OPINION: Justice education should be a norm, not an anomaly

A male inmate and male college student sit together in class discussion
Swarthmore College’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. (Courtesy: Laurence Kesterson)

In my junior year of high school we moved to a new building. The running joke was that we were now down the street from the prison, or more specifically, a branch of the United States Penitentiaries. It was then that I first became consciously aware that my hometown in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had a high-security federal prison. Considering I have lived here since I was less than a year old, it struck me as odd that I wasn’t aware of the existence of such a significant institution in my small town. To give some context of how tiny of a community we are, the governing borough of Lewisburg has a population slightly smaller than the undergraduate student body at the Claremont Colleges and covers a similar square mile of land.

In fact, I recently discovered that Pennsylvania has the highest number of federal penitentiaries, tied with California at three institutions. Despite the fact that the Lewisburg penitentiary is visible from the local high school where every student is required to take “American Citizenship” and learn about the local community, the prison is most definitely not in the public consciousness — it is hidden in plain sight. For a town that prides itself on being an inclusive community, knowledge about our own local prison is sorely lacking.

It wasn’t until I came to Pomona College that I had my first academic exposure to the criminal justice system. I had the privilege of taking a justice education course with Sue Castagnetto called “Gender, Crime and Punishment,” which examined “issues of crime and punishment focusing on gender, race and class.” I heard about the class through a friend, and I decided to take the plunge and jump right in. After all, there’s no place like a liberal arts college to safely explore new interests in a supportive environment.

I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but the course was actually part of the wider Justice Education Initiative at the Claremont Colleges. This spring, each of the undergraduate colleges offered a course geared toward first-year and second-year students with the aim of forming a wider learning community on criminal justice issues. A long-term goal of the initiative is to establish a justice education academic program, such as a Justice Studies major or minor. 

Funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Justice Education Initiative is also able to invite numerous community organizers and formerly incarcerated folx not only to auditoriums in the consortium but also to our classrooms. I’m not alone when I say that one of my favorite parts of the class was the guest speakers. 

Through this class, 19 other Pomona students and I also had the chance to participate in a writing workshop with the women at a local prison, the California Institute for Women, which is one of the Justice Education Initiative’s several community partners. I found this to be the most important part of the course. With any social justice issue, building authentic relationships with the communities that you are serving is critical to counteracting performative activism and our savior complexes. How well do we know our own neighbors from the California Institute for Women, the California Institute for Men and the California Rehabilitation Center?

“What I liked particularly about the courses that we took, I think is that you had that component of being able to physically go in the prison and have those conversations with the people that have had the experiences,” said Sophia Rose CM ’22, who took Derik Smith’s “American Prison Texts.” 

For many students in the class, including myself, it was our first time coming face-to-face with an incarcerated person. Developing relationships with these women, even if it was short-lived due to the pandemic, and just listening to those most affected by the prison-industrial complex helped break down those barriers created by the inaccurate and often harmful narratives fed to us by the news, popular media and other institutions. I went almost two decades without even a rudimentary understanding of prison issues. Considering the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated individuals and the suppression of their voices, this kind of justice education is absolutely imperative in the fight for their human rights.

In addition to providing education around the criminal justice system, the Justice Education Initiative also mobilizes interested students around the colleges through these learning communities. Having a group of students committed to learning more about prison issues and taking action facilitates growing momentum around the goals of the initiative.

“That allowed us to really shape a class that we felt was actually going to create change in some way,” said Abby Pugh SC ’23, who took Thomas Kim’s “Ending Mass Incarceration.”

This past summer, nine students from the original cohort of justice education classes interned with the Justice Education Initiative to further develop and promote this relatively new initiative. Along with starting social media channels to publicize the initiative, interns fostered relationships within the 7C community as well as with organizations in the Inland Empire such as Riverside All of Us or None, Starting Over, Inc. and Success Stories. We also had the chance to pursue our own personal projects.

After spending nearly half of a year back in my hometown, my mind immediately turned to learning more about the Lewisburg prison. After all the experiences that I had in Claremont, I couldn’t help but think about where those opportunities were in my local community.

I ended up connecting with an old teammate’s dad who was on the board of the Lewisburg Prison Project and a former professor to learn more about what organizations are doing prison advocacy work in central Pennsylvania and how the Lewisburg penitentiary fits into the context of the community. I also reached out to my high school government teacher in an effort to organize at least a day of justice education in school. While I am grateful to have had these opportunities through the Justice Education Initiative, I find it absolutely unacceptable that in all my years of K-12 education, not once was the local prison brought up, despite the fact that it sits one mile away from the high school that almost every kid in Lewisburg is funnelled through. If your high school also does not incorporate justice education, I encourage you to leverage your relationship to your community and reach out to your school’s administration and teachers.

I do not claim to be any sort of expert on this subject matter, but what I do know is that the U.S. spends more than $80 billion in taxpayer dollars each year for the 2.3 million ensnared in our prison system. We’re all funding this system that apparently the majority of the people in my hometown know little to nothing about. However, it’s the residents in prison and their families, disproportionately people of color, who are most directly impacted by the system that pay the highest cost for this ignorance. It’s a privilege to be able to choose to engage in justice education. With these opportunities I’ve had, it’s more than time to bring justice education beyond the gates of the Claremont Colleges and start having conversations in all of our local communities. 

Chris Meng PO ’23 is from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Check out the Justice Education Initiative’s Instagram (@7c_justiceeducation) and website!

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