By Emily Glory Peters
What is it like to learn inside a prison? What do incarcerated students need to thrive?
Molly Yeselson ’23 has been documenting answers to these questions and more in her research as one of Scripps’ 2022–23 Racial Justice and Equity Fellows. Scripps recently featured Yeselson and her fellowship mentor Associate Professor of Writing Kimberly Drake in a webinar taking a closer look at their ambitious project: an open-source handbook to create a prison-based writing center run for incarcerated students, by incarcerated students.
“There are very few of these centers, and in those that exist, outside students or community members come in and tutor. We decided that was not for us,” explained Yeselson. “There are brilliant people inside who are more than capable of tutoring one another, so we had figure out how to make that work.”
The concept grew from the pair’s involvement in Inside-Out classes that are part of the Claremont Colleges’ Justice Education Initiative. Conceived by Temple University, the Inside-Out program brings traditional “outside” and incarcerated “inside” students together for credit-bearing courses. Drake has served as an Inside-Out faculty member for years, with Yeselson joining her classes on writing center tutoring for several semesters and continuing to work on the handbook, which was a class assignment for all of Drake’s Inside-Out courses.
The senior eventually suggested that the handbook project become a published book featuring the significant contributions of her inside peers and insights on writing from authors and prominent figures in education or criminal legal system. The first part of Yeselson’s fellowship project includes work from Drake’s six Inside-Out classes and those going forward.
“My inside peers don’t have access to a library or the internet and have to write everything by hand—so we had all these essays, poems, and thoughts scattered in random places. I was like, ‘I’m gonna lose my mind if we don’t organize this,’” Yeselson said.
To aid in her work, Scripps awarded Yeselson funding from its donor-powered Racial Justice and Equity Fellowship (RJE), which supports antiracist research and work with marginalized communities. Not finding software to fit her needs, Yeselson created her own database using tools in Google Drive, grouping content under themes like disability, race, and education; identifying concepts to expand; and working on revisions with authors.
“This is what I spent my summer doing,” she said of her progress. “Reading and archiving all the work of my peers!”
The mountain of handwritten material—even the cover art was designed by an inside peer on a scrap of cardboard, Yeselson said—represents just some of the challenges inside students face with their studies.
“Nothing is predictable in a prison,” Yeselson said, noting the differences between the resources available at a college versus a carceral setting. “Because physical movement is restricted, it’s not as if inside students can simply walk into our writing center whenever they please to get help with assignments. We’ve found that a lot of tutoring ends up occurring in the dorms or in the prison yard.”
The handbook accounts for these realities and poses helpful approaches for tutors.
“The first chapter of the book deals with idea of ‘literacy sponsors,’” said Drake, referencing a concept from her course on literacy. “Everyone has one, so the important questions are those like, ‘Who taught you to read? Were they understanding and affirmative? How does language exclude you from some circles? How have these experiences set a pattern for acquisition of other literacies in the future?’”
Exploring these themes is important for any writer, Drake continued, but essential for writing tutors in carceral spaces. While those spaces may be atypical, both Yeselson and Drake hope that the database Yeselson designed and the handbook will equip other institutions to support incarcerated people pursuing their academic ambitions.
“The inside students get out and take their work into the world—work that advocates for different approaches to literacy sponsorship, to dealing with people who have committed crimes,” Drake said. “That’s the most exciting part of it—that we’ll be able to make big changes.”
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