Prison class works with inmates

This 2013-14 school year marks the sixth year that Vassar students, along with Professor of Political Science Mary Shanley and Professor of Sociology Eileen Leonard, make the trip once a week to the Taconic Women’s Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills. There, Leonard and Shanley, teach “Gender, Social Problems and Social Change,” an introductory level sociology course which covers topics from racism and the Civil Rights Movement to homophobia and the Gay Rights Movement. Last year, Associate Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of English Eve Dunbar teamed with Professor Shanley to teach “Families, Law and Social Policy”.

“The course is made possible by a collaboration between Vassar and Hudson Link, a private organization that administers college programs in a number of correctional facilities in the  Mid-Hudson Valley, providing essential organizational and material support,” Shanley said in an emailed statement,

The idea for this course was inspired in part by a similar course taught by Professor of Religion and Africana Studies Lawrence Mamiya for the past thirty years at Green Haven and later the Ottisville Men’s Correctional Facility.

“It was just clear that, not only that he was doing good work, but I kept hearing repeatedly from students that this course changed their lives,” Leonard said. From there, Leonard and Shanley heard about and became involved with a program called Inside-Out that works for social change.

The start of their work at Taconic marked the first Inside-Out program in New York State. Leonard explained,  “It’s not just the Vassar students getting credit: the women at Taconic are taking a Vassar course and they are getting credit for it, which is really terrific on Vassar’s part, that Vassar opens up its courses to them.”

“The real message that we want to get across as social scientists talking about social problems,” Leonard said, “is that social problems are not just individual issues, but they’re caused to a large extent by social conditions.”

“So with every social problem we deal with we pair it with a social movement to show people pushing back and organizing it and trying to deal with these very severe problems,” she said.

Despite the setting, the classroom is set up like any other Vassar course. There are a total of 23 students: 13 women from the facility and ten Vassar students.

The class is discussion based, so the students sit in a circle and, Leonard said, “We have them sit every other: a Vassar student, a Taconic student, a Vassar student, a Taconic student so we’re mixing it up all the time.” Just as in any Vassar class, along with the reading there are presentations, written responses, and class discussions. They even break down into smaller groups of four—two Vassar students and two Taconic students, to make sure everyone gets to have a say.

The class consists of a variety of Vassar students as well as a wide mix of levels of education from the Taconic women.

“For some of them its their first college class they’ve ever taken, and some of them even just got a GED not a regular high school diploma,” Leonard said. Leonard continued, “Others times we’ve had women  at Taconic who have graduated from college and then wound up at Taconic.”

According to Leonard, the Taconic women do not just appreciate the course, they like taking the course alongside Vassar students, just as the professors enjoy teaching it.

“And part of that was finding the prison, and then the second thing was going through getting it approved by the state and then having Vassar approve it.” Vassar was very supportive throughout the process, as Leonard pointed out that “[Vassar] really thought it was a good idea and could see very clearly how everyone would benefit from it.”

“It’s something I’d be happy to do for the rest of my life,” said Leonard. “Both Molly and I are hoping that other faculty will also pick it up.”

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