It's one thing to read all the theories," says Regina Arnold, a member of the College's Sociology faculty who has taught a course called "Crime and Deviance Theory" for several years. "It's another to work in the jails, probation departments, the shelters for battered women and the family courts and see how things really work."
As a graduate student in the 1970s, Arnold did just that: She left the ivory tower behind and immersed herself in the gritty reality of Rikers Island in New York. At Bryn Mawr then, studying theories of female criminality, she temporarily set aside the graduate school classroom in order to get a first-hand look at the subject of her dissertation.
Arnold's main concerns were issues of gender, race and class, and who was being arrested and incarcerated and who was not. She ran a discussion group for female inmates at Rikers, hearing what they had to say about the self-esteem of imprisoned black women.
In her SLC courses, Arnold requires her students to get a strong dose of reality themselves along with their book learning. In the early 1990s, in conjunction with the Westchester Corrections Department, she established a writing program at the County Jail in Valhalla, The Right to Write, for female prisoners. When the male prisoners complained about being left out, another was begun for them as well. Now there's a waiting list for both programs.
"Most colleges and universities do not have such prison programs," explains Arnold, who is now the College's associate dean of studies. "It sets Sarah Lawrence apart."
In the writing program at the County Jail, an undergraduate and a graduate student are assigned to five or six inmates, using the same round-table style of learning that they experience at the college. Sarah Lawrence staff members have also made presentations to the inmates — on mothers and daughters in literature, on women and history and on the biology of drugs and the brain, for example.
Students in "Crime and Deviance Theory" also work for the County Department of Probation, at My Sister's Place (a Westchester-based shelter for battered women) and with social workers in family court.
"I instruct them to listen and look, and then come back and relate what they've seen to their studies," Arnold says. "The experiential work brings to life all the theoretical material."
The students often gain a new perspective not just on the people they are observing but on themselves as well. "Most of us have not reached the age of 18 or 19 without getting into some kind of trouble," Arnold observes. "The community service placements often make the students think about their own behavior, like when a female prisoner says, ‘I only had four ounces on me. Why did they pick on me?' Or when they talk to women in abusive relationships, and they can see the similarities and the differences with their own relationships."