same room. In most other virtual learning settings with a lack of shared physical space that is lost, Irani said.
Before the pandemic Irani’s classes would run once a week for three hours. The allotted time was often cut short by the logistics of releasing students from their cell blocks. Class began unhurriedly, and time was palpably elongated for Irani. But once discussion started it became “a whirlwind of intellectual energy,” he recalled.
After class students switched into their prison jobs. Some picked up litter, some wheeled laundry down the hallway. “It was always a jarring juxtaposition: an all-too-brief and wholly engaged learning experience bordered on each end by boundless prison time,” Irani said.
The drive back was about 30 minutes long. “My head would just be buzzing,” he said, “because of not only the conversations we just had, but the fact that now I’m going back to a space I can call my own with the freedom to move and think and speak with loved ones, while students at Cheshire remained in a confined space designed to heighten their alienation and told repetitively what they can and can’t do every day.”
In a seminar this past spring on Plato’s Republic, Irani assigned secondary materials alongside the original text. One supplementary reading, Revolutionary Suicide by Huey Newton, was suggested by a student.
Inspired by the cave allegory from the Republic, Newton wrote about the time when he was founding the Black Panthers. “He’s speaking to students in college who think of themselves as educated and enlightened, and he’s pointing out to them that they are living in the shadows. They don’t see or are blind to the prejudices and assumptions that have warped their understanding,” Irani said.
For a creative project, one student wrote a Platonic dialogue which characterized the tripartition of his own soul – a key motif of the Republic – between aspirations to pleasure, honor, and wisdom. He chronicled different moments in his life, the tensions between the parts of himself.
Another student wrote in a journal entry about manufactured beliefs and finding clarity about them, but also about the fear brought on by reflection. Irani keeps a photocopy of that journal entry in his desk at home.
Gruen is trying to move towards more reentry work. Resources are needed to learn about cell phones, getting IDs, and driving. “Just basic time management. I’m sitting here with lists, constantly with lists,” Gruen said.
“Here are people, who for much of their whole lives, their time wasn’t their own,” she continues, “In prison, someone was telling them what to do, when to do it, what to eat, when to eat it, where to go.”
While teaching a course on reproduction in the 21st century at York, a women’s prison, Gruen realized that a lot of the women are incarcerated before their reproductive years and released after, if they’re released.
“I was floored. Of course, this is an obvious thing to notice but it only came out when we were teaching,” Gruen remembers. Some of her students in their forties or fifties, discussing expensive alternative modes of fertilization and mothering, had been incarcerated since they were teenagers. “The opportunity to bear a child has been denied them. That’s a long way to punish somebody,” Gruen said.
Outside of when his students are in class, Irani considers the monotony of incarceration and the confinement of minds with bodies. “The rigor with which my students tackle dense philosophical texts, their attentiveness to the material, and their engagement with the ideas,” Irani ascribes to “a kind of freedom that’s enabled in being able to think with and alongside others.”
The students see their education not just in its instrumental value. “There is a dignity in their lives that no one can take away,” Irani said. Gruen believes their diligence shows appreciation. After not having access to the kind of education that Wesleyan might provide, “they don’t take this for granted, at all,” Gruen said.