Love in the time of Covid: The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Course

Shifting to online teaching is particularly challenging when half of your students live in a prison. I teach an Inside-Out Prison Exchange course. This class is composed of an equal number of L&C undergraduates and incarcerated students who meet together inside Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) to learn together as peers and equals. By opening space for communication across profound social barriers, the course provides opportunities for all students to confront fears, explode stereotypes, present themselves and meet others openly, and generate unexpected insight.  Inside-Out courses can address many subjects; this one focuses on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. The encounter between “inside” and “outside” students is central to the purpose and pedagogy of the class. Incarcerated students and L&C students look into each others’ eyes, listen deeply, and nourish their common humanity. 

Inside students at CRCI lack internet access. They lack computers. When the call to move our courses online first came, and my colleagues scrambled to make the transition, I felt nothing but paralysis and deflation. To make matters worse, our course was supposed to conclude with a theater piece composed by the students and facilitated by Rebecca Lingafelter. Not only would the whole mission and culmination of our class be lost; the incarcerated students are especially vulnerable to the virus. They live in close quarters; they are generally in poor health; they do not enjoy adequate medical care. Hand sanitizer is considered contraband because it contains alcohol. I wrote to my inside students in a letter passed on by my trusted liaison at the prison, “I am struck by the irony. The calls for ‘social distancing’ remind me of the social distances we have been trying to bridge with this course. In other words, this episode just exaggerates the isolation that you already must feel on a regular basis. And yet, this crisis reminds us of another truth: That we are all interconnected, even if we are not physically together. It is a lesson in mutual responsibility; an injury to one is literally an injury to all. Our fate is bound up with yours. So please know that we are thinking of you, missing you, and caring for you, even from afar.”

When I held my first online class meeting of the L&C students, they were clearly devastated by the turn of events. One student said, “Of all the semesters for this to happen, why did it have to be this one? What’s even the point?” Another said, when I proposed discussing the day’s reading—a memoir written by a black Portland resident who had experienced gangs, drugs, and incarceration—“It doesn’t feel right discussing this book without [the inside students]. I want to know what they thought of the book.” We processed our feelings, hung our heads, and then one L&C student said, “Before we sign off, can we each say the names of the inside students?” “Paul.” “Irvin.” “Bones.” “Did anyone say Paris?” “Stephen!” “Trey!” 

And then something happened while I was tossing and turning the other night. I came to this: We have built a lot of trust in this class. The scales have fallen from our eyes and our hearts have opened. Even as we have to isolate, can we build upon the openness, curiosity, listening, and love that we have cultivated? Can we in fact make our class a space to process what is happening right now?

I am coming to see that this crisis reveals the extent of our blind faith in existing ideologies such as our language of “public safety.” In the past few decades, we have come to assume that public safety is something that only the military, the police, and prisons can provide. This unexamined outlook is at least partly responsible for the rise of mass incarceration. What about the role that nurses, supermarket cashiers, and toilet-paper factory workers play in our public health? Who gets to be part of the “public” entitled to protection? Just as in our course we have been trying to parse the coded meanings of “crime,” “law and order,” and “victim,” can we redefine public safety? As I read in a tweet by James Zeigler, “Every one of the US’s serious failings is going to contribute to our devastation by this virus. The unnecessary poverty, the unnecessary incarceration, our pitiful and cruel healthcare system, our aversion to public health as a concept.” Can this moment force us to reimagine the world we want to live in? Perhaps this situation will inspire a reckoning, a questioning of our system of punishment unseen since the birth of the prison itself. In short, I wonder whether my students and I can look to the community of our class to wrestle with some of these questions, to use an anti-carceral lens to make sense of what is going on. I woke up thinking, instead of cutting off contact, let’s insist on it. 

So Rebecca Lingafelter and I came up with a writing assignment in which students will compose responses to the themes of our class. The form can be a poem, a list, a diary entry, a manifesto—whatever, and needs to respond to various themes from the course, including the following: “Love, connection, and resiliency in the age of covid-19. What does ‘physical and social isolation’ mean to those inside? ‘Health’? To those outside? What does this moment reveal about our society? How might this moment allow us to reimagine our society?” The inside and outside students will share their writing across the walls with the help of the prison staff, and they will respond to their classmates’ writing with performative interpretations, which they will film and send back out. 

Last week I felt like our class was destroyed by the current crisis. Now I feel like our class is an opportunity to make meaning out of this moment. 

Reiko Hillyer, Associate Professor of History

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