It is an open secret that prison dehumanizes, intentionally, all who enter. The best solution—the ideal, humanitarian solution—would be to abolish prisons. My title implies a less radical solution not because I wouldn't like to see an end to dehumanization, but because I believe we can foment the abolitionist movement within prisons, as Doran Larson has described it, and in so doing foment an educational revival in higher education. Larson, who teaches creative writing at Ithaca College and in Attica State Prison, has argued in the journal Radical Teacher that while activist work to abolish prison can and must continue on the outside, educators on the inside can add to the effort by "dismantling the difference (and differances) between inmate and citizen" (2011, 5). Larson is speaking metaphorically about enabling inmates to avoid the "civil death" of incarceration, pushing away the demands of "prisoner" and pulling close the role of "citizen" known in the creative exchange of a writing workshop. I will be speaking metaphorically, but literally as well. I will be speaking primarily about connecting prisoners with actual citizens who are also seeking social justice.

In this essay I share my experience as the cofounder and codirector of Open Minds, a program that brings service-learning courses in the humanities from Virginia Commonwealth University into the Richmond City Jail: courses in English; Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies; Religious Studies; and African American Studies that only meet at the jail. Bringing prisoners and college students together changes prison and college, temporarily but nonetheless meaningfully. To be a student in an Open Minds course is to be an equal amongst equals. To be an equal amongst equals is to know we are one, despite the structural problem that prison creates by dividing everyone. John McKnight and Peter Block describe that structural problem well in The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods:

We affirm how precious our gifts are when we create prisons. Prison is a societal decision to take away your freedom and thereby is a place where we say you are not free to give your gifts. Taking away your capacity to give gifts is the worst thing we can do to somebody. The opposite of freedom is that you cannot give your gifts. (2010, 110)

Each academic year, Open Minds brings hundreds of prisoners and college students together to exchange their gifts. All students learn side by side, sharing stories in a collective effort to probe the core challenges they see in life. The college students are not mentoring the prisoners, offering them literacy, or in other ways serving them as a charity. It's "total immersion," if I can borrow the phrase Lori Pompa uses to describe the Inside Out Prison Exchange that she founded at Temple University, a program that also brings college students into prisons for semester-length courses in criminal justice. It's "less about 'doing for' than 'being with,' in a mutual exchange. In this way, if anything is 'done for' those on the inside, it is being afforded value as human beings with ideas and experiences to contribute, an opportunity that is extremely rare behind bars" (2002, 69).

Students from VCU who enroll in Open Minds courses earn three credits. We typically offer two courses per semester. Core faculty in Open Minds incorporate these courses into their regular teaching loads. No extra money is needed for the faculty. Prisoners who take Open Minds courses earn continuing education units (CEUs) from the university, commemorated at the end of each semester in an official, diploma-style transcript and awarded at a ceremony presided over by Sheriff C. T. Woody Jr. Open Minds has received two modest grants from the university—one to launch the program, the other to extend its reach to ex-offenders and to the general public. These in-house grants originated in our Division of Community Engagement and in our Provost's Office, respectively, as one-year, nonrenewable grants. We have used them to buy school supplies for our incarcerated students (books, writing materials, etc.), to create and publish our program website (OPENMINDS), to develop our curriculum and training materials, and more recently, to create a collaborative book of student art work and poetry, as well as to secure a space off campus that we can use to expand the program to ex-offenders. As faculty at a large state university that always seems to be suffering from a budget crisis and has many, many hidden bureuracratic obstacles, we struggle, seriously, for the more typical trappings of institutional support: a space on campus, a dedicated budget, a staff, tuition waivers for the incarcerated. We are three full-time faculty with volunteer students essentially taking on this work as a labor of love.

In a way, our struggle to do more for the primarily African American prisoners we work with connects us to the larger historical struggle for liberation rooted in slavery, Jim Crow, and what Michelle Alexander in her startling polemic refers to as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012). The War on Drugs is a villainous catalyst. As Alexander has shown, white and black people use and sell drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are disproportinately incarcerated for it, in large part because of drug-related charges. Through police tactics like "stop and frisk" and disparate sentencing guidelines for the posession of powder cocaine and crack cocaine, along with media campaigns against the "crack epidemic" and "crack babies," Alexander argues persuasively that the War on Drugs has, in effect, become akin to that old braid of customs and laws, Jim Crow, that constrained the freedom of African Americans.

It may help to visualize the struggle for solidarity we seek in the simple journey we take to the jail. To get to Richmond City Jail—just a few miles from campus—we have to pass the site of the old Lumpkins Jail, where slaves were once held awaiting the auction block; the African burial ground that our university had, until recently, used as a parking lot; the bridge where one courageous slave, Gabriel Prosser, was hung for leading his people in an armed rebellion; and the canal where Lincoln disembarked after the war and was greeted by the emancipated. To get to the jail in Richmond, Virginia, we have to get through the history of the capitol of the Confederacy.


The path we travel through the history of higher education is equally compelling. In Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities (2013), Craig Wilder reveals the ignoble history of slavery and higher education. Trustees of our earliest colleges and universities in America not only owned slaves, but donated slave labor to build their campuses or to maintain them, created endowments with slave money, hired faculty who taught racial inferiority, and actively recruited southern men from rich families involved in the slave trade to study at those northern institutions before southern universities had been built. Parents, too, sold their slaves to pay for their children's tuition or sent them north to attend to their children while at college. That we in higher education today are connected to this history—directly or indirectly, in whole or in part—is as onerous to contemplate as it is unavoidable. It is a history of exclusion sadly durable and expandable.

The writers I come to know at our city jail—both those who are incarcerated and those who are free—are not laboring through just one exclusion, injustice, or brutality, but many. In the course I teach in the program, Writing and Social Change, we address those experiences through a communal writing process. Each two-and-a-half hour session begins with one of us reading aloud the assigned poem or excerpt from critical theory, memoir, or essay. I then facilitate a discussion for fifteen minutes before asking everyone to write for fifteen minutes. The remaining time is given over to sharing our first drafts, celebrating our first efforts, engaging one another in deeper inquiry. Here are some of the topics we have explored together.


Session Readings and Writing Assignments

Etheridge Knight, "To Make a Poem in Prison"
Jimmy Santiago Baca, "Sanctuary"
Write: What do you hope to learn by writing and sharing with the people in this room?
Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays"
Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Childhood is a Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"
Write: Do you know how you became a grown-up?
Can you pinpoint the pivotal moments?
Langston Hughes, "Theme for English B"
Etheridge Knight, "The Warden Said to Me The Other Day"
Write: Take ten minutes now to write about your experience with black and white.
"Let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true."
(Langston Hughes)
Pablo Neruda, "Walking Around"
Denise Levertov, "Hypocrite Women"
Write: Have you ever felt constrained—boxed in, bothered—by expectations in our society about masculinity and femininity? Show the bother or the opposite, contentment. Show yourself in relation to those expectations.
Charles Bukowski, "wax job"
Etheridge Knight, "Belly Song"
Write: Have you ever witnessed or experienced for yourself the descent into drug or alcohol addiction (or some other kind of addiction)? What about the ascent from the escape from it? What causes either one?
Philip Levine, "What Work Is"
Blackalicious, "Supreme People"
Write: What do you know to be true about working? How did you learn it?
Gwendolyn Brooks, "kitchenette building "
William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie"
Write: What does your imagination strain to see, to know, and to experience in America? Have you ever seen it? Does it exist?
Denise Levertov, "The Secret"
Write: What have you discovered about life in the lines of your classmates these past few months?


As you can see, the writing prompts are not designed to get readers to do critical, literary analysis. Nor is the goal of the course to teach particular writing skills. The purpose of our communal writing is to pick up the reins of our native wisdom and ride. The purpose is to seek the same horizon of peace. The purpose is to engage a creative conspiracy.

Let me share with you a little of what that looks like in assignment #3, the exploration about race identity. Below is the poem from Hughes (1959). It begins with a writing prompt that his teacher gave, which is the same prompt that I gave my students. Then we get Hughes's response.

Theme for English B
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

In the poem, Hughes muses about if his piece will be black like him and what truth, if any, his teacher, who is white, will really be able to comprehend. Importantly, Hughes resists being boxed in by his race: "I guess being colored doesn't make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races. So will my page be colored that I write?" Michael, one of the VCU students, echoes that sentiment in a piece he wrote about leaving home, "a diverse area just outside Detroit," for Auburn University in Alabama on a basketball scholarship. Michael's essay was originally published in our class anthology, Our Saga , which was distributed to all students and visitors at a public reading we hosted at the jail.

In it he reflects the price of passage from suburban Detroit to the deep south. In the Catholic school he attended in that suburb of Detroit, he was the only African American man in most classes, which was a problem: "Many of my peers looked at me and my opinions to represent the entire population of blacks. This was incredibly difficult for me to do because sometimes I just wanted to be myself." The problem only got worse when he got to Auburn University. There, in the Deep South, he encountered a more direct and demeaning racism than he had ever experienced in the Midwest. After Obama won the presidency he overheard dorm mates using the N-word, making monkey jokes, and saying "at least the President is half-right" (referring to his mixed ethnicity). Confederate flags were displayed, appearing to him each time "like a stop sign. If I saw one hanging from a room or outside a restaurant, I would be a little hesitant to enter."

Michael eventually left Auburn and the racism he experienced there, taking with him conflicted engagements with class, race, and community. When Michael read his piece, I heard him letting go of a despair that he'd been shouldering alone until that moment he made it available for us to hold. I wish I could convey the hard listening, straining, aching, I noticed in the men listening to Michael; in particular, the African American men, the kind of men Michael had been missing in classrooms in college and, before that, Catholic school. Throughout his education. Michael has had to confront the question of his place.

In that same class, one of the prisoners, Tremayne, added to that difficult question of belonging with a poem that contained these lines: "I met a white kid in grade school. I liked him. My friends said you're white then." Tremayne is a light-skinned, African American with a gift for posing critical dilemmas in poetry; here, the horrible choice of identifying with a mask of black or white. In the safe space of our classroom sanctuary, where we do not tolerate negativity of any kind, this is not a choice that anyone has to make. And yet it must be said, it was a historically real choice with high stakes, as Tremayne also explains in a poem he wrote for Black History Month and read aloud to my students at a larger gathering of prisoners and visitors. In this passage, he asks us to look critically at the politics of gentrification in the area surrounding the jail that I descibed earlier; an area once dominated by the slave trade. Tremayne gave me permission to read his poem and discuss it in a paper I gave at the 2013 Virginia Universities and Race Histories conference. (For more about this conference, see Schedule-Virginia Universities & Race Conference.)

I'm ringing the alarm right now, LIBERATION!
And as fragile as it is, you can't understand why it's highly sensitive.
Why the dream has to live, why the Dream has to live.
Hey, let me adlib!
Let me go narrative and give you all an overall view on exactly what our ancestors did.
And if you don't believe me you can go look deep beneath the Lee or Manchester bridge.
You see, I want to question this, if you dare to, because, there's a slave trail there, where?
If you aren't careful you can run into what they call the Half Acre of the Devil,
where they put up condominiums. And its condescending when they can take the most
negateful things and make them euphemisms.
Auction sites, prisoner of war camps, and the truth that isn't vivid enough of the slave's
plight for you to relive it.
This is your city, and I desire you to acquire with me more with it.
These are war pictures. Go to war with us. It'll be glorious.

It is glorious to make visible this history, recoiling with Tremayne at those clumsy attempts to overlook it. Auction sites, war camps, burial grounds, and the old Lumpkins Jail—these are monuments to lost capital, testaments of abject ethical failure that have been ignored, as Ben Campbell argues in Richmond's Unhealed History (2012), for generations. Until Richmond's Slave Trail Commission began its work documenting slavery in Richmond, those auction sites and burial grounds were invisible to the untrained eye. Nor were they preserved in our children's textbooks. Michael and Tremayne, collectively, show why history hurts. Yet what I hear in both pieces are public voices emerging to talk back to that pain. What I hear is a rhetorical stewardship over our collective pain. "A public voice," writes Jane Danielewicz, "is one that enters the ongoing conversation to change, amend, intervene, extend, disrupt, or influence it" (2008, 425). Both writers are asking us to disrupt the unchecked logics of gentrification and flag-waving, name-calling, racial discrimination.

When I ask people to write about their lives in this community we form at the city jail, I am asking them to decide in that instant what most needs their attention. Everyone is invited to figure out relationships within and beyond the self. When I ask students to read aloud their drafts, I am asking them to share little parts of themselves and help us hone our attention to each other and the diversity of our experiences. Offering feedback in this context means attending closely to another's voice, listening rhetorically, as Krista Ratcliffe describes, for "the exiled excess" in another's speech "so that we can contemplate its relation to our culture and our selves" (1999, 203).

The importance of listening is often overlooked in traditional treatments of rhetoric that emphasize and even idealize the one speaking; what Quintilian once described as "a good man skilled in speaking" (1990). Ratcliffe's work interrupts our gendered expectation that rhetoric is about men (or people in authority) persuading—forcing their opinions—on others. Moreover, she challenges the commonplace assumption that we only invent ideas while composing. We can, she agues, invent in the silence of our imagination by attending closely to another's speech and the diverse experiences that can attach to the same words. We can listen actively and with full awareness that those around us are also actively adapting what they hear. Active listening, as I am describing it here, is not the same thing as misunderstanding or wilfully ignoring what one hears. We are far from a simple transmission model of langauge. We don't listen to determine what's clear or unclear, true and untrue, but to scrutinize the boundaries of what we know to be true. We forage in the excess of another's speech and then "return into ourselves," as the Russian linguist and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, has written, in order to "consummate the material we dervied from projecting ourselves into the other" (1990, 26).

Writers listening to that generous plentitude in another's speech need not connect their personal histories to History in order to construct their public voices. Notice, for example, what Jasmine, one of the VCU students, writes about in her response to assignment #1, an open invitation I gave the first day when we had all been assembled. The assignment begins with a poem by Etheridge Knight (1968) in which he wonders if it's possible to even make poetry in prison:

No birds are winging. The air
Is empty of laughter. And love?
Why, love has flown,
Love has gone to glitten

Jasmine's response contends with that question of love that we, as a class, broadened during our discussion of the poem. During that discussion, one of the incarcerated men shared his longing for his daughter. Another described the longing he felt in his childhood for his absent father. Jasmine's poem, "A Day in Prison," echoed these feelings. Listening rhetorically—to invent meaning—she composed with them, as Ratcliffe might say. Here's Jasmine's poem, which was originally published with her permission on our program web site at OPENMINDS:

Doors lock.
As I wait to see what my future holds, I'm shaking.
Open doors, they walk in.
People like you and I—different paths taken.
I feel this awkwardness, like I'm the one who's being judged.
They sit down, everyone is afraid to budge.
My mouth is paralyzed, yet screaming to speak my mind.
Will they hear me?
Maybe the outside isn't always what it seems.
I want to know their dreams—far from this prison scene.
Scribble scribble.
I'm sure our stories are quite alike.
Just loosen that lock on your mind, not so tight.
Let's discuss love, hate, pain, and tragedy.
To find out you're not the only one who grew up without a daddy.
Stereotypes . . . Break them!
This class isn't just for the ones' who've sinned.
We're in this all for the better.
So open your hearts and let's start changing our lives together.

Though it may seem obvious, Jasmine's realization that she is not the only one "who grew up without a daddy," is new to her. She had not considered what she would have in common with her incarcerated classmates. That worried her. Now she's found that common story line she can worry less. She is not alone. One of her incarcerated classmates, Efrem, shared a similar experience of discovering common ground across the boundaries that would otherwise divide us. The difference for him, as a prisoner, is in the politics of discovery. Rhetorical listening is richly rewarding in any setting. Writing and sharing is doubly rewarding and challenging, though, in a setting shot through with inequality. The prompt, given at the end of the semester, was Denise Levertov's poem, "The Secret," in which the poet professes her love of two girls who claim they've found "the secret of life" in one of Levertov's poems, a secret, she notes, that she "who wrote the poem," does not know (1966). To inspire students to reflect upon their time together, I asked everyone to share what secrets they'd learned over the semester listening to each others. In the following excerpt from his poem, "English 366," Efrem praises, but also questions, the equality that the class constructs between college students and prisoners. At issue is not so much anyone's sincerity, but the volatile nature of sincerity and equality in an environment that routinely denies it. Efrem gave me permission to publish this poem on our program website at OPENMINDS. At the time of the workshop, he preferred we call him by his nickname, Pat, which is how we published the piece. Since his release, he has now gone back to using his given name.

It's been weeks since I've met them
And strangely I've grown closer to them
But I wonder if they feel the same
Week after week we engage in conversations that
I only would imagine you would tell a special friend
Am I a special friend? Do you look at me strangely because I'm in jail?
I know for me you all have become a part of me
I've given you my life through my words
Shared some of my childhood nightmares
Adult misfortunes and my future plans
Over these last couple of weeks hearing ya'll stories
Opened my mind up to a whole nother world
I thought just because they were free an in college they lived in a whole nother world den me.
But through the things said in class to me we're all dealing with a struggle
A different struggle from the next person, but it's our individual struggle
So who's to say whose struggle is worse then the next?
Each Thursday I hear your voices and I hear your stories
and I feel your pain wishing I could do something to make it all go away.
Class 366 Writing and Social Change has really made a change in me.
Wonder if Dr. Coogan knew it would be this way?
Ya'll don't even have the slightest clue how much Thursday means to me
Think about it:
Who in their right mind would pick a class that comes to a jail?
And sit down an talk to guys like me about some real personal shit?
One crazy thing is how you all tell your stories and walk out the door
To leave me here wondering is it more to the stories.
Is she gonna be okay?
Needless to say ya'll are always on my mind throughout the day
Because you all a part of me

Like Jasmine, Efrem learns that our common struggles in life transcend the fact that some are free and some are incarcerated, despite obvious differences in our lives: "So who's to say whose struggle is worse then the next?" The problem is that some are free and some are incarcerated. As we "walk out the door" he feels abandoned, left wondering, caring, what will happen to the storyteller and her story. The inequality of our assembly leaves us wondering, too. The writers we come to know and care for over the semester are never all there at the end of the semester. Though we return, week after week, some disappear without a word: off to court, medical, isolation, visitation, prison, freedom. Like slaves whose fate is never their own, prisoners have little control over the details of their daily lives. And yet, as Efrem's poem makes clear, it is a gift, a blessing to be able to share our lives.

Each year in America millions of prisoners and college students are blocked from the associational, interdependent life that McKnight and Block praise as foundational in healthy communities: blocked, that is, from giving and receiving intellectual and creative gifts. Ignorance of the other benefits no one. Unchecked it just may fester into thick indifference or hostile incuriosity. It makes us vulnerable to reductions of reality that make conceivable an "us" and a "them," the incarcerated and the free. It denies solidarity. It disables a collective imagining of change. What higher calling could we in the humanities and the arts aspire to than to create an environment in which everyone can rediscover their shared humanity? What higher calling is there for writers, artists, and scholars of public life than the calling to cultivate these gardens of hope and healing that cannot be tended alone?

The call that I hear for the arts and humanities is much bigger than the response that I've given. It's bigger than writing and literature—bigger than any one discipline or partnership. The call I hear is to make higher education more responsive to the hard realities of the world as it is. That world is filled with intelligent and creative people who have not yet been assembled to dialogue across their differences; to inquire openly, bravely, as a community. Arguably, higher education has always played a role in forming such communities. Higher education has never not been a part of our public life. Yet as my earlier gloss on Craig Wilder's book, Ebony and Ivy , suggests, many of our most prestigious, Ivy league institutions simply would not have been able to survive the centuries, let alone achieve great things, without slavery. We live in a much different cultural moment, of course, but not so much a different cultural process: we still face choices about how our world of higher education will engage the world of injustice out there. Organizing for culture change from within higher education does not necessarily mean changing the entire culture of higher education but, as I hope I have shown in this essay, redirecting it in small ways so that faculty and students can assemble with people in prisons in order to begin building the culture they desire.


Work Cited

Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Bakhtin, M. M.. 1990. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Translated by Vadim Liapunov. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Campbell, Benjamin. 2012. Richmond's Unhealed History. Richmond, VA: Brandylane.

Danielewicz, Jane. 2008. "Personal Genres, Public Voices." College Composition and Communication 59 (3): 420–450.

Hughes, Langston. 1959. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books.

Knight, Etheridge. 1968. Poems from Prison. Detroit, MI: Broadside Press.

Larson, Doran. 2011. "Abolition from Within: Enabling the Citizen Convict." Radical Teacher 91: 4–15.

Levertov, Denise. 1966. Poems 1960–1967. New York: New Directions.

McKnight, John, and Peter Block. 2010. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Pompa, Lori. 2002. "Service-Learning as Crucible: Reflections on Immersion, Context, Power, and Transformation." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 9 (1): 67–76.

Quintilian, Marcus Fabius. 1990. "Institutes of Oratory." In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, 347. Boston, MA: Bedford/Martin's.

Ratcliffe, Krista. 1999. "Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a "Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct." College Composition and Communication 51 (2): 195–224.

Wilder, Craig Steven. 2013. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. New York: Bloomsbury.

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