Emory Report
May 4, 2009
Volume 61, Number 30


Emory Report homepage  

May 4
, 2009
Connecting across the bars at Sing Sing

Stacy Bell is a lecturer in English at Oxford College.

Julio Medina met me in front of the Fordham Road train station at 8 a.m. on a cold, clear January morning. I arrived by train from midtown Manhattan in time to observe the waking Bronx neighborhood. Every face was brown; every body was in motion. The streets were lined with bodegas and take-out places; a Caribbean woman was selling newspapers on the corner. The contrast to the bright chrome glitter and enigmatic lure of luxury goods in the shops along Fifth Avenue couldn’t have been more distinct. I felt conspicuous, a blond woman in a pink jacket, but privileged, middle class white people overestimate the fascination we hold for the working masses going about their business.

Julio said that people don’t pay much attention to the Bronx. No one expects good news from it; Manhattanites don’t pass through it unless they’re going to a Yankees game or running the New York marathon. If I stood out in some way that morning, it was not in any way that held fascination or expectation for anyone accustomed to living at once so close to and so far from one of the densest concentrations of wealth in the world. I was just a tourist in one of the many communities that feed our nation’s prison system.

Julio pointed to his old housing project, the corners he ran as a drug dealer, where success for kids like him had meant nice cars and clothes and street status. “I didn’t see my dad leaving home in a suit for the office,” he said. “Nobody saw that. We saw the guys driving the nice cars and we knew they were the drug dealers who made all the money.”

Julio drove me out of the Bronx through the scenic Hudson Valley — another contrast — to Ossining, to meet a class at Sing Sing, one of the nation’s oldest, most famous and most notorious prisons. New York Theological Seminary offers a Master’s of Divinity degree here; the program is special because classes take place inside the prison, rather than through distance learning.

Educational programs for incarcerated men and women have been disappearing from prisons for decades as a result of funding cutbacks and increasingly punitive attitudes toward lawbreakers. The program is competitive — 16 men out of a population of 1,800 inmates can enroll. Three hundred men have graduated from the program, and the recidivism rate among this group is 8 percent, well below the national average of more than 60 percent.

Julio knows how important this program is. He served 11 years in New York state prisons. He was a major player in the Bronx drug trade in the mid-80s, a coke dealer who became a kingpin when street notoriety was just beginning to open doors to the entertainment industry and “gangsters” evaded prison sentences by cutting record deals. They were role models; their stories are apocryphal.

“Gangsta rap really killed the message in hip hop,” one of the inmates told me later that morning. “These young kids today don’t know it was a social and political movement.”

But Julio wasn’t a rapper. He went to prison. He lobbied for a transfer downstate to dangerous Sing Sing to earn the degree. Once released, he was stuck. Julio reflected on the obstacles he encountered as a new graduate — and ex-con.

“If I couldn’t make it with a master’s degree, what was happening to all those other guys?” He founded Exodus Transitional Community, a 501c3 organization that offers transitional assistance to men and woman after release from prison. His staff serves 500 former inmates each year. He occasionally guest lectures in the NYTS classes.

Julio warned me about my visit. “The inmates might be suspicious of you,” he said. “They know that for most people a visit to Sing Sing is a trip to the zoo.”

Such visits are relatively rare, because journalists and other “outsiders” have a hard time getting clearance. Julio’s frank advice cut to the heart of my desire to make this trip. My English 101 students were going to read Ted Conover’s book “Newjack” about his “under cover” experience as a Sing Sing guard. I use texts that address socioeconomic inequality.

Recently I have considered pursuing a career-long dream: teaching my students in collaboration with inmates in a correctional facility. But can people like us be taken seriously by people like them? What kind of people are we, my students and I? And what sort of people are inmates?

The 12 men in class that morning introduced themselves to me. Some had committed murder, some had sold drugs, some had been incarcerated for half their lives, some were estranged from their families, some were pursuing a degree with no chance of using it on the outside. One man, Billy, thanked me for coming and said, without sentimentality, “Your presence here makes us feel more alive.”

Carlos, in Sing Sing for first degree murder, said, “You mention the challenge of making privileged university students care about the experiences of incarcerated people; but what do you mean by privilege?” Several of the men insisted that my students are one drunk driving accident away from time behind bars. They emphasized the role that chance plays in determining an individual’s future. More than one man insisted that he was in prison because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They had many suggestions for helping students connect. One recommended students examine the prison-industrial complex and the structural conditions that lead to a disproportionate number of men and women of color in prison. Another insisted that part of the education process should include taking students into the communities of people who fill our prisons. A third suggested finding out students’ beliefs about crime and incarceration and then having them write the opposite position.

I came away from this class with new ideas for the classroom. Certainly I felt energized and optimistic. But Billy made a final cautionary observation. “Parents send these kids to school to find themselves,” he said, “but you can’t find yourself living off of somebody else.” He is right. The chasm that divides our classrooms from prisons is wide. The contrast is as sharp as the distinction between a Bronx bodega and a Fifth Avenue boutique.

The Sing Sing students were articulate, focused and engaged. They made me feel alive. They helped me appreciate anew teaching and its endless opportunities for engagement, reflection, and passionate discourse. I want to recreate that Sing Sing experience — honest, open and real — in my own classroom.