Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teaching Writing inside the Walls of NYS Prisons: An Interview with Laura Rogers

KIRPAL GORDON: Since the mid-Eighties you’ve been involved in a number of pioneering writing projects with prisoners in upstate New York, and you’re speaking on prison education at the Fourth Global Conference: Experiencing Prison in Prague this month. What got you started in prison work?


LAURA ROGERS: I have to be honest and say that I got started in prison work because I needed a job. I was very young and inexperienced at the time; I had been tutoring writing for several years in a Higher Educational Opportunity program (HEOP) and had taught maybe one or two classes in that program. I think I had one graduate course in composition/ rhetoric/teaching in a master’s program at the State University of New York at Albany and was just about to start my doctoral program there at the same program that Jody Swilky was in (editor’s note: scroll down to the previous interview). The college where I was tutoring in the HEOP program ran a small correctional facility college program at three prisons in upstate NY. For some unknown reason they hired me to teach a developmental writing class. I look back now on how na├»ve I was and how many mistakes I made. There was really very little in the field of composition and rhetoric at the time to guide me, but that has really changed. I still have vivid memories of my early teaching in prison.


KIRPAL GORDON: Would you share an example for those Giant Steps Press readers who have never worked inside the walls?


LAURA ROGERS: Here is an excerpt of my dissertation about the experience of initially going into the prison environment:


            “Empty your pockets.  Put your hands up.  Put your hands down.”

            “I don’t know why this goes off every week; I don’t have anything I’m not supposed to” I replied to the middle-aged, heavy-set officer who seemed to be on duty every Friday night at the medium security prison.

            “These things don’t always work right,” he replied as he ran the hand-held metal detector up and down me. “It might be something as small as a ring or a belt buckle that makes it go off.”

             I felt humiliated even though I had done nothing but walk through the front door on the night I was scheduled to teach my writing program class. The walk-through metal detector seemed to go off every week no matter how careful I was about removing rings, watches or belts with metal buckles. I dreaded the loud buzzing of the ultra-sensitive machine. It made me feel dehumanized and somehow, ironically, criminal. It also forced me into further interaction with the corrections officers. No matter how friendly and polite they were, I was always uncomfortable around them…they seemed like people from another planet to me, a seventies’ liberal, with their uniforms, badges, and their talk about hunting and fishing. When I was in college, police were the “pigs.” Those of us in college in the early seventies were the tail end of the “Woodstock generation;” I still had my Indian skirts and blouses in a bottom dresser drawer. These men were not only policemen but corrections officers, prison guards…I felt like politely tolerated guest, someone not the officers’ equal, who had entered uninvited into their territory.


The “border crossing” of going into the prison always seemed especially stressful to me.


I taught in three different prisons in the correctional facility college program until that program was ended by withdrawal of state and federal funding in 1995, largely due to pressure from a public who did not understand that these programs were the only documented programs that had an impact on the recidivism rate; more of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration than education, which has a demonstrable impact on keeping people out of prison. After the college program ended, I wanted to stay involved with working with incarcerated writers as I had experienced some of the most interesting, challenging teaching of my career with committed, involved and interesting students. I knew there was a history of prison writing workshops and took the opportunity to start a voluntary writing group at Greene Correctional Facility in  Coxsackie, NY, where I had taught in the college program, with the key help of Jack Kilrain, the prison librarian at the time. Without Jack’s support the group never would have happened. We have met every other Tuesday night, weather permitting, since 1995. We  have had two American Library Association grants, brought in several visiting writers, and have published  four collections of the group’s work and are hopefully starting on a fifth. The workshop is a place where writers share and respond to each other’s work, read the work of other writers, and write. I hope the group is also a place where writers understand that their experiences and their languages are real and important, where they can think critically, collaborate and participate in public presentation of their work. Below is the foreword to From Within, the first publication of the group’s work, which was collaboratively written by group members.


Ignorance is the biggest crime facing our society today. Every other Tuesday night, Greene Correctional Facility challenges ignorance by supporting a creative writing group…Together these participants express thoughts which can inspire each other, even under the present conditions.


Within this group, some have fifty-dollar words, million dollar life experiences and diverse ethnic backgrounds that when put together create a culture that keeps each session real. They share their knowledge non-competitively and use their writing skills as a true form of healing therapy. This enables students the opportunity to see where lifelines converge in the written word.


These men have shown that the creative writing program allows the bright to be bright and the creative to be creative. Ultimately, ignorance will continue to be defeated on Tuesday nights at Greene Correctional Facility.



KIRPAL GORDON: I think those three paragraphs in From Within tell the real value of writing workshops inside the walls. Has your prison work shaped your Doctor of Arts program or vice versa?
LAURA ROGERS: I did start my prison teaching before I started the doctor of arts in composition and rhetoric at SUNY-Albany, which was probably a mistake as I was a very uninformed and unpracticed teacher. The work I did in the Sage College of Albany’s Higher Educational Opportunity Program, however, allowed me to work with students who came from very different backgrounds than myself- a Jersey girl from the suburbs- and who were struggling with academic writing as well as with many personal, social, and economic challenges, so in some ways it was good  preparation for teaching in prison. The DA program at SUNY-Albany, as Jody pointed out, was a wonderful one that allowed and encouraged students to make connections between different genres. The courses I took in that program helped me enormously as a teacher and a scholar. My experience with prison teaching also evolved into my dissertation. I want to second what Jody Swilky said about how the program allowed/encouraged us to cross over into multiple genres; I was so grateful that I was not only allowed but encouraged to write a dissertation about my experience of teaching in prison that was grounded in narrative/storytelling but also layered in critical/theoretical/academic analysis.    My colleague and fellow DA student at SUNY-Albany, Meg Woolbright, wrote in the foreword to her book Stories from the Center: Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center about the difference between a “study” and “a story.” I had no interest in writing studies. 
Meg writes that “A study, it seems to us, is a story of sorts, but a story about other people’s lives, with other voices and others’ authorities dominating. A story has a point of contact with one’s own life. A study makes some attempt or pretense at being controlled or objective, whereas a story considers events in light of their own subjectivity…Narrative provides a way to speak things otherwise unspeakable, to give voice to that which would otherwise go unheard.”  
Meg goes on to define the pieces in her edited collection as “academic narrative” that “tangle story and theory inextricably.” That is what I have tried to do in my work.  
KIRPAL GORDON: Has your day job as a writing professor for the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences affirmed your notion about narrative as well?

LAURA ROGERS: I think my position at ACPHS (Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) has done this in many ways. At the time I started at ACPHS I was teaching in the college prison program and had been teaching/ tutoring in the EOP program, Job Corps, a drug rehab center as well as finishing up my teaching assistantship in SUNY-Albany, so teaching at ACPHS was something very different for me. The ACPHS students are a very particular and in many ways a unique group of students; they are very focused, committed and hard-working. They have made a commitment to a professional path at a very young age. At first it was difficult for me to make connections between teaching prisoners and teaching students in a health care school as they are profoundly different groups of people. However, the longer I taught at pharmacy, I began to see that those students struggled with many different issues, needs, and complexities of life. I began to think about shaping a class to meet the needs of a particular group of students in a particular context/environment. I try to bring certain things to a classroom in any environment; I work to create a classroom community in which students feel safe to write, read, work collaboratively and think/analyze. There are clear differences between a prison classroom and a classroom on a college campus, but I hope to be able to work to achieve these goals with all students.


KIRPAL GORDON: How has being married to a prison educator---as well as being a mother--- influenced your experience of prison teaching?


LAURA ROGERS: My husband, Craig Hancock, first suggested to me that I teach in prison as he had been teaching in prison for quite a few years. For several semesters we carpooled to the college programs at Greene and Mt. McGregor Correctional Facilities, so I learned a lot from Craig about prison teaching and teaching writing in general. At the time, Craig was involved with a group called the Hudson Valley Writers’ Guild that he helped found; he was also involved in the editing/production of their literary magazine Groundswell. He brought to his teaching an interesting background as a teacher/writer/poet which seemed common at the time for people teaching in prison. I thought Groundswell was a wonderful experiment in trying to create a local, community-oriented lit mag. Craig wrote some very powerful poems about teaching in prison that I think were in that magazine; he also interviewed Joe Bruchac for Groundswell, who, in addition to directing the University Without Walls program at Auburn, taught in prison and published many prison writers in The Prison Writing Review. So there were those connections between Groundswell and prison teaching. 


Craig and I have two sons, and I remember going in to teach in prison in the college program while I was pregnant. I was going through a door inmates were walking through; one of the men rushed to hold the door open for me and said to his friend, “watch it man, can’t you see that she’s pregnant!” This made me feel simultaneously very vulnerable in that environment and yet oddly protected.    When I first started teaching, particularly at Greene Correctional Facility where I currently have my writing group, many of the men in the college program were older men – many of them Viet Nam vets. That has changed dramatically, and the population has become much younger, with many of the group members the same age as my sons or even younger. This has made me think a great deal about how privileged my sons have been, and about who some of these young men might have been if they had grown up in a different environment. Many of the men are, of course, also fathers- some at an incredibly young age- and we have had many conversations about family, parenting, and children. I don’t know whether or not the fact that I am a parent has opened the door for those conversations. I can’t imagine being away from my children like these incarcerated parents.


KIRPAL GORDON: How has working in jail changed you?


LAURA ROGERS: I think teaching in prison has profoundly changed me in so many ways. I grew up in the NJ suburbs; I think one of the most important things prison has done is put me in contact with so many people I would never otherwise have contact with. I think it is a sad statement on our society that so many separations exist between us. I have had a profound education in how difficult and complex people’s lives can be, in how our society is so stratified and divided, and the prison-industrial complex. Although I cannot say I understand what it is like to be incarcerated, I have had the opportunity to hear people tell me what that experience is like. Consequently I have been educated in the profound waste of human life and potential that is the US prison-industrial complex. On the other hand, though, I have had an eye-opening experience in human creativity and resiliency.

Teaching in prison has made me think about how to work to engage students.  Prison teaching has taught me to pay more attention to the contexts of students’ lives and to try and tailor/create a classroom/curriculum that will fit their needs.    It has made me think about the place of reading and writing in people’s lives and how institutions- prisons or schools- can work to enhance or undermine that.  There is a wonderful book, Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons by Megan Sweeney, that provides a very powerful look into the place of reading in the lives of people in prison. I have tried to combine reading and writing for the men in my group; we have been fortunate to have had two grants from the American Library Association which provided the group with six novels and a funded visit from the writers of one of those books (Coe Booth).


I hope my on campus students see me as someone who is engaged in working with community literacy and begin to think about the importance of that; we have a responsibility, an obligation, to step outside the boundaries of the academic world and engage with the most marginalized of our society. The general public has so little knowledge of the prison industrial complex, the experience of incarceration, or the people who end up in prison. What they know is largely drawn from sensationalized media accounts and Hollywood movies. 


KIRPAL GORDON: Meanwhile you’ve been collecting the experiences of other writer-teachers and speaking at conferences on prison education.


LAURA ROGERS: When I first started prison teaching in the prison, there was very little scholarly work available to help guide me on my way. My dissertation was a creative non-fiction piece that blended narrative with theoretical/critical work that helped me make sense of that experience and put it in a framework. I think the work I have done has in some ways reflected the shape and trajectory of the field itself; I have moved from narratives based on my own experiences to projects that have allowed me to get more distance/ a different perspective on this experience. I became very curious about the history and context of teaching writing in prison; I knew, for example, that there have been writing workshops in prison since the early 70s or late 60s and that these workshops really flourished post-Attica. To me, it became vitally important to understand this history and context and that this history become part of the narrative of the field of composition and rhetoric especially as prison literacy teaching uniquely intertwines the fields of creative writing, basic writing and composition. I also felt that there were many important voices, such as yours, Kirpal, and the other writers who pioneered that work that needed to be included and heard. You connected me with Darrah Cloud and Jeanne Clark, who also talked to me about their prison work. It has been fascinating to me to hear people’s stories and to begin to understand the social, cultural and educational context of this history. I did talk about this project at last year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication conference and am really looking forward to presenting an expanded version of this at the Fourth Global Conference: Experiencing Prison in Prague in May. I am looking forward to hearing global perspectives on issues of incarceration and crime; perhaps hearing these ideas and viewpoints can help me understand why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.


KIRPAL GORDON: Why is the US so prison-centric?


LAURA ROGERS: This is a very complex question. There is no doubt that the US is prison-centric with the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We now have over two million citizens in prison. According to the NY Times, nearly one in forty African-Americans nationwide is in prison or jail. Incarceration rates have quadrupled since 1980; according to the same NY Times article,, the major reason is that people are serving much longer prison sentences; in our own state of NY, the Rockefeller drug laws of the 1980s were a primary reason for this phenomenon. This mass incarceration, as the NY Times article points out, has accomplished nothing but destroying families and whole communities, specifically African-American communities. I think this is the most important thing I have taken away from prison teaching: that we are warehousing people and destroying families and communities. Without this opportunity I would have gone on like most of the US, blindly ignorant, not even thinking about the prison system or the people in it.


Why is the US so prison-centric?  Good question that I am not sure I have the answer for. I am not familiar with other countries, cultures, or prison systems (hopefully the European conference will give me some additional insight).  Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) has one answer- that the mass incarceration of African-Americans is “the new Jim Crow,” a form of institutionalized racism. Hopefully people are realizing that these long-term sentences for drug offenses are not cost effective in effective in any way; even a get-tough on crime state like Texas is realizing that treatment and other programs are more cost effective.

I think there are other factors such as our both positive and negative attitude towards individualism, our racial problems, and a misguided sense of reform (the first prisons were started by Quakers) that contribute to this.


KIRPAL GORDON: Prison has been described as a get-over experience of exploitation, mendacity and hustle---in short, a life conflicted at Erik Erikson’s famous first pillar of trust-mistrust. Why do so many people related to prison--- whether inmates, guards, administrators, civilians---go through this?


LAURA ROGERS: This is another big question. I agree that everybody working/ incarcerated in the system has to go through this or else struggle against it. I think NY times reporter Ted Conover’s book Newjack, in which he describes his experiences working undercover as a guard at Sing Sing prison, helped me understand what working in that system can do to a person. After a while, Conover did not like the person he found himself becoming and realized that if he stayed in that position long-term, it would be very destructive. I’ve known some of the guards at Greene Correctional, where I have my writing group, for a long time and have talked to some of them who express the same feelings.


I think that everyone who works in the correctional facility system is trapped in an inhuman system which has as its purpose to degrade and dehumanize people and which gives some people extraordinary power over others. Human relationships are so regulated, so trapped into boxes of what is or is not appropriate that normal human relationships and ways of interacting become almost impossible. Interactions or things that may be taken lightly in other settings become large and uncomfortable issues. Everyone is pressured to act in an inhuman way in this setting.


That being said, however, it has been extraordinary to me to see how many people are able to enact something approaching normal human relationships in that setting- the corrections officer, for example who stood outside of the building where my group meets one cold, snowy night and talked to me at length about the assignment guards most dreaded- accompanying an inmate to a funeral, not, he said, because of the chance of escape or problems with the inmate, but  because the family members cried and held on to their loved one, never wanting to let him go. The officers who let the group run past our official closing time so the writer can finish reading his piece to the group and hear their reaction. The GED teachers, whose work I once dismissed without knowing anything about what they do, and the extraordinary lengths some of them go to. I made many assumptions about the GED teachers, I think, when I first started teaching in prison. However, when I actually started talking to them, I saw that many of those assumptions were wrong. 


KIRPAL GORDON: What do you think is the best thing that can happen with literacy programs, college education and the incarcerated?

LAURA ROGERS: While I am aware that there is a long-standing tradition of prison writing workshops and university/prison collaboration, it has been very heartening to see that in the last ten years, even with budget cuts and withdrawal of federal and state funding for prison education, to see so many of my colleagues in composition and rhetoric become involved with prison literacy programs and prison advocacy. Some of these folks are involved in university/ prison or jail collaborations and service-learning partnerships, and others have developed their own programs independent of their institutions. Many of these people operate as volunteers, after a long day of teaching, and often drive distances at night to whatever prison or jail they are working with. It is so heartening to see a whole new generation of composition scholars- people like Tobi Jacobi, Patrick Berry, Wendy Wolters Hinshaw, and many others- beginning important and insightful research and scholarly projects. We just had a wonderful pre-conference workshop at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (in Las Vegas, of all places) on prison literacy and pedagogies. We had a keynote speaker, Chesley Spring, who runs a creative writing program for prisoners over fifty-five in Nevada; she brought a former member of her workshop to our gathering. Billy provided us with a unique perspective, one that had been missing from previous workshops. I look forward every year to meeting with my inspiring colleagues.


The best thing that could happen with prison literacy, college education and prisons is that there be more of such programs. Many of my colleagues who have ties to prison literacy say that at this point, our discipline “gets it,” and they wish there could be more outreach/activism in the community- for example, publishing in journals/magazines other than scholarly venues, more outreach and activism in the community, or the opportunity to reach out to teachers other than university teachers in our discipline. This is why I see Tracy Huling’s work with the Prison Public Memory Project as so important; I attended a wonderful presentation by this group at the Hudson, NY, public library on the history of and community connections with what is now Hudson Correctional Facility, where I did my first prison teaching. I was happy to be able to participate in a community event by reading the work of some of the writers in my group at an event called “Poets Raise their Voices: Readings Against Mass Incarceration,” organized by a wonderful non-profit group, Time and Space Limited, in Hudson, NY. Several weeks after the event, a woman came up to me in the post office and told me she had been at the reading and been very moved by the work of the incarcerated writers. We had made a connection with the people of the community. There need to be more of such events.


Additionally, there needs to be restored funding for post-secondary education in prisons on both the state and federal level. Statistics show that involvement with post-secondary education is one of the only programs that has a significant impact on the recidivism rate. Taxpayers spend more to keep a person in prison for a year, which has been demonstrated to have little effect on the recidivism rate, than they would to educate that person. I am aware of the many issues surrounding access to a college education and the incredibly high cost of that education, but as my colleague Joseph Lockard has pointed out, we need to think of education as a human right such as food and shelter and begin making sure it is available to everyone.