Made of Mettle

Written by Marek Fuchs (writing), Illustration by Sophie Blackhall-Cain

Made of Mettle

On college campuses, those rarified places often protected by shared notions and similar backgrounds, it can be easy to hurry past unpleasant thoughts and unpredictable interactions. But at Sarah Lawrence, the arts have become important conduits for intrepid collaborators who are bold enough to go behind prison bars.

Long before the Serial podcast went viral, before Orange Is the New Black and Making a Murderer became streaming hits, before the issue of mass incarceration was pushed to the center of public discourse, Sarah Lawrence faculty, students, and alumni ventured into jails and prisons to study, teach, and engage with the unpleasant and unpredictable—as well as to bear witness to a world few see, even when that world is a pit of despair.

Rachel Sander Bernard ’13 arrived on campus her first year with the vague sense that she was interested in the prison industrial complex, a world she knew she could not view merely from the balcony of academia.

So Bernard ginned up her nerve and joined Right-to-Write. Created in 1995 by the late Regina Arnold (sociology) and current writing faculty member Myra Goldberg, the program enables students to lead writing workshops at the Westchester County jail. Spearheading poetry seminars inside the facility, Bernard heard from inmates threads of thought that cut to her heart—and tipped her mind to the issues of rehabilitation. “So many of the men I worked with wrote about their fears of coming back to prison,” Bernard says. “So much of what they feared were these very practical barriers to reentry. And they knew the statistics were not on their side.”

“Learning about the plight of those victimized by our massive prison system has changed the course of my education entirely.” Martin Blondet ‘16

She continued her prison work through the service learning component in Rima Vesely-Flad’s course, “The Offensive Against Civil Rights: Crime Policy and Politics,” which helped secure the path she would follow after graduation. Today she works with Marymount Manhattan College’s showcase educational program for the incarcerated.

My own involvement with prison arts and education programs came when I was looking for a new way to teach research and writing. Realizing that I was instructing a CSI generation transfixed with crime investigation, I leveraged my background reporting on crime to create a course called “Wrongfully Accused,” in which Sarah Lawrence students collectively investigate an inmate’s claim of innocence.

One thing was clear: My students could not skimp on effort or guts.

The class requires unquestionably difficult work, but we put on our hip-high boots and wade into the facts of the old case, reviewing files and court documents, and interviewing detectives, victims, witnesses, jurors—anyone even tangentially related to the case. We travel from crime scenes in Brooklyn to the visiting room of Attica, then write what we hope will be a riveting piece of long-form investigative journalism.

After working with civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who visits the class and shares cases, Martin Blondet ’16 secured an internship with the Innocence Project, the foundational advocacy group for the wrongfully accused. (Barry Scheck, the project’s co-founder, has spoken on campus.) “Learning about the plight of those victimized by our massive prison system has changed the course of my education entirely,” says Blondet, who hopes to attend law school and become a criminal defense attorney.

This year he was enrolled in a journalism class I teach that brings together Sarah Lawrence students and inmates taking college courses at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum-security prison for women in New York State. The class is hardly for the faint-hearted; from puzzling out rules of interaction (written and unwritten) to attempting to gauge the nature of our classmates’ souls, we are often left with far more questions than answers.

It can be a touch unsettling. Our Bedford Hills classmates are insightful and appear empathic, yet have committed unbearably heinous acts. How do you find the wherewithal to make sense of that? At various points, we all feel lost in altered states.

"In the end, education is all about culling through perspectives that are not our own, perspectives we’re not familiar with." Marek Fuchs

Mitchell Sunderland ’14, managing editor of Broadly, credits the class for honing his instincts. “I learned that nobody is good or bad and everyone has a story,” he says. “Now, as a reporter, I come from this point of view when profiling controversial people. My work is more nuanced.”

From her post at Bedford Hills, Bernard now helps administer the combined class that puts Sarah Lawrence students around a seminar table with maximum-security inmates, divergent souls who have, with no small degree of courage, forged one of the more interesting intellectual communities around.

In the end, education is all about culling through perspectives that are not our own, perspectives we’re not familiar with. Sometimes that can be done on campus; other times, it means forging our way in worlds others seldom experience.

“Learning in prison is never easy,” says Sunderland, “but it’s always revealing.”

Beyond the Barbed Wire

Sarah Lawrence’s engagement with the issue of imprisonment extends beyond writing to art, dance, photography, and film.

Last fall, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art displayed Shared Dining, a well-regarded installation created by 10 incarcerated women at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Inspired by Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist art installation, The Dinner Party, the inmates designed place settings to honor women of their choosing. Arranged on a triangular table, each homage told a story of significance to the incarcerated artist.

Philanthropist Catherine “Cate” Muther ’69 and acclaimed photographer Susan Meiselas ’70 documented the project, which sought to dispel notions of prisoners as faceless souls. Muther describes the collaboration as “listening for stories untold, lifting up voices unheard, bringing presence to absence.” The exhibit catalog Muther and Meiselas produced showcases photos of the artwork, artists’ statements, and audio recordings. Gifted to the women of York, the book is an ongoing expression of their work. Reflecting on the collective accomplishment, one of the women, Chasity, explains: “It is the evidence of our greater purpose and the affirmation of our right to exist, thrive, mend, and make amends.”

This spring the campus community devoted an entire day to the issue, hosting Arts and the Inside: Incarceration and Expression through Writing, Film, and Dance. National Book Critics Circle Award winner Ted Conover, author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, shared his yearlong experience working as a corrections officer in one of America’s most notorious prisons. Following a screening of her documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You, film producer Judith Katz discussed her production, which focused on a writing class taught by Vagina Monologues’ Eve Ensler in a maximum-security prison. Sarah Lawrence’s own prison writing workshop participants presented readings, and the day concluded with excerpts from Judy Dworin’s In My Shoes, bringing the voices and experiences of women released from York Correctional Institution to the stage in a dance and spoken word performance.