Instructors and students overcome barriers to education - Education Justice Project

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EJP provides for-credit courses and other academic programs to incarcerated individuals within Danville Correctional Center. While students at Danville take the same classes and parse through the same course material as UIUC students on campus, the educational experiences of the two can be quite different.

Ellen Ritter currently serves as the academic director, after starting in 2015 with the Mindfulness Discussion Group. Her job involves supervising all on-site programming and ensuring that it runs smoothly. Contrary to UIUC courses, for instructors at Danville, school year preparations begin in June.

For Fall courses, all the instructors have to turn in all the materials they want to bring [into the prison], in June. They have to know what their syllabus is, what they are going to teach, all the handouts they are going to use throughout the entire semester, and hand them over to me in June,” Ellen said.

Beyond that, “there is no internet inside. So, [instructors] have to restructure all of their assignments to make sure everything can run smoothly with the resources they have at the prison.”

EJP staff must then get all course materials cleared with a warden from the facility. She says “It could take from a week to six weeks” to clear the materials through the warden’s guidelines.

Sang Lee started teaching the course “Urban Planning 335: Cities and Immigrants” at Danville in Fall 2021. She spent the previous summer preparing and going through the clearance process.

Sang says teaching in Danville is definitely a different experience on a lot of levels. For her, the most obvious difference was the age of students at Danville and how much more life experiences they have compared to undergraduate students on campus, who typically range from 17 to 22 years old.

“I would say they have more confidence when they speak and they have more experiences to pull from in their personal lives when we have a discussion on the topics in class,” Sang said.

The teaching environment within Danville is different from traditional classrooms as well. Sang says there are restraints in the forms of permission or negotiation that the teachers have to get used to.

“It’s this idea that there’s this other figure outside of the room that is impacting these men,” she said. “As of late, I have been noticing the corrections officer knocking on the door before the last ten minutes to let me know ‘Hey, you need to wrap it up.’ You’re not used to having someone be there who is trying to discipline you or regulate what you are doing in that way.”

Another difference from campus education is the availability of office hours. Students in the Danville facility need to fill out a form to request permission to attend office hours and they have to cite a specific reason for attendance. “So there is a sense that they can’t just come and chat with me out of curiosity about the course,” Sang said.

Danville instructs EJP staff not to share or ask anything personal with the students. Discussions about something as trivial as a favorite television show were warned against, according to Sang. Sang says she views learning as a two-way street where she also learns from her students through the process. The restrictions posed within the prisons can make it difficult for her to foster the collaborative learning environment that she tries to create.

Nevertheless, the EJP instructors tend to highly value the experiences they have with their students at Danville. Hugh Bishop is another EJP instructor who has worked with EJP’s Language Partners program for 11 years.

Hugh says students who are involved with EJP have already demonstrated their commitment to education. Because acquiring the required credit hours can be extremely difficult, he notices the “thirst for knowledge” in his students. He says the students are interesting, hardworking and fun to teach and they make ideal pupils.

Sang comments that she has been teaching since she was a graduate student and the students at Danville are special because they do close-reading, come to classes prepared with specific passages that spoke to them, and are able to tie the lessons to their life experiences.

“They are great students,” Sang said. “Some of the best I’ve ever had.”

These students deserve resources beyond the limited course material, library and computer lab time allowed by the Danville facility. EJP, its instructors, administration, and students will continue to work toward achieving parity of the UIUC campus resources.