Sunday, October 24, 2021

States of Incarceration informs about education in prisons

How can higher education redefine mass incarceration in New York’s North Country? This question occupied the minds of Breea Willingham and a class of 14 Plattsburgh State students for 15 weeks as they conducted research is now on display in the Burke Gallery of the Meyer’s Fine Arts Building.

States of Incarceration is a project created by the Humanities Action Lab, a coalition of universities that collaborate to produce projects that address urgent social issues. Over 800 students at universities in 18 states have contributed to this exhibit.
In the fall of 2018, Willingham taught a special topics criminal justice course on higher education in prison. She chose the topic because it is one of her areas of research and no other partner had chosen it.

Gabrielle Elsbree a 2018 PSU graduate who majored in psychology and minored in criminal justice was one of the students to take the class.

“I already had a lot of background looking into and researching the prison system and how it affects different populations,” Elsbree said, “but I had never really focused on education in prison, so I never really recognized the nuances to it.”

Elsbree now works for the Alliance for Positive Health teaching in prisons.

“I felt really passionate about implementing programs whether they were academic-based or just skills like trades, I felt like they were a really positive thing,” Elsbree said. “I feel like going through that class really strengthened that opinion.”

The class had about a dozen guest speakers in person and via skype, allowing the students to conduct discussion based interviews. All of the speakers had either taken classes while incarcerated or taught in prison programs across New York State.

Each panel in the exhibit includes the school’s name, their state, their question and an abstract.

“They essentially had to take 15 weeks of information and boil it down to a 150 word abstract,” Willingham said. “I broke them into groups, each group had to write an abstract, and we took the best parts from each one. Then I massaged it and cleaned it up.”
Some schools included interactive components such as a video or audio.

On the far right wall of the exhibit is a wall that reads “How close are you to incarceration?” Below the sign is a roll of small round stickers and instructions to place the sticker under whichever banner applies to them.

The categories were “I’ve been incarcerated/ I’ve worked with law enforcement or corrections,” “I know someone who has been arrested or incarcerated/ I know someone who has worked in law enforcement or corrections,” “I fear arrest or incarceration/ I fear crime,” “I’ve been suspected of crimes I didn’t commit” and “I’ve broken the law and not been caught.”

There were also labels for anyone who wanted to share their story. One read, “I am ashamed of our prison system.” Another said, “People, no, white people assume I do not know what I am doing because I am tan.”

The exhibit cost $6,000, which was provided by the Plattsburgh College Foundation, a non-profit corporation that receives and manages all private gifts to Plattsburgh State.

“Anyone who’s looking at contemporary political issues know that incarceration is a big part of the fabric of our country,” museum director Tonya Cribb said. “There’s a lot of opinions about that and this exhibit addresses a lot of various aspects of that.”

Willingham hopes the exhibit educates people and dispels the stereotypes around prisons and the people in them.

“Colleges are presumably about educating people and so this is just another way of educating people another way to bring the campus community together in a way and teach each other at the same time,” Willingham said. “It’s a prison town and a college town, so what better way than to, in a way, merge those two worlds.”

The exhibit will be on display until March 13. It is free and open to the public.

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