When Ex-Prisoners Share Their Stories With Students

January 11, 2016

Every spring the guests enter our classroom looking a little ill at ease, aliens in the world of whiteboards and podiums. Coaxed to sit in the front of the class and to turn their chairs to face our students, they find their voices as, one by one, they begin to tell versions of crime and punishment, stories of the decades they spent behind bars and the months, weeks, sometimes even just days since their release.

They live a few blocks away from the university, in a transitional-housing facility that offers shelter and support to men sentenced to life in prison and recently paroled after serving for years. Once a year a colleague, John Murray, and I invite them to collaborate with students in a service-learning version of a composition course. Despite our proximity, college for these men is unknown territory, just as the worlds they come from and the stories they tell are profoundly unfamiliar to our students. The prison system that shapes so many lives outside the university is mostly invisible within.

By fostering connections with our neighbors beyond these gates, our course is part of a growing movement of service-learning projects, with more and more colleges offering classes that send students out into the community to help those deemed in need: tutoring at local schools, volunteering in homeless shelters. Some scholars have started to question the value of these projects. For the community partners, short-term commitments to schools and shelters are sometimes more trouble than they’re worth, entailing hours of supervision and training with an already stretched staff. For students, going out into the community can enforce existing ideas of meritocracy that explain inequity as natural processes rather than as products of unjust institutions.

Our course takes a different approach. We position students as listeners rather than experts, and community partners as holders of knowledge rather than as objects of charity or study. Such reversals destabilize the assumptions that enable students to view those on the outside as inferior or undeserving. They suggest, too, another path for service learning, one premised on reciprocity and self-reflection, rooted in a commitment to look at the world through the eyes of those disadvantaged by it. If we expand our repertory of service-learning projects to include collaboration as well as the more traditional tutoring and volunteering, what new types of learning might we discover?

For the men of the Francisco Homes, speaking to our students as invited guests contributes to the process of re-entry as they move from prison, which they describe as a punitive form of warehousing, a world where they are defined by the crimes they committed decades ago. As one of the men put it, having an audience of college students listen to his story — about the man he is now rather than the man he was 30 years ago — helps to prove that he has a "worthy heart."

"Listening humanizes," one of our students wrote at the end of the semester. For him and for the others, the stories they hear jumble the moral categories used to divide and explain the world. The labels that separate us seem a little flimsier. Jeff, another of the ex-prisoners, said the biggest stereotype people have about ex-cons is the belief that "you’re horrible and I’m good," instead of the more destabilizing recognition that the line between us isn’t always self-evident or impermeable.

One of the most valuable components of a liberal-arts education is the ability to encounter experiences beyond our own that simultaneously shrink and expand our sense of the world. What better way to see the world through unfamiliar eyes than to see it through those of men who have been absent from it for decades? "We’re aliens to your world," said one man. For another, during the time he was in prison, "half of the stuff on Star Wars came true." But these men also notice the cost of modern-day conveniences, how people now stare at their phones instead of talking with one another. With fresh eyes, these ex-prisoners awaken us to the everyday by estranging us from it.

For all the obvious differences between the men in the front of the classroom and our students, the points of connection are what make these discussions so meaningful. Both colleges and prisons are transformative sites. Students and prisoners alike craft stories that knit together who they were before they entered with who they are as they leave. For the ex-lifers, the stories they tell of crime and punishment are ones they’ve fashioned over the long years behind bars, and the accounts took shape within the expectations of the parole boards that determine their fate.

Sometimes those stories have a strange passivity — "I was in a bar, a man was killed" — that calls attention to these moments between life and death, freedom and imprisonment. For our students, these narratives offer the most productive and often the most challenging component of the course. Most of them enter the classroom believing deeply in the American ideology of hard work earning just deserts, which explains the difference between convicts and students as a result of bad choices rather than unequal opportunities and systematic inequality. But within the stories about poverty or access to education or mistreatment of the mentally ill, we can hear a narrative that puts the lie to those beliefs.

Long after the ex-prisoners leave our classroom, their lessons continue. Students come away from these discussions and from the course with a recognition of the limits of their newfound awareness of a world that had been invisible to them — and also with a stronger sense of what they can do to bring about change.

If colleges seek a model of civic engagement that better fulfills the democratic impulses at its core, we need to see beyond the divisions that reside within some service-learning projects. We need a model that allows the awareness that we are all implicated in this world, even as we are positioned differently within it, a model that moves us from a more limited notion of charity to a deeper commitment to justice. As one of the men said to our class, "We all belong to each other."

Stephanie Bower is an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California.

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