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Northwestern professors teach inmates at Stateville

Guest lecturer helps prisoners write stories published on The New Yorker website

EVANSTON - A course on mass incarceration, taught by a Northwestern University professor to inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, has turned into an unlikely literary launch pad for the students whose stories were published online by The New Yorker

The 15 inmates were taking a class from Jennifer Lackey, the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy and director of Graduate Studies in the 
Department of Philosophy in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, at the prison in Joliet, Illinois. 

One of Lackey’s guest speakers, author Alex Kotlowitz, gave the inmates an exercise and asked them to write about their cells. Kotlowitz, senior lecturer in journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, was so impressed by the results, he worked with the inmates to edit and polish their stories. Then Kotlowitz helped the prisoners get their work published by the national magazine’s website.

In the series, “My Prison Cell,” the inmate storytelling ranges from Demetrius Cunningham’s description of the cardboard pianos he created to practice music in his cell to Marcos Gray’s analysis of his reclusive habits and how they have stayed with him in prison.

Read Cunningham’s piece on “Learning to Hear on a Cardboard Piano,” and Gray’s story on “The Refuge of a Recluse.” Read the other stories in the series on The New Yorker website: “A War Against the Roaches” by Oscar Parham, “A Visit from an Outsider” by James Trent and “A Place Kept Compulsively Clean” by Ramon Delgado.

“Jennifer began teaching this course last year and asked if I'd come in to teach a class on storytelling,” said Kotlowitz, who also serves as a writer-in-residence at Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts. “I was so taken by the short in-class writing assignment that I worked with her students over the next six months on these stories. They're extraordinary pieces about everyday prison life.

“The stories will also be done for radio,” he added. “WBEZ is planning to hire actors to read them on air.  Jennifer is doing such amazing work. Her guests to the class included Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, two state senators, attorneys from Northwestern's Legal Clinic and Northwestern professors Mary Patillo and Wendy Wall.  I was thrilled to be invited to the class, and to be able to partner with Jennifer and her students.”

Lackey, whose teaching is supported by Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, explained how she became interested in teaching the class. “I’ve had a longstanding interest in prison education in large part because of the transformative impact it can have on the lives of the prisoners, both individually and collectively,” she said. “I reached out to Stateville to offer to teach the first class I offered at the prison, which was an ethics course. The second course, on mass incarceration, is the one that Alex visited, and it emerged because the students at Stateville expressed great interest in examining the causes and impact of incarceration in the United States, including their own.”

The syllabus for the course on mass incarceration describes it as follows: “In this interdisciplinary course, we will examine key issues related to mass incarceration, such as its history, causes, consequences and impact. Each week will involve lectures from different outside speakers, including sociologists, political scientists, historians, philosophers, attorneys, medical professionals and government officials.”

The students are all men, and all of them are serving long sentences, mostly for violent crimes, Kotlowitz observed in short introductions to the stories published on The New Yorker website. “Some will be at Stateville until they die,” he wrote.

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