Dangerous Worlds: Teaching Film in Prison

Dangerous Worlds: Teaching Film in Prison

When I first heard that my college had formed ties with a prison and that some of our teaching assistants were already offering courses to inmates, I leapt to join on. Motive? Dare I say it? Boredom. Teaching well is always difficult, but I needed new kinds of difficulty. Feminism is everywhere and nowhere in my college students’ lives; they are both ignorant and at the same time jaded about the whole business. I know what feminism can become for them, if I teach well. But what could it become in a medium-security prison for men who had been incarcerated for long periods, sometimes decades? I craved to know.

To my surprise, people praised my eagerness. Oh, how sacrificial, or how generous, or how public spirited. Odd. I thought we were all well beyond the fantasies of the sister of mercy. No one I know believes in disinterested altruism. Skepticism rules on the left, casting doubt on any show of sympathy as covert imperialism. At the same time, with greater bluntness and scorn, neoliberals during the Bush years systematically emptied the prisons of all amenities, from gyms to education, from air conditioning to reasonable hope of parole.

I was skeptical myself, an emotion further developed in my conversation with my friend the psychoanalyst. “Ann, you’re such an adventure tourist.” To Marta, any illusion that one might “help” as a visitor from another world reeked of sentimentality: A white woman arrives each week with a satchel and spends a few hours spreading light to a captive audience of black men.

“Besides,” said Marta, “some of these guys will surely be psychotic.” It occurred to me that after two decades inside some might indeed be insane, if they hadn’t started that way. “So how do you recognize a psychotic in a classroom?” I asked her. “Psychotics don’t doubt.”

As far as Marta was concerned, my desire to teach in prison was absurd. But my confidence in her judgment took a hit when she connected what she saw as self-serving adventurism with my twenty years of feminist organizing in East Central Europe. True, I had sought adventure in the post-1989 melee, and also true: traveling feminism is inevitably tangled in other forms of circulating power. Willy-nilly, things come from outside, and people make use of what comes, even from tainted hands. There may indeed be no disinterested travelers, but capitalism had rushed in. Why not me, too, capitalism’s feminist critic?

Still, asserting a potential value, even in adventure tourism, seemed a weak defense. I was both excited by the prospect of this new teaching and fearful that I wouldn’t be able to discover some kind of authentic link with my students, something beyond the suspect reign of sympathy. I had eight months to obsess about this, and so the process of designing the course began.

Distracted by all these doubts, I set my initial bar low. Whatever else the course might succeed in doing, I was determined that it would give pleasure. I was warned that though these particular students were culled by both the prison and a college selection process, some of them had weak writing and reading skills. If writing and reading were onerous, they would remain side activities. The main thing would be films: riveting, fascinating, beautiful, controversial. For one afternoon a week, we would watch great movies, then talk about them. I’m hypnotized by movies, utterly rapt, even when they are bad. I would allow myself to project this far, to imagine that at least some of the students are like me, happy to escape for a few hours from their current situation.

Next question: which films? I decided that I would never use the word “feminism” but that I would organize the course around themes I know and care about and can teach best. So, three clusters: childhood, manhood, womanhood.

I spent months screening films. Each one would be vetted by the deputy in charge of prison outreach. The general rule was not too much violence and very little sex. It’s hardly surprising how many films this eliminates. Because of students’ uneven reading skills and what were likely to be bad screening conditions, it was risky to choose films with subtitles. The films would have to be in English and powerful enough to overcome the distancing devices imposed by low-tech prison life.

During this sifting process, I was working to develop another whole layer of meaning for the course, separate from the pure pleasure of watching, separate from the raising of aesthetic and thematic questions, and separate from the need to find exciting material for debate. All that, yes! But, at some other level, I wanted to hollow out a place where the complexity of human motive could be slowed down, carefully observed. Without presuming to educate anyone’s emotions, I sought a way to show how art depicts our layered inner life. As I explained it to friends, “I want to show that sometimes you hit someone, but really you’re sad.”

I allowed this aspect of my intentions to remain inchoate as I worked on the course, embarrassed by my secret goal of providing a sentimental education. Later, I was startled to hear the brilliant tough-love counselor who taught the course before mine, “The Criminal Mind,” bark out like an order to one of the prisoners, “You have no idea what you’re feeling. Pay attention!” Paying attention—to the film, to art, to meaning, to one’s own responses—this was to be the secret core of the course. I called it “Express Yourself,” and everyone wanted to take it. “Why did you choose this class?” “Because I like movies,” and “Because I want to express myself.”

Here, finally, are the films and their directors: (1) Crooklyn (Spike Lee, 2006); (2) Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2002); (3) Muhammad Ali: When We Were Kings (a documentary directed by Leon Gast, 2005); (4) My Son the Fanatic (Udayan Prasad, 1998); (5) In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2006); (6) The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2010); (7) The Times of Harvey Milk (a documentary directed by Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen, 1984); (8) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1954); (9) Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2004); (10) Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991); (11) North Country (Niki Caro, 2005); (12) Speakout: I Had an Abortion (a documentary directed by Jillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner, 2005); (13) Iron Jawed Angels (Katja Von Garnier, 2004); (14) Pray the Devil Back to Hell (a documentary about Liberia, directed by Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker, 2008).

Day 1: Getting In

The correctional facility lies at the end of a little twirl off the road near one of the biggest garbage dumps in America. Judging from the reading I did before the first class, it seemed likely that in prison a central emotion would be humiliation. On my arrival, it was immediately obvious that the mechanisms are relentless, even for the hapless volunteers.

The first problem was my purse. Why a mirror? To check the back of my head. No, the prisoners might steal it, break it, and use the shards as weapons. No MetroCard. Because the prisoners might steal it, escape, and have instant access to buses and trains. No chewing gum or lip gloss. These can be used to glue up locks. Of course no pins. I had several floating around the bottom of my big bag. Of course no cell phones or other means of communication with the outside.

The gate was a trial every week. Surveiller et punir, and I wasn’t even an inmate. Why all these hair clips, hair ties, paper clips, make-up, string bags, pills? Why not? “Because this is a prison.” (Primo Levi asked a concentration camp guard why he was forbidden to break off an icicle. “Here there is no why.”)

Once I had stripped my purse of all but a few amenities, and put everything in the visitors’ locker, I went through the metal detector (of course setting it off) and, eventually, got my hand stamped with invisible ink (I made the mistake of wearing elaborate boots only once; it took five minutes to get them off and on again).

One door opens, letting you in to show your hand stamp under a special light, then it closes and another opens. I’m in! It’s February, and a few, straggly bits of garden lie between me and the door to a long, green linoleum corridor called “Main Street.”

A kindly, shambling man gives me an orientation: There are 67,000 inmates in New York State in 68 facilities. Most of the 941 prisoners in this prison come from one of the five boroughs of New York City. Most have been serving long sentences in maximum-security prisons. Being here is a sign—but not a guarantee—that parole is in sight.

The rules for volunteers are listed, and I must sign that I have read them. No touching of any kind. No provocative clothing, like halter tops, mini skirts, plunging necklines, wraparound skirts. Nothing transparent. No heavy-metal outfits or doo rags or T-shirts with provocative slogans on them, for example expressing racial hatred or “promoting crime, drugs, alcohol, or sadistic/violent, satanic, sexual, pornographic, vulgar, gang-related references.”

I register something I haven’t thought about before: freedom means you can have vices and bad habits and can reveal bad thoughts. Life here is pent up in ways that multiply as I make my way in. How conscious is the goal to punish through the humiliation of hundreds of small, meaningless rules and through an endless denial of all indulgences? The evidence certainly pointed to a constant effort to maintain discomfort at all times. I later learned that there is no air conditioning in the sweltering dorms in summer. The equipment is there, inmates told me, but the administration refuses to hook it up.

By the end, I get the message. These are criminals; most of them have been armed and violent; most of them would do drugs or drink or smoke or have sex or express rage if given half the chance; some of them are killers. Make no mistake, innocent lady volunteer. Like the guard at the gate says, “This is a prison.”

Now we go to the classroom, which is dreary. The DVD monitor is locked up; the DVD player I must bring each time from the duty officer lacks a remote. The room is much too bright to show films. (“Can I darken the room?” “Of course not!” “Can I cluster the chairs close together around the monitor?” “Of course not!”)

All these months I’ve tried to imagine this situation. Who am I, here, and who are they? What voice will I have? Will I understand their voices? I interrogated several of the teaching assistants who had already offered classes at the prison. One warned me that my being a woman is a distinct disadvantage. They will associate me, he thinks, with naggy high-school teachers. From this conversation, I take away a new anxiety: I will remind them of an earlier stage of unfreedom.

The twelve men filter in. As far as I can tell, the class is eleven African Americans and one Hispanic, ranging in age from thirty to fifty. They are friendly, a few elaborately polite and happy to help sort out the mess, set up chairs. They are used to this level of chaos, both patient and gracious.

I simply start in. The voice I turn out to have is my own voice—loud, rhetorical, passionate, dramatic. I make no effort to imagine how to sound like them or to tailor my words to what I imagine they will understand or approve. On the spur of that terrifying moment, I decide that respect and professional distance lie in offering whatever it is I have in my own lingo. They can decide, then, to take it or leave it.

One of the students, Jonno, the Hispanic guy, remarks somewhat aggressively that I like to talk. I think to myself, “That one is going to be trouble.” Several are silent, and that worries me, too. One in particular seems to me to be standing on his dignity, remote. All I can offer him is my eagerness and my clear devotion to the work at hand. If that’s uncool, so be it. But at least the schoolmarm I am not. I quickly sense that my colleague’s analysis was a mistake, perhaps a sexist assumption. My femaleness is obviously going to matter—I’m beginning to think it may even help me to spark their attention—but much more is at stake here. People in this room have their own urgent needs, their own eagerness that matches mine.

On that first day, there is one small confrontation, a mini-drama about gender and race. Several students call me “Miss Ann.” Since my name is indeed Ann, it might seem that no harm is meant. I need only request that they drop the “Miss.” However, mainly by luck, I happen to know that “Miss Ann” is a generic term used by black maids for the white women whose houses they clean and whose peculiarities they must endure. I say to the class, “Please don’t call me Miss Ann. I know who Miss Ann is and this is not me.” Several look startled. (We are to surprise each other constantly in the course of the semester.) They were so sure that a knavish speech would sleep in a foolish ear. Now they turn new eyes on me; they honor my knowledge with a few warm smiles and winks. The first fine filament of mutual regard. We’re off!

I show Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and they are touched and delighted, some remembering playing those same street games in their own Brooklyn childhoods. We examine how this perfect coming-of-age story is put together, and I introduce and spell Bildungsroman, a term Jonno eats whole and feeds back repeatedly.

The Class

The second class is a setback. There are endless technical difficulties before I can show them Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, one of the most brilliant evocations of childhood I’ve ever seen. But it is animated, and some suspect they are being patronized. It doesn’t help that the deputy checks in and says, “What’s this? Kiddie cartoons in college?” Still, a few like it, succumb to its weird magic.

I want them to see the fears of childhood and the gathering power the child has to do what’s necessary in a world full of monstrous dangers and often equally mysterious helping figures. I am later to learn about some terrifying childhoods here, but this film is too strange. It fails to resonate.

The class really gets going in week three. I show the documentary Muhammad Ali: When We Were Kings, about Ali’s great victory over George Foreman in Zaire. I expect these students to adulate Ali and celebrate how he dances and dodges, always setting his own terms. And they do. Tyrone is particularly moved, and Lamar has a political analysis of the meaning to the black community of Ali’s refusal to serve in the white colonial war, Vietnam.

The film is in love with Ali, and we all feel it. His beauty, his wit, the poignancy of his braggadocio and anxiety before the fight. But near the end of the class, Jonno says, “I was a boxer. I beat a lot of people. I was really good.” The others look skeptical or indulgent. Jonno is muscular and bellicose but also short. He goes on, “But then I beat a man to death twenty-five years ago. I’m a kind person, but when you’re angry you forget they’re a person. I’m not sure I want to go along with this boxer-hero thing.” Real doubt, neither righteous nor pat.

The class takes a rhythmic pause, the former momentum arrested. I say I’m surprised but also interested to hear this criticism of officially accepted violence. Our time is almost up, but in those last moments, the question of violence, and how to think about it, is before us. Is there a continuum between the worship of the strongest, toughest man in the world and what Jonno did one dark night? Some think yes, while others reject that kind of slippery slope thinking. Rival moral systems collide. Or is violence simply human nature—nothing to be done about it?

Almost everyone is engaged now. There’s a shared understanding that the course is going to be about things that are difficult, that matter, that connect with personal experiences they may or may not want to discuss openly.

The next film is My Son the Fanatic, taken from a short story by my favorite screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi. He can be relied on to set things going among people, to face the often regrettable truth about what one really feels (“my wife is ugly”) and what one also is capable of feeling (“I feel sorry for my wife”). I love the film and am apprehensive about what they will think about this story of a humiliated but often decent Indian taxi driver in a bitter north England city, a convert to the pleasures the West offers—a mistress, jazz, good Scotch, a sort of freedom from the family—but weighed down by a son disgusted by his father’s English life, by English racism, and eager to invent a strict Muslim self to counter his immigrant humiliation.

I needn’t have worried. And it is at this point in the course that I abandon any thought of hand-holding or patiently bringing people along. No. They have seen so much in the film. Jonno is an immigrant from Ecuador and knows all about it. And Harry moves right into an analysis of globalization and the complex economics of immigration policy. The forms of racism the film explores, subtle and unsubtle, are duly noted, and the film’s brilliance much praised. Though we argue loudly and intensely about where the film’s center of gravity lies, all recognize a key moment in the father’s plea to his son: “There is more than one way to be a good man.”

So now we are in the thick of it—manhood and its various manifestations. How to be manly is a central question for every person in the room. In his first paper, beautiful, restless Clayton, mesmerized by movies but drifty during discussions, writes that he can’t be a man because he isn’t in charge of a family; instead, at thirty, he’s dependent like a child. I confront him about this idea and ask his permission to argue with him about it in class.

I don’t think my passionate deconstruction of the romance of the pater familias—an ideal type who rules, takes care of his woman and children, and needs nothing from others—makes much of an impression on Clayton. He is committed to the terrible shame he feels. And maybe he knows himself, is a just critic of his own childishness. But others in the class are intrigued by my rejection of shame as simply what they all deserve. I’m arguing that outside and inside prison, there’s a huge engine chugging out humiliation. We begin to discuss humiliation openly and ways one might resist feeling bad. “I know in all your classes and workshops you’re being taught to take responsibility for what you’ve done, and I’m not saying no to that. But responsibility is different from shame. Best to see the endless tale of one’s badness as an inadequate story, meant to make you feel like a worm. OK, take responsibility, but also move on. Everyone is dependent; total independence is a myth. Inside or out, dependency is the human condition.”

This hectoring lecture hasn’t convinced anyone, but quiet Elijah is taking it all in, nodding. With my pontificating, we’ve arrived in the realm of Big Ideas. There’s some doubt, some bewilderment, but some are seriously considering whether or not this critique of humiliation might apply to them.

The next two films are war films, In the Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker. Now manhood takes a terrible hit. The son in Elah is utterly destroyed by the macho brutality of the Iraq War. He becomes a monster, and his equally blighted mates kill him for no particular reason. They’re drunk, and have lost all moral compass. In The Hurt Locker, the hero defuses bombs. (Again, the scene is Iraq.) He is better at it than anyone else, taking insane risks. As we come to know him, we understand that he is addicted to danger and can never go home again. His constant return to Iraq is suicide.

By now everyone gets it. I’ve put these films here to criticize the ideal of the lone wolf, the hero, the manly fighter. In Elah there’s a moment of nostalgia for earlier wars, but Iraq is something else. We’re lost, we need help, the hero has collapsed and become a monster. The brave daredevil who defuses bombs is in fact a suicide in disguise.

I know that all this is unlikely to make a dent in the essentialist views of manhood and womanhood that often seem to prevail in the room. But these are belief systems with big cracks in them. Elijah, Harry, David, and Phillip have been working on themselves for a long time, self-consciously cultivating inner calm and wisdom. A different idea about manhood might be a lifeline. Who knows? Since they are near the end of their terms, the question of how to be a free adult outside (and how to avoid returning here) is in the air every minute. In a long teaching life, I have rarely encountered students with such intense motivation.

After each class, Marcus stays. He never talks in class. He requires a private exchange. At first I balk at this, then think, why not? He tells me he was the baby in a middle-class family, the indulged, spoiled one. He’s soft all over and I can see the cosseted, darling baby he must have been. Soon up for parole, Marcus has been inside eighteen years for armed robbery (but no one was shot, he hastens to say). Trouble is, this is his second long prison term. In fact, he reluctantly acknowledges, he has spent most of his adult life in prison.

He has no intention of writing the four papers I’m assigning. Free as these assignments are, they are not free enough for Marcus. He has embarked on a long piece describing how deeply envious he is of his friends, now lawyers, professors, basketball players, while he has been stuck all these years, arrested.

The piece interests me. The theme is shame. He remembers scenes from his brief, free life like a halluciné. He regrets not taking that stupid, boring job. Why didn’t he seduce that woman who had a brilliant career and might have supported him? Instead, he always succumbed to the allure of hustling. He lists what he briefly had without irony or self-criticism: money, fabulous clothes, lots of beautiful women. In his world, everyone agrees that the regular jobs available are a foolish waste of time. The man worthy of respect lives in an entirely different economic system. After his first fifteen-year term, Marcus returned to the glamour of the street almost immediately.

“So,” I ask him, “why do you think you’ll resist the siren this time?” “I’ve found Christ.” We contemplate this answer together for a long, sober minute. “And do you think Christ will be enough?” (I put no ironic spin on this question; I am feeling alarmed and deadly serious.) Again, a contemplative pause: “I don’t know.”

The next film would have been Brokeback Mountain but the deputy—for the most part a liberal and constructive guy—told me, “Someone performing a homosexual act could claim he learned it in class.” (I laughed, but this did no good.) I substitute a documentary I love, The Times of Harvey Milk. I announce to the class that at a certain point in this film, I always cry, not when the gay town supervisor Harvey Milk is shot but when the whole of San Francisco pours down the streets to grieve together, holding candles. Sure enough, the candles appear and I cry.

Everyone is impressed. I am still mourning this man. What to make of this solidarity with a pouf, a fruit, someone so flagrantly public about not being a regular man? This is the class that establishes the wildness of the rest of the semester. We completely disagree, but there appears to be no price to pay. We are all yelling together. Homophobia meets resistance. Harry, my sophisticated autodidact who has read a great deal startles me by saying, “We call the police faggots to humiliate them, to bring them down a peg.”

I go into a long explanation about how saying “faggot” affirms the world of contempt and unfreedom, how it, too, is a form of policing, to be avoided. Harry pays no attention to these arguments; he’s not remotely convinced. Then I do something I’ve never done in a classroom before. I shout, “Harry, simply stop it! Never call someone, anyone, a faggot again!”

Everyone skips a beat. I realize how much trust we have by now because they recognize this as passion, not one more example of bossing prisoners around. Everyone goes berserk. Jonno shrieks that homosexuals are dangerous because they’re too emotional, which makes everyone laugh because no one in the class is more emotional than hellion Jonno. Elijah looks wise as ever. OK. The word faggot is finished. Even Harry shrugs an acknowledgment. I win, at least for now, partly because they have come to believe I’ll listen, am willing to not win at least some of the time. Wherever each one stands, we are all deeply moved by Harvey Milk’s élan. Death for this lovable faggot is entirely wrong; the freak is the straight guy, the killer.

The class is over. Everyone leaves, except as always, Marcus. Then the dignified and usually silent David returns and asks for a private word. Reluctantly, Marcus steps into the hall. “I just wanted to thank you for this film and this discussion. I’m gay and you can see what hell it is in here. Thank you.” And he’s gone. Now I have some reason to hope that whatever else happens after this, I haven’t wasted my time and theirs.

We finish up manhood with Bad Day at Black Rock, that perfect Sturges anti-Western, and the British Dirty Pretty Things. The Western is an occasion to do some serious film criticism. We listen to film critic Dana Polan’s commentary, analyze shots, theorize about the decay of a once idealized, heroic West. The good guy (Spencer Tracy) bears the damage of war and the melancholy of the returning soldier (we have read Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”). This real man who has seen terrible violence is peaceable as long as possible and is finally violent only to save his life. His dignity requires no outward show. He cannot be humiliated. The shots of male groupings—there’s only one woman, briefly, in the film—are gorgeous, grand Western tableaux, filled with rotten or lost men who no longer fit the heroic frame of earth and sky.

The theme of the good man who is violent in a bad world carries over to Dirty Pretty Things, where the mournful illegal Nigerian immigrant breaks the law to do the right thing. Is it ever OK to break the law? Is part of the dream of heroism making one’s own rules? Jonno the immigrant says he’s irritable with all these immigrants; they should have just stayed home. But Harry says that Western imperialism has ruined their homes, making everyone poor. Immigrants travel to survive; they become illegal while the real criminals, the imperialists, are never punished. Some people are drifting off at this point, but Elijah the Silent is nodding vigorously. It’s my opinion, though I have no direct evidence, that he gets everything.

Both films are riveting because they establish fully realized, dangerous worlds where heroes we love struggle to survive violence and racism. At one point I turn from the niche where I sit tucked next to the monitor, the worst viewing position in the room, and look at this small audience. They are rapt, every face still and at full attention. Whatever else, I know they are enjoying this, though early in the course, Harry said that he wondered if perhaps they watch too much TV, a form of narcolepsy. As every teacher who shows films knows, the class is dazed when the lights go up. It’s always hard to get students to turn an analytic eye on what so mesmerized them the moment before. I worry about how much remains after the flickering glow fades but am reassured when the films start showing up in their papers and as points of reference in our discussions. The trance state may be a problem as well as a pleasure, but our eagerness to talk, or more accurately, to argue, seems to trump somnolence.

As we’ve been working through manhood, a parallel drama has developed. I’ve read their first writing—genre unspecified, length unspecified—mostly about childhood. Up from the usual student ruck, one brilliant and elegant piece appears—by Carl. He has a sharp critical mind judging from his remarks in class, but surely this paper is too good, too shaped, too literary. But why doubt this clever fellow? My wish is to trust and admire him.

I mention my surprise to the deputy during our weekly encounter. I ask, could it be plagiarism? But they have no access to the Internet. “They call a friend who uses the Internet and then mails them the piece.” I look surprised at the intricacy of this ruse and the deputy laughs at me. “What do you expect? They’re criminals!” We are laughing, but when he asks me the inmate’s name, I stall. “Let me investigate first.” Carl will soon be up for parole. I’m horrified to recognize that I could do real damage here, become one of the cogs in the wheel of punishment.

At home, I type the most literary, sophisticated phrase from Carl’s paper into Google, and the answer comes up at once: he has copied a published piece word for word.

So now what? Plagiarism is a serious offense that can get a student expelled. Because of the specificity—and perhaps oddity—of my assignments, I’ve come upon only two plagiarists in forty years of teaching. How serious do I think this is? I discover that I think it is very serious, a self-defeating, foolish form of cleverness. But now that I am both dupe and witness, I also discover that I am unclear about my own attitude to the rules. Is it lying I object to? Theft of intellectual property? Theft is nothing new in the prison (I find it comic that inmates keep telling me to mind my purse), but how to handle this, my own case?

I see two possibilities. I can take Carl aside, tell him that at the college he would immediately fail the course and might well be asked to leave school, and tell him why people feel this is serious, a breaking of trust within a community. Or I can bring the whole thing up in class, assume that this is a group tragedy, that anyone might be tempted to plagiarize, that there is something important for us all to discuss here.

I worry over this for two weeks, asking advice from friends who sink as fast as I do in the ambiguities of this power relationship. On the one hand, I would be treating this event as a private matter, not connected to the life of the group—a safe separation, probably having little effect on Carl. On the other hand, I would be humiliating him in public, just the thing I hate most about the prison regime.

As the group solidifies and the classes become more and more exciting, I begin to think we can handle this crisis together. I’m confident that the group will keep Carl’s secret. I tell the class what happened, read them the “statement on plagiarism” (which I should have given them as part of my syllabus at the start), and explain why I think plagiarism damages both the perp and the class.

Carl makes a faint denial, which I ignore. Then an interesting thing happens. Rodney speaks up, and at some length. Rodney has been my techie, helping me deal with the wayward DVD player each week, telling me how to find batteries when someone has stolen them out of the remote to run a clandestine tattoo machine. But of all the students in the class, he has been the most skeptical, the one most likely to call all my enthusiasms girlish bunk. Early on, I considered going on the defense, then decided here was an expression of freedom, the freedom to doubt the people they send to fix you up. I have been trying to accept without rancor his choice to undercut me with irony or mild scorn whenever he feels like it.

He says, “Why you bring this up in front of the whole class? He can’t learn anything this way. Why you don’t talk to him alone, explain to him? You shaming him here. This don’t help nobody.”

I am deeply gratified to have this principled opposition so fully expressed in my classroom. Without taking any credit for Rodney’s fine character and with all my continuing self-doubt, at this moment I feel the class is working well. Again careful not to go on the defensive, I say that I had considered Rodney’s position but had decided this was a group matter. No one wants Carl’s chances at parole endangered, so this is a private discussion. Then I ask Rodney what he thinks we should do next. “Talk to the man privately.”

I give the class a break and sit down with Carl in the empty classroom. “Why bother to cheat when the assignment was liberty hall? You didn’t need to write more than one paragraph.”

“I was busy with my parole application and couldn’t get to it. And you said you don’t accept late papers.”

I’m stunned. I’ve been telling students this for years. But how stupid to say such a thing to these prisoners who have zero control over their time or their movements to computer room or library. In fact, why make a drop dead rule like this for any of my students? Such a rule is born to be broken. And of course when people break it, I usually listen to their reasons and read their papers anyway, making a note—“Late.”

The rules in the prisons where Carl has lived for many years are so arbitrary and capricious that he has no idea that he can negotiate with me. He has suffered from the rule of law and is justifiably wary and cagey. Though typing the long stolen piece and writing a brief paper would have taken about the same time, for Carl, subterfuge feels better, safer. I apologize and resolve never again to declare an absolute deadline—here or anywhere.

But the problem with Carl doesn’t disappear with my contrition. Surely he needs to learn that he can get to yes without lies or violence. He will need new strategies for dealing with the galling rules he will encounter outside. Letting him off the hook won’t necessarily help him.

I’m pretty sure now, though, that I have made a mistake. It’s not as if the world outside will reward Carl for innocence and goodness. He has to go back to the scene of stress and desperation that he came from, only this time he’s a felon with most job opportunities off limits—unless he lies, and doesn’t get caught. In the nineteenth century, prison was meant to discipline the inmate, train him to join the productive laboring classes. But now, in America, prison is a recessive enclave, a race-bound cul-de-sac. Grotesquely, monstrously, almost all the hundreds of inmates here are African American. The very few whites look strung out, hollow eyed. Covered with tattoos and scars, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Of course, through self-conscious change and creativity—and with luck and a little help from their friends—some will find their way. But, talking to Carl, I feel the boundaries of race and class pinching at his quick heels. Almost inevitably, if he does get a job, he will continue to be supervised, micro-managed, routinely humiliated, hence the constant interest of the street, of living lawlessly. Outside, cheating might well feel like freedom, but with the irony that incarceration can be the ending.

Maybe I can save something from this catastrophe, offer Carl some practical protection. I can’t help him save face, now that everyone knows, but I have useful information. “Carl,” I tell him urgently, “surveillance has changed since you came inside twenty years ago. It took me three seconds on Google to find the source of your piece. Also, felons are now listed on the Internet.” I see that this is interesting news, and it registers.

When we’re finished talking, I go out into the long corridor to bring back the others. They are all sitting there on narrow wooden benches against the wall, uncharacteristically silent and looking worried. This has been a big event, and its meanings will keep evolving with the course.

As the semester winds along, Rodney’s judgment that Carl is hopelessly shamed seems right. He rarely speaks now and has a haunted look. Exposure has been a trauma. Now I’m forced to consider that old question about the criminal justice system: does the prisoner learn and change from the jolt and shame of chastisement? The kind but constantly hectoring counselors I meet here think they are helping, but are they? I have no idea. I can hear Foucault laughing. At least trust in me as primarily well-intentioned seems to hold in spite of this scary episode. I am allowed my provocations, and people seem to know that it will be OK if, like Rodney, they call me out, which they often do.

Carl writes two papers to substitute for the plagiarized one. The first is empty rhetoric about manhood. Man is tender; man is tough; man protects his womanfolk, etc., etc. The second paper is in another voice entirely. Here he tells in simple, eloquent language how his mother died, how angry he was, how rage and lawlessness ruled his life, how he killed a man in a quarrel over a gold chain, how he has tried to overcome his rage during these decades in prison.

The disassociation revealed in the gap between the two papers unnerves me. Cautiously, I ask him if he sees that these are very different styles of writing? No real reaction or acknowledgment. Now it’s clear that I am in way over my head. I have no idea what I am messing with or if I am doing harm. I leave Carl alone from that day on, weaving him into discussion normally as if all is well. But I do not really think all is well, and I now know my mistake with him is the least of his worries.

I have a reassuring counter-example of changing voices in Harry. His first paper makes me laugh out loud, then flood with sympathy. The autodidact is so brave and at the same time so disadvantaged: “Any attempts to examine manhood would also include exploring axiology, deontology, and praxicology…” “I think that the son’s dislike of his father’s sequacious position…etc.” I spend some time with my dictionary and make a note in the margin: “A position can’t be sequacious.”

What to do? There are some interesting things in Harry’s paper; he’s the most sophisticated and well-read thinker in the room. We sit down and I tell him it’s a question of aesthetics (big word), of style (translation). Those long words in strings clog his prose and don’t communicate all that well. I remind him of the story we read by Hemingway and we discuss the historical development of American plain style. His next paper is different, a limpid description of his early life, an analysis of the appeal of the street and of his first encounters with violence. He’s still offering ideas, interpretations, generalizations, but the change is a triumph. I congratulate him.

WE BARREL into the last section of the course, Womanhood. The first film in the set is Thelma and Louise. Amazing how well this roady movie for women has held up. Its indictment of men is relentless, broad, and shameless. Jonno says, “The film isn’t really fair to men, is it?” We all laugh at this understatement, but everyone seems to get the point of piling it on; what’s more, they recognize the endless parade of male predators who ultimately bring down Thelma and Louise. Several see the male behavior in the film as simply realistic, things they themselves have done or seen done. Though I’m grateful for their lack of defensiveness, I begin to wonder if the film’s attack on macho, oppressive men has registered at all. As the class ends, I remain uncertain.

The next week brings these questions back: North Country. This film is an exhaustive, faithful representation of how sexual harassment worked at a mine in Minnesota where a few women were hired for the first time, breaking the gender barrier. Once again, the indictments of men’s unfairness and cruelty to women pile up. This time though, there’s no sign of the earlier movie’s charm as the heroine is raped, threatened, blamed, never recognized as the victim. The film is harrowing, and the class is shocked. We’re all on the side of the much-trounced heroine when she finally wins in court. Several say they had no idea what this sexual harassment thing was all about; they consider themselves instructed.

Still, I am discovering how little I have dented their confident essentialism: men are men and women are women. Who am I to directly confront such a well-documented belief? The films themselves give quite mixed messages about this very matter. Gender may indeed be unstable as I occasionally point out, but they can easily counter that the difference keeps reasserting itself. Since I have never used the word “feminism” in order to avoid their dismissing me, I say nothing.

The next film is Speakout: I Had an Abortion. I love this humble documentary for how it shows that feelings about abortion are not particularly private. Historical context dictates emotions: In the 1950s, fear of the disgraceful pregnancy, followed after the abortion by joy and relief. But by the 1980s, after years of backlash, the abortion decision is surrounded by anguish, guilt, doubt. Again, the men seem intrigued. Here is a new point of view, new revelations about female anxiety and suffering. The stories about men running away from responsibility or accusing their pregnant girlfriends of sleeping around seem ominously familiar to the class. Rape stories, too, are no surprise.

And now Lamar makes an intervention. Since the Harvey Milk episode, when he gave me a high five after the class, we’ve been friendly—a quiet feeling of camaraderie. We have already weathered an intense exchange over a story by Edward P. Jones, “An Orange Line Train to Ballston.” I had said that dreadlocks in the story meant separation, independence, even rebellion, and Lamar was furious. “That’s what the parole board thinks. You better fix your hair before you go up.” He attacked my inference that dreads mean rebellion. Maybe once upon a time; but now it’s a style anyone might want. This reading of natty hair as a sign of aggression is nothing more than white fear of black men. I backed down completely. How had I allowed myself to forget the racist themes entangled in hair? Lamar was angry, and I learned from this anger, retreating with an apology he graciously accepted.

But now, after three weeks of films about the wrongs done to women, Lamar is angry in another way: “If my sister came home and said she was raped she better have a lot of scratches and bruises to prove it.” In response, I try everything: Does this mean you think your sister asked for it, or liked it, if she doesn’t show signs of being beaten up? Should she risk her life to avoid rape? And, more generally, what if she does like sex? Is that a crime? I go into the double standard and tell the old war stories about raped women needing witnesses and being blamed or disbelieved. Nothing works. Nobody joins in. Several have written papers about how the new, modern working girl has lost her maternal softness, her preciousness and appeal. Implicit in all this is an indictment of female freedom. Their wives and girlfriends are outside while they are immured here. The women they praise, often poetically, are their endlessly self-sacrificing mothers.

Feminist that I am, I don’t know what to do with this great weight of the group’s shared experience and opinion. Lamar has a look on his face I’ve come to know. He is adamant and tremendously strong. I retire from the field, and the class about abortion is over.

The next week I get an unexpected helping hand from the film Iron Jawed Angels. Hilary Swank plays Alice Paul, the suffragette who led the militants to victory with marches, pickets of the White House, and here graphically depicted prison hunger strikes. It’s a galvanizing piece of feminist propaganda, historically faithful as far as public events go. The fact that women only got the vote in 1920, decades after black men, turns out to be new information. Now that we’ve moved off sex, that most ragged part of the self, suddenly the class is full of eager students asking questions about the history of the women’s movement, really curious about this struggle that they are learning today has been going on for more than a hundred and fifty years. They ask for more and more detail. What’s the women’s movement like now? What’s their problem, now that they have the vote? Disarmed and delighted by the energy they are bringing to these questions so central to my own life, I do what I have sworn not to do: I come out as a feminist, and what’s more, as a feminist activist. Pandemonium! Phillip is accusatory. “Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you teach us about this stuff?” But he is fast; a knowing look spreads over his face. “Oh, you have been teaching us about this stuff.”

My cover blown, I wonder what difference it will make to the aftermath. Will what sticks in their memories be altered by this new knowledge that I have been a feminist mole in the classroom? Of course I will never know. I must think about whether or not to make this admission when, as I’ve already decided, I teach here again.

The last class and the last film: Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how Liberian women surrounded their Parliament building and wouldn’t let the all-male negotiators out, or any food in, until both sides agreed to sign a peace treaty to end Liberia’s long civil war. Women heroes this time, and again radical, righteous law-breakers. Does heroism look different when women do it? There’s no violence, and the victory belongs to a collective.

But none of these thoughts gets much play; this is the last class and the main thing on my mind is the pain of separation. I’m feeling it acutely, and I’m guessing maybe they do, too. I ask them about what they’ll take away from all this, and of course this is the awful, teacherly kind of question no one can answer. But we’re relaxed, chummy, a band that has been through a lot together.

I recount my dream of the night before. The whole class was in the dream; I gave them lots to eat, something that is absolutely forbidden (“Can I bring in popcorn for the movies?” “Of course not!”); and then I left them, coming back too late to have a discussion. It was a nightmare about bad teaching and bad timing. “No,” cries Jonno, “You were giving us food for thought.” I’m so delighted at this reparative interpretation of my bad dream. (Once Jonno said the class was like Ethiopia. I drew a blank, then took a leap: “Do you mean ‘Utopia’?” Indeed, that was it.)

Elijah the Silent nods vigorously. Most of the few remarks he has made during the semester have been about numerology and apocryphal biblical texts. His belt is incised with occult symbols and mystical numbers, and he has corrected me several times about biblical references in the stories we’ve read. He’s a scholar and, like me, he has a complex belief system that shapes his life. Looking at him fondly, I realize how much I myself have changed. Now all belief systems run together; they are what get you through the night. Belief in feminism, belief in Christ, belief in the sacredness of women (Clayton says they are as pure and perfect as water) and in women’s perfidy, private moral systems and dreams of renewal, conversion, redemption—all this is both invented and utterly real. I see our lives through a reverse telescope, hear a distant echo of the words we’ve said, the fights we’ve had. A dizziness comes over me from being so connected to the mental life of others.


I hand out two sets of anonymous evaluations, my private questions and the college’s multiple choice. Later, when I read them, of course I’m gratified. Though they’ve made some helpful suggestions I plan to follow in the future, there’s not a single negative response. They learned; they enjoyed; they felt heard; they really expressed themselves. Phillip has chosen to sign his form; he wants me to know this is him: “For three and a half hours every week, it was like not being in prison.”

Since this is exactly what I most want to hear, all this praise backs up on me. They are more dependent on my goodwill than any students I’ve ever had. Phillip is particularly brilliant at the art of pleasing. Early in the course he praised one of the other teachers, a young artist I also like and admire. Then a worried look crossed his face. “But of course your class is the best.” I didn’t want him to have to say this, but he felt he had to. Being seen as good is the currency here. These students have been handpicked; they are good at being good. I wish I could signal to them that I don’t require this much compliance, but perhaps—certainly since the Carl incident—they assume I do. And maybe they are partly right. During my one visit to the Criminal Mind class, I saw inmates so angry and depressed they could barely speak. So far I have no idea how I would teach such openly unwilling students.

My class has been very different. They are good strategists in a bad situation, bearing up under the stream of insult that is prison life. How earnestly I admire these men—their struggles, their patience, their solutions. Somehow, after years and years, they have kept themselves alive.


As the last class ends, they remind me that in three weeks there’s to be a graduation ceremony. Everyone who has earned a high-school equivalency degree or successfully completed a college class is to be honored in front of family and friends. The college hires a car and takes a bunch of us teachers out. The gate is as horrific as ever, and this time there’s a crowd of visitors to witness the usual scouring of my purse.

We file into a big, bright common room and sit at tables. Everyone is dressed up and looks great. After a long wait, to which the people in this room are inured, the graduates file in to a swelling recording (amazing!) of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The twenty-five high school graduates, who seem to be mostly in their twenties and thirties, are wearing bright red gowns with tasseled mortar boards to match, and our students, the college group, are elegantly dressed in bright colors or in white shirts and ties. The drab green they are always required to wear is gone for today (“Green’s not my color,” Jonno once remarked sadly).

We teachers are jumping around, straining to find our guys and waving. We get smiles and nods back, but everyone is very serious. There are speeches, of course, including a nice one from the deputy about how hard it is to study consistently in a prison environment and what an achievement this is.

When it’s over, to our surprise, a rather good meal is served, and it seems the rules about touching are suspended. We get to hug everybody. Carl, giving me his watchful eye, introduces me to a pretty wife. I meet Rodney’s wife and mother. I congratulate a mother who screamed when her son’s name was called and his tassel moved from right to left, “That’s my son!” The deputy turns out to play vibes, and several musicians join him. “No alcohol?” I twit him. “Of course not.” It’s a happy room.

I end up sitting at a table with Tyrone, who has written his first poem for the course (a fine outpouring, “Am I a man?”). We’re both high on the day, and he thanks me for the course, tells me he loved it. I can’t resist the promptings of my usual bad angel: “But Tyrone, do you think you learned anything?” His reaction is an important experience, a missing piece in my puzzle. He is clearly insulted. It is as if I’d slapped him. To doubt that the class is of lasting value is to doubt him. I hasten to apologize; we hug.

A few years ago, one of the associate deans at the college went to a retreat and came home with a plan to do “outcome studies.” The whole world was questioning the value (particularly monetary) of a liberal education (“Express Yourself,” indeed!) and we were to respond to these doubts, find quantifiable ways to measure learning—and more ominously, failure to learn. I don’t know how to prove that these prisoners have learned something useful and enduring. Though I think that each week was momentous, revelatory, this is a common teacher’s delusion. Sit in the back of your own classroom sometime—as I have—and discover how far away the teacher and her enthusiasms can be.

But Tyrone was so sure it had all made a difference. On the evaluations they mentioned bits of new knowledge—several described with enthusiasm those militant suffragists—and said that, yes, they had explored new ideas and learned how to look critically at movies. Perhaps it was defensiveness before my sophisticated friends with their charges of adventure tourism that created a divide I could not easily close: Foucault’s take on prisons has long been my own—but that’s no reason to insult Tyrone.

The Debate

In the course of the semester, the college debate team met the prison debate team. Harry is one of the stars of the prison team, which has never been defeated. Resolved: “The government should not finance higher education in prisons.” The poor college students were stuck with the affirmative. What to do? They would never argue, as the Bush administration argued, that prisoners are supposed to suffer. No perks for miscreants. These are well-educated, liberal college students, the critics of morally compromised enlightenment institutions like prisons. So they tried to argue that the education offered in prisons is tainted by the system, corrupt, and ultimately misleading. You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and so on. No school in prison means no indoctrination, no conformity, freedom from the man.

The prisoners were amused. (Harry thought they were misquoting Foucault.) They wiped the floor with the college team. It wasn’t just that the numbers are powerful—education cuts recidivism in half—but the inmates went well beyond claims that a prison education would make them into docile good boys who won’t endanger anyone or return to prison. They wanted to be citizens, to join the debates of their times. Their rebellions so far had been forms of alienation. Now they wanted in. The system might be bad—all those prison-like, failing schools in black neighborhoods—but they wanted to be players, to have what the college students have—critique, Internet, and all.

AT GRADUATION, I miss Jonno. I ask around. “Yeah,” says Rodney with his usual playful derision, “Where’s your favorite?” (I thought I had hidden this well, but observant students know.) I tell him that by the end of the class he, Rodney, had become one of my favorites, too—the simple truth—and he seems to believe me for once. He tells me that Jonno, who was in for twenty-five years, has been released (joy!)—but was instantly deported to his native Ecuador. He had been an illegal alien all those years inside. Now, he had paid his dues, but freedom meant instant exile. I try to picture Jonno, whose parents have died, being suddenly landed “home” after twenty-five years of both toughness and intense inner struggle. His high spirits and vociferous arguments linger. I send him a mental message for travelers: however hard this is, may new happiness overcome regret.

Postscript: All names have been changed. As Dissent goes to press, Carl has gotten into a fight and, just before his parole date, has been sent back to maximum security upstate. Marcus, too, has been in solitary and is once more in a maximum-security prison. Harry, Tyrone, and Clayton have, as people say at the prison, “gone home.” Elijah has been very ill but is slowly putting himself together again with a possible release in 2013. Lamar, Rodney, Phillip, and David—who is now out to everyone—are flourishing in the college program, studying philosophy, literature, feminist theory, and, as they report, “critiquing everything.” The college, short of funds, is considering closing the program.

Ann Snitow is director of Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, and has worked as a feminist activist in East Central Europe since 1991.