Philosophy professor holds ethics classes at maximum security prison

Catherine Kim, Reporter

CREST HILL — Robert Cloutier, 53, remembers when he was sentenced to death. “You have to kill him now,” he recalled prosecutors saying. “You don’t want him back out again.”

Twenty-seven years later, Cloutier sat with a group of inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, debating the merits of the death penalty, which was abolished in Illinois in 2011. He debated with another inmate, Marcos Ramirez, 39, arguing that while he did not oppose the death penalty on principle, he was not sure there was a way to ensure its fair implementation.

Despite their identical collared uniforms — and the correction officers guarding the doors outside — these inmates at an all-male maximum security prison became, for few hours at a time, students in Northwestern philosophy Prof. Jennifer Lackey’s ethics class.

For the past two years, Lackey has taught classes at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security state prison located in Crest Hill, Illinois, roughly 50 miles away from Northwestern’s campus. A small class size of roughly 15 inmates allows Lackey to conduct a seminar-like class for three hours. As her students sit in a circle of small desks, they talk about a wide range of ethical questions — from the death penalty to abortion rights — and how those issues affect their lives.

Lackey is working toward a Northwestern partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections to offer classes at Stateville, where each would be worth four credits and the students would ultimately earn Northwestern degrees.

“I never thought I’d be into philosophy,” said Paris Thomas, 32, a student in the class. “Now I’m trying to learn everything to better myself so when I go back to the streets, (I can) be successful.”

The classes are based on a freshman seminar class Lackey has taught at NU on values. Lackey said she has high expectations for her incarcerated students because she believes in their potential, she said, from prodding them to grapple with intense subject matters to handing out weekly writing assignments.

Telling their stories

For an 11-month collaborative project with Alex Kotlowitz, a writer and senior lecturer at Medill, her students wrote and edited short stories about their experiences in prison. Five of her students from last year even got their stories published in The New Yorker, Lackey said.

“I’ve written myself plenty, and I know there’s something incredibly reaffirming to write,” Kotlowitz said. “Especially (to) write about your own story and have people read it and respond to it.”

One story written by Demetrius Cunningham, 38, a student in Lackey’s class last year, is about an inmate building a cardboard piano to satisfy his passion for music. Cunningham’s story is supposed to show the lack of resources and limitations within a prison, he said, but more importantly shows how he found purpose in a life behind bars. His story was published in The New Yorker last December.

Lackey said one of the goals of the project was to help students make sense of their surroundings and express creativity in an otherwise constrictive setting. Cunningham’s story was a prime example, she said.

Cunningham has sinced moved to Pinckneyville Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

Since the publication of his short story, Cunningham’s piece has been read at Chicago’s Pop-Up Magazine, a “live-magazine” show held around the country. Kotlowitz read the piece along with a piano accompanist, with Cunningham’s parents watching in the audience.

Cunningham’s experience encapsulates Lackey’s longtime interest in education inside prisons. The classes provide a way for inmates to show their talents in an otherwise rigid setting.

“For some of these students, they have not had good news to share with their families,” Lackey said. “They’ve had no ways to convey who’ve they’ve become or how they’ve grown or how they’ve changed. And so to give them the tools to be able to tell their stories in a way, and to give them access, it’s been very powerful for them.”

A proven impact

Studies have shown that prison education is an important avenue for the growth of incarcerated people, she said. Lackey said many of her students feel it is important to them to understand the causes and consequences of their imprisonment, as well as mass incarceration generally.

“For many of them, there is this very pressing question: How did I end up here? How as a society did I end up here?” she said. “How did this become such another form of racial oppression?”

Because a majority of her students are people of color, she said a theme of her curriculum explores racial disparities in incarceration. According to the Bureau of Justice, 59 percent of all prisoners were black and Hispanic in 2015, even though approximately one quarter of the U.S. population identifies as such.

Lackey also added that education in prison can enhance a sense of community by providing the inmates something substantial to talk about in the assigned readings and topics discussed in class. It creates an environment where inmates can focus on mutual interests and inspire each other, she said.

She said her students are some of the most engaged she has had in 16 years of teaching. Demand for her classes are high: there is a long waitlist, and students run up against the courtyard fences, which she walks by to get to her classroom, asking to join her class.

Lackey’s student Patrick Pursley, 51, said the class inspires him amid the harsh realities of prison life.

“These classes are really good because they give me an outlet,” he said. “I have the weight of natural life and my children’s future on my shoulders. This place is starting to take its toll on me, so this class is an outlet for me.”

Tyrone Daniels, 45, who has been in solitary confinement for 22 years until about two years ago, said education has renewed his motivation. Daniels said his education makes it easier to face every new morning in prison.

Against the odds

At times, challenges unique to prison life make the classes difficult to administer. There have been times when Lackey has made the hour and a half trip from Evanston to Stateville only to face a prison on lockdown. Sometimes students are absent because they have been placed in quarantine. One of her students was moved to a different prison during the short story project with Kotlowitz and had to receive feedback over the phone.

Lackey’s student Tyrone Daniels said these obstacles have never stopped her from teaching with full dedication. Not once has she been late to her class since she has started teaching, despite the long drive.

“She’s a dynamic teacher and a strong woman,” Daniels said. “She’s someone I connect with (through) education.”

Kotlowitz said he admires Lackey because she holds true to her belief that prison education is necessary to ensure inmates will be ready for release back to their homes and communities.

Stateville’s relationship with Northwestern is starting to expand beyond Lackey’s class. Some inmates are currently trying to overturn their convictions through the Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Though nothing has been confirmed, Lackey said, she has been in talks with University administrators to launch a Northwestern degree program in the fall, in which inmates can take college credit courses from visiting professors.

The rehabilitative effects of giving education and degrees to inmates have already been proven, Lackey said. For example, the Bard Prison Initiative in New York, which has provided between 300 to 400 Bard College degrees over the past 15 years to prisoners, has less than a 2 percent recidivism rate. The power of education is absolutely transformative, she said.

But more important, inmates still have the right to higher education, she said, despite being in prison.

“(We’re) looking upon them as, first of all, citizens and as people and recognizing the overall transformative power of education,” Lackey said. “I think it has a very powerful impact on them.”

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