Students and prisoners come face-to-face in the classroom

Most of our depictions of life in prison come from movies and television shows such as “Prison Break,” and “Oz,” but these shows don’t really give us a true sense of what prison life is like.

The College is looking to dispel these notions by offering a course — The History and Culture of Prisons — that allows its students to enter a prison and not only interact, but also learn their course material with some of the inmates.

Many people in the United States do not understand prison life and until two years ago, neither did Professor Celia Chazelle.

“I was doing research concerning Medieval justice systems compared to the ones we have today,” Chazelle said. “So, I wanted to get inside a prison to see what it was like.”

Chazelle had attempted for years to get into a volunteer program that visited prisons, but did not get her chance until the summer of 2008.

A student group at Princeton University presented an opportunity for Chazelle to join them and enter the gates of Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, which is located in Bordentown, N.J.

“This place was in a rural area, where most of the residents are white and part of the middle class,” Chazelle said. “Then we entered the gates and the first thing I saw in the yard was a sea of black faces.”

Another thing that amazed Chazelle about this facility, thought only to hold thugs and deadbeats, was that the prisoners were “so well-educated, and they were so eager to receive the education.”

Alfred Kandell, a warden at the prison, also saw this desire for education. He knew only a handful of his prisoners had this desire, but it was still enough for Kandell to send an e-mail to Chazelle in January 2009.

The two joined forces and set in motion the process that would bring The History and Culture of Prisons into the curriculum of the College in the fall of 2009.

Juniors Antonia Alfeo and Robert Hickman were two of 15 students from the College who became a part of the inaugural sessions that met once a week from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect at first,” said Alfeo, a sociology major who took the class as part of her criminology minor. “But, after taking the class I realize (working with prisoners) is something I want to do.”

Chazelle took these students to Wagner Youth Correctional Facility each Tuesday and taught them, along with six prison inmates, ancient and recent texts about prisons that included accounts from the likes of Plato and Socrates.

“I thought it was interesting to interact with prisoners,” said Hickman, a history major.

“You realize that the little things you experience each day like food, being outside and seeing your family are all privileges. These guys don’t have access to that stuff all the time and it drives them crazy,” he said.

Chazelle acknowledged that the class is just as much about the interaction between the two sets of students as it is the history of prisons.

“I want (the students) to see the experience as I did,” Chazelle said. “I used to think of prisoners as anonymous. I saw them as a statistic. I didn’t understand what prison life was like and I didn’t look at them as human beings. Now I understand that you can’t paint them all with a broad brush. These are people with backgrounds, skills and knowledge.”