Community service

Confronting Race in Community Service Learning Behind Bars

Newswise – A growing number of service-learning courses are bringing students into jails and prisons, crossing what Alexander (2010) might call the new Jim Crow color line created by mass incarceration. Many of these courses are part of the innovative Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, which brings together internal and external students in a shared university classroom. Drawing on ethnographic observations, interviews, and 8 years of experience teaching Inside-Out courses, this article explores how students construct racial identities and understand racial hierarchies as they work together behind the bars. Race is the elephant in the US prison room, so teachers must develop new strategies to support our students in the complex emotional and intellectual work of making sense of race. This requires understanding the diversity of racialized experiences of our students, fending off the temptations of color blindness, and developing new ways to practice relationship building and social solidarity.

One day, 15 students were entering a juvenile hall in Southern California to participate in an Inside-Out shared class with 15 incarcerated students when two guards approached the group and singled out Anthony, one of only two black students. male in our class. . He had left his ID at home, as had a white woman, Joan. The guards completely ignored her but asked Anthony a series of probing questions. Once convinced that he was a student, they asked him to dress differently so that he would be easier to distinguish from the incarcerated minors. This moment made visible the unconscious racial and gender stereotypes that permeate (and shape) the American prison system and have deeply infiltrated our schools and communities in ways that fundamentally shape the life chances of young people (Eberhardt et al. ., 2004; NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 2006). Probation staff apparently assumed that a white woman was a legitimate college volunteer, but that a black student, dressed that day in a clean white t-shirt and jeans, looked disconcertingly like a young prisoner. As we were leaving, Anthony sarcastically commented, “the darkest in the class. It’s just what we learn.

Students, like Anthony and Joan, were going through what Alexander (2010) might call the new Jim Crow color scheme created by mass incarceration. In a deeply embodied way, they were forced to confront clear evidence that we do not live in a post-racial society through our Inside-Out class. With each class, outside students left our predominantly white campus to join our incarcerated classmates, who were almost all young black and Latino men. But Joan and Anthony (and the rest of their classmates) didn’t experience the racial contours of our Inside-Out classrooms in the same way. They came across very different racial, class, and gender stereotypes as they worked together on the inside; they noticed different things; and they struggled to understand how race and racism mattered in the criminal justice system and in their own lives.

A growing number of community service-learning courses are bringing students into jails and prisons, crossing some of the sharpest racial and class divides in the United States.[1] Many of these courses, like mine, are part of the innovative Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, founded by Lori Pompa at Temple University, in which internal and external students meet as equals in a shared university classroom. . There are now more than 150 universities offering Inside-Out courses as well as a growing number of other community service-learning opportunities behind bars. As these classes grow, we need to take a closer look at how our students experience and think about race from within the criminal justice system. Race is not the only social identity or form of structural inequality that students face when working together indoors. Race operates in complex intersections with gender, class, sexuality and disability to shape our criminal justice system. But race is so deeply intertwined with our criminal justice system and our ideas about crime and punishment that it is often the elephant in the room and therefore deserves special attention.

Scholars such as Wacquant (2010) and Alexander (2010) have argued that the criminal justice system is one of the central race-making institutions in the post-civil rights era, shaping the boundaries and meaning of racial categories . The racializing power of the criminal justice system means that faculty and students come to community service learning behind bars with stereotypes, expectations, and emotions that are deeply shaped by prior racialized experiences. It also means that we actively construct our own racial identities in and through our Inside-Out classrooms. These classes become a vital space where internal and external students explore the importance of race in America. Indeed, I will argue that many outside students come to these Inside-Out classrooms exactly because they seek to confront, understand, and sometimes even transcend the ways in which race structures American society and constrains our lives. It is therefore imperative that we think clearly about how we can support all of our students (inside and out) through the complex intellectual, political, emotional and personal work of making sense of race.

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Author/expert: Jennifer Tilton is Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Redlands, California. Her teaching and research focus on youth, race, space, and the criminal justice system. For the past 12 years, she has engaged her students in community learning opportunities in both the juvenile justice system, community alternatives to incarceration, and criminal justice rehabilitation advocacy. She also collaborates with students, scholars, and community organizations to develop new ways to map, archive, and teach a more diverse history of the Southern California interior.