VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Mule Creek Residents Create Neighbors

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By Jesse Carson

This spring several professors from the Los Rios Community College district gathered at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione for a three-session workshop on the topic of teaching to incarcerated students. The instructors came from Sacramento City and Folsom Lake Colleges for three hours every other Friday afternoon to participate in the Creating Neighbors project, where they discussed cultural humility, recognizing and challenging stereotypes and developing a more person-centered approach to prison education. What makes this workshop particularly unique is that it was developed and presented by residents of the prison themselves.

Jerry King, Angelo Ward, and Ezakiel Johnson are students of Folsom Lake College and interns in the school’s social work program. As part of the internship, they were required to develop and implement a project that filled a need for residents of the yard. Over the course of two semesters, the three conducted surveys and interviews to identify a need and then research and brainstorm the best way to meet that need. What they came up with was Creating Neighbors. The workshops were co-facilitated by Alex Baeza, a former intern and current internship students Chris Purtill and Jacob Robles.

“Our hope was to be able to increase incarcerated student involvement and raise educator’s awareness of incarcerated students’ unique experiences,” says King. “Ultimately resulting in improved faculty training outcomes and improved prison education environments.”

Eleven professors completed the workshops, which included presentations, small group discussions and homework assignments. “The whole concept was valuable,” said Professor Rachel Spangler, who has taught English at Folsom Lake and Sacramento City for almost 20 years. “The program is really beneficial as a new teacher,” agreed Social Worker/Human Services co-professor Carolin Gardner, who is new to prison education. She added that a lot of value came from collaborating with the more experienced teachers. Gardner was not alone in being a first-time prison educator, but they were joined by professors with over a decade of carceral experience. Math professor Sandy McKay, who retired after 34 years but continues to teach part-time, is just beginning as a prison educator, shared, “I’m thrilled at what we are walking away with.” “In-prison college has been my best teaching experience so far,” shared math professor Karsten Stemmann, who taught at Folsom State Prison for 14 years. “Anything I can learn would be helpful.”

During the first workshop, participants were asked to consider the cultural humility they bring with them to the prison classroom. “How much do you believe you know about prison culture?” asked the facilitators, “and where have you gotten your understanding of prison culture?”

“I’ve learned that I have a lot more to learn,” said Social Worker/Human Services professor Teresa Duran, who has worked with Folsom Lake College and Mule Creek State Prison for six years. This sentiment was echoed by English professor Laura Torres Newey, who is teaching her first semester at Mule Creek. “I have a baseline understanding of the culture, but I especially needed to learn about educational trauma,” she added, referring to traumatic experiences many students have in educational settings.

The second workshop focused on learning styles and motivations for teaching in prison. “There is a lot of inequality in our society, which I hope we can make small steps to address. A big motivator is giving students the tools to avoid their past environment,” said business professor Scott Faulds, who has taught with Folsom Lake for 13 years (seven of which are at Folsom Lake Prison). “I just hope I can help and make a small contribution.” Discussing power dynamics in the classroom, Torres Newey stated that she tries to create a positive environment; “I’m an opportunity giver, not an authority figure,” she smiled.

Some instructors themselves gave presentations during the final workshop. It began with a series of role-plays by business professors Scott Faulds, Tony D. Gaetano, and Dr. Elizabeth Sherrell-Davis. The three enacted various scenarios in which they pretended to mentor teachers new to prison education, answering their questions and providing insight into the experience. They concluded with the advice to continue to be open-minded and empowering educators, mindful of the need to reevaluate their curricula and their approach to students. Spangler also shared the “contract grading” system she uses, in which all assignments are graded pass or fail and one’s grade is tied to the number of assignments turned in. She noted that the system reduces anxiety in students and encourages more risk-taking creativity, calling it “empowering and motivating.” Professor Zen Du has been teaching art at Folsom Lake for six years, three of which were at Mule Creek. While sharing the coloring books compiled of art from every semester she taught at the prison, she spoke about the miracle of personal transformation that an education can bring. “If you can not see yourself from the outside,” she said, “you strip yourself of all purpose.”

The workshop concluded with a discussion about how to improve Creating Neighbors. Suggestions ranged from obtaining feedback from new students to addressing stereotypes about professors. A spirited discussion arose on the topic of physical contact—handshakes or fistbumps—with students, with some facilitators maintaining that it encourages humanization of the incarcerated and some professors believing that students could receive a disciplinary write up for it. This debate led to a final suggestion, agreed to by all in attendance: having someone from the prison administration in attendance. “We need a forum to be able to talk about things we can’t talk about anywhere else,” said Spangler, but in the end it would have been helpful to get the feedback from the prison. It also would have demonstrated what Dr. Kalinda Jone—who oversees the internship program at Mule Creek—referred to as “buy-in,” showing the students and faculty that the prison is interested in advancing college education.

“I believe that programs like this provide promise for the future of prison ed[ducation] and incarcerated students,” says King. “We’re paving the way for the creation of tomorrow’s successful neighbors.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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