July 19 2024

Beyond Empathy in Prison Education

Erin Runions, Pomona College

Empathy by John Edward Marin

We pass the commissary as we walk across the prison yard to our writing workshop. It’s a small trailer, with ramps zig-zagging up to the window where purchases are made. Women wait in line on the ramps, while others linger below, leaning or sitting on concrete. As we pass, they call out, “What class is this?” “That one looks like my daughter.” “Why are you here?” “What are you looking at?” “I like that outfit!”

This walk has become familiar over the past fourteen years. I look forward to hearing these comments and the brief conversations they provoke. On their first visit though, my college students report that they feel uncomfortable. What is their role here? How should they respond? Course readings and their own social awareness have prepared them for the deep injustices of prison, but not necessarily for the actual feeling of being inside a prison and themselves being scrutinized.

I take students from the Claremont Colleges to be co-learners with students incarcerated in two minimum-security facilities. I do so because I believe it can contribute to dismantling the deep injustices of the prison-industrial complex, and because it offers support and attentiveness to people inside. Undergraduate students from outside the prison wrestle with their positionality and role throughout the semester. But by the end of our classes in the prison, they are far less anxious because they have entered into relationships, conversations, collective analysis, and shared work. These exercises fundamentally change how they think about prisons, who is held there, and how to engage the systems that sustain the prison-industrial complex.

Is it empathy that I am trying to cultivate? I do want outside students to have an experience that changes how they act; for many this includes changing how they feel and making connections between their own lives and the lives of the people they meet inside. But empathy can be a vexed aspiration, especially in the context of incarceration, which has been fully shaped by histories and present practices of racism. Saidiya Hartman has written about the “precariousness of empathy and the thin line between witness and spectator” in her discussion of racialized relations between abolitionists and slaves.1 Given this thin line, and the very real possibility of a voyeuristic encounter, the students are right to interrogate their presence in the prison and the women are right to question their gaze.

Indeed, empathy often relies on hierarchical subject/object relations, with a privileged subject pityingly looking at a disadvantaged “object,” as Carolyn Pedwell explains.2 Worse, if empathy is an attempt to see through the eyes of the other, “the object of identification threatens to disappear,” as Hartman analyzes it.3 Empathy, on its own, can be little more than a reinforcement of the privileged subject position of the empathizer.

Frank Wilderson goes further in speaking of empathy in race relations, analyzing it as an impossibility. He stresses the need for structural analysis rather than empathy. In a conversation with Hartman, he says, “Subjects just can’t make common cause with objects.”4 Elsewhere, Wilderson speaks of anti-blackness as a structural position that utterly precludes empathy because “civic life requires social death so as not to implode from the pressure of incoherence. Blackness is the space and time of social death.”5 This obliterating structure of relations is central to the social order and forecloses empathy for Black people. Wilderson’s description of the position of Blackness could well be applied to prisons: they embody “the gratuitous violence which accrues to Black people...as the repetition compulsion of a world which requires such violence for its sense of self and peace of mind.”6 Wilderson, Hartman, and Pedwell raise extremely important questions for prison education and what it can accomplish.

Certainly, if the prison system is to change in any meaningful way, drastically more than empathy is needed. As the above critiques of empathy indicate, there are serious pitfalls to consider. Yet without face-to-face meetings with incarcerated people, many people would continue in an understanding of prisons as containing threat and producing peace of mind, rather than as structures enacting racist, classist, and sexist/trans/homophobic violence. Conversely, I think that students can have intellectual and affective encounters with incarcerated people in ways that can build common cause. For this to happen, the encounter cannot be a paternalistic relation of subject to object, or of inhabiting the shoes of another. In my view, the encounter must be accompanied by systemic analysis, awareness of difference and positionality, community building and mutual engagement, and collective creative thinking toward change.

Teaching for Change

I teach two prison education courses. Both are religious studies courses that interrogate the relation of religion—mostly Christianity—to the practice of punishment and to status quo notions of social redemption, as well as more radical ideas of transformative and restorative justice. One course involves travel to a women’s prison for a writing workshop, where inside and outside students learn together. The inside students get a certificate and time toward release, but unfortunately no college credit. This interdisciplinary class and workshop have been developed over many years with three colleagues who are longtime advocates for incarcerated women, Valorie Thomas, a scholar of African Diaspora studies in the English Department at Pomona College, Sue Castagnetto, director of the Intercollegiate Feminist Center of the Claremont Colleges, and Chris Guzaitis, now director of education and grants division at Illinois Humanities.

The second class is a full college credit course inside a men’s prison, which I have only taught once thus far. Completing college credit courses gives the men additional time toward release. The possibility of providing college credit to incarcerated students is the recent result of sustained advocacy on the part of a dedicated group of faculty at the Claremont Colleges, and the willingness of college administrators to make it happen.

The pedagogical strategies used in both courses have been shaped by my involvement with a religion faculty cohort at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology & Religion, who collaborated on a grant and workshop on Pedagogies for Civic Engagement.7 In that thought space, we collectively identified four objectives for the kind of teaching that aspires to get students involved in the public sphere: intellectual complexity; analysis of systems and social location; empathetic accountability; and motivated action.8 Reflecting these ideas, my own pedagogy assumes that empathetic accountability can only really work in tandem with these other objectives. Empathetic accountability is not a voyeuristic subject-to-object empathy, but an encounter that moves to action from within mutual relations, analysis, and problem solving.

I try to develop empathetic accountability in three ways: 1) by assigning intellectually complex systemic analyses of race, class, gender, and economy and by having students develop awareness of positionality and differences within these systems; 2) by working to establish mutuality, community, and shared conversation in the classroom; and 3) by asking students collectively to imagine concrete steps toward change. Empathy is only accountable if interventions into the prison industrial complex are envisioned.

Systemic Analysis and Awareness of Positional Difference

Content and theory help to frame our time in prison and make students aware of the layers of racism and classism, economy, social norms, and religious teaching that have crushed incarcerated people in the United States. When the class is taught fully in prison, readings have to be vetted by prison officials; we read authors such as Angela Davis, W. E. B. DuBois, Bryan Stevenson, Jennifer Graber, Tanya Erzen and others. In the class with the six-week writing workshop, outside students read more of this kind of framing material for classes held on the college campus—including Andrea Ritchie, Christina Sharpe, Lisa Maria Cacho; in the writing workshop itself, we focus on poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction by women of color.

Good framing is not enough, however; reflection is key, as some pedagogies of community engagement have suggested.9 Reflection helps students to make personal their learning, to integrate their academic learning with their emotional and social learning, and to move beyond any kind of voyeurism. Reflection can occur in reflection papers, peer discussion groups, and debrief sessions. In the full-credit class in prison, inside and outside students write weekly reflection papers. I particularly like this assignment as a way to check in with each student; in the other formats, I cannot hear all the conversations. Students have said in evaluations that the reflection papers are helpful for their learning; they have been equally valuable for me to understand what and how each person is learning.

Reflection also helps outside students to consider their own positionality and their difference from those who are incarcerated, even as they are experiencing similarities and connections with inside students. My colleague Valorie Thomas asked the following question to a class, and I have subsequently quoted her: Think about it, why are you not in prison? The question provokes the opposite of empathy; it asks students to understand all the contingencies by which they were able to make it to college instead of being funneled into prison. For some students, this question can cause survivors guilt, which is important to discuss in person or in feedback on reflection papers. For others, it allows recognition of systems of privilege, including the times when law enforcement was not called and might have been were surrounding circumstances different.

Mutual Engagement and Community Building

It is essential to make sure that the encounters between inside and outside students start out under the assumption that they are peers. It is not a helping relationship, where outside students are in the role of tutor. They are co-learners. I state this explicitly for outside students, multiple times. For the full class in prison, I interview students individually before accepting them into the class. This one-on-one time allows me to tell prospective students clearly and unequivocally that we are not going as helpers or as tourists.

In their guide for higher education in prison, Tanya Erzen, Mary Gould, and Jody Lewen suggest that in best practice, instructors “approach their incarcerated students in prison as capable, curious individuals and do not make assumptions about their abilities, interests, beliefs, backgrounds or goals based solely on the fact of their being incarcerated.”10 The guide emphasizes the need for instructors to have boundaries that do not “compel students’ self-disclosure or otherwise make students’ personal life experiences or backgrounds the focal point of their courses or otherwise exploit or violate the boundaries of their students.”11 The same should be true of outside students interacting with their colleagues inside. For joint classrooms, separate introductory group meetings with inside and outside students can make these points clear.

One simple guideline can go a long way to avoid the violation of boundaries: insisting that all students use first names only and do not share last names. I learned this strategy from the Inside/Out Program, directed by Lori Pompa at Temple University.12 This guideline protects everyone’s privacy and boundaries, and minimizes things like curious online surveillance. Certainly, inside students will sometimes share why they are incarcerated; but many have also expressed that it is rare that they are in an environment where this is not compelled and they do not feel judged.

Creating a shared community can also help with mutual engagement. Of course, community can’t be forced, and it can’t exactly be a stated expectation of the class. But creating a sense of mutual appreciation and shared experience can be powerful. As Erzen, Gould, and Lewen write, “For incarcerated students, the classroom creates a space to form lasting interpersonal bonds, and to develop a sense of community across cultural and racial lines. The community of the classroom enables students to form new peer groups and identities, away from the pressures and labels that are endemic to prison.”13 Although they are not speaking about joint classrooms, this work can also happen where inside and outside students come together. One inside student wrote at the end of the semester that he observed that positive communications in the classroom could carry over into interactions in the dorms and yard.

I find a few things very helpful in creating a shared space. These include: icebreakers, an abundance of small-group discussion, and a circle format for the large-group discussion. Many of the inside students have mentioned in reflection papers how important the icebreakers at the beginning of class are in getting to know each other and in offsetting the seriousness of the material. They asked me not to underestimate their necessity. Although I was at first apprehensive to include them in every class because of time restrictions, eventually I did so, to good effect. They help enormously in creating space of community, even if temporary.

I find many of these activities online and modify them to make sure questions do not accentuate differing life circumstances. For instance, I stay away from icebreaker questions about travel, since they clearly emphasize differences in mobility; this is not to say that incarcerated folks haven’t traveled, or that travel doesn’t come up, but prompts that easily call up summer vacations or study abroad—which can uncomfortably reveal disparities of privilege even in a non-carceral setting—are unsuitable in a setting where half the class is immobilized.

Guided small-group discussion are at the heart of my teaching in prison and help to form community. I do lecture to introduce ideas, clarify concepts in the readings, and set the framework; but every class or workshop involves substantial discussion in small groups comprised of inside and outside students. I provide prompts that home in on key points and ask students to make specific analytic moves. I have students physically move around between questions so that they talk with multiple people each class period.

For large-group discussions, the circle format is powerful. As the California Conference for Equality and Justice says in their restorative practices training materials, the circle acts as a container for the process. In a modification of restorative circle practice, I open and close class with a round of check-ins and check-outs. These take place after icebreakers. For these rounds, I use a talking piece (a sand dollar), which is passed in the circle. The talking piece authorizes people, especially quiet ones, to take the space to speak. Students can pass without talking if they wish. Check-ins include a few centering breaths and can be anything from, “What idea are you most excited about discussing from the readings?” to “What is one thing you observed this week, large or small, that makes the world a better place?” (Students answer from their daily lives, their interaction with friends and family, what they’ve seen on the news, etc.). Check-outs are often a version of, “What idea or thought are you taking away with you from today’s class?”

Large-group discussions are also aided by a talking piece. Because these classes have been large, I find it works well to ask students to limit their input to one comment per discussion item and to be mindful of airtime. Sometimes outside students have to be reminded to speak, that is, to be mutual in speaking, rather than assuming the space is only for incarcerated students to share their thoughts. I ask students to call on each other by name as they hand on the talking piece.

Wrestling with Enjoyment

It is worth pausing for a moment here to reflect before moving to my last point. The community building and educational process inside prison often feel very positive. As Charles Atkins, Joshua Dubler, Vincent Lloyd, and Mel Webb write, “[F]or many incarcerated college courses are a lifeline, and often to a stunning degree, as students, they bring it . . .[A]lmost invariably, a prison classroom is a charged educational environment in which extraordinary things happen.”14 Conversation flows easily. People are engaged. There is a lot of laughter. While there can be tensions and discomforts, for the most part inside and outside students have a good time. End of semester evaluations indicate that people have found the classroom community valuable and encouraging.

What does it mean to go into prison and have a good time? This point requires further reflection, especially in the light of Hartman’s writing on empathy. Hartman’s larger point is that even abolitionist empathy can be a colonizing form of enjoyment not unlike other forms of enjoyment extracted from slavery. As she writes, “The desire to don, occupy, or possess blackness or the black body as a sentimental resource and/or locus of excess enjoyment is both founded upon and enabled by the material relations of chattel slavery.”15 Given that many have argued that prisons are an extension of slavery, what does it mean to teach in prison, in a way that does not used the racialized population there as a form of excess enjoyment?

Here it is crucial to think about accountability. To my mind, taking outside students into prisons for classes cannot be an end in itself. The experience of encounter, while powerful, could run the risk of being what Hartman calls a “sentimental resource,” enabled by the carceral system. Atkins, Dubler, Lloyd, and Webb acknowledge the importance of prison education but caution, “It is a dangerous vanity to mistake educating incarcerated people for a revolutionary praxis. Given the moral and social abomination for which, as Americans, we are collectively responsible, teaching a religion class to a group of incarcerated people is not nearly enough.”16 Instead, students need to begin to imagine together other ways to prevent and respond to social harm that does not involve threat, racism, caging, and abuse.

Collective Creative Thinking toward Change

To this end, both classes include a component where students think about changing the system. In the writing workshop, we think about writing as an agent for change somewhat generally. But in their outside coursework for the class attached to the workshop, students do a group project with two components: popular education for peers to raise awareness about an issue or problem for system-involved people; and an in-class presentation on interventions.

Popular education campaigns have included guerilla theater, art installations, opinion pieces in the student newspaper, poster campaigns, teach-ins and workshops, a zine-making event, interactive theater, a film screening with discussion, a YouTube video, a social media project, and so on. Students are asked to think about how their events would come across to people and communities affected by the system or the issues under consideration. They are asked to consider content warnings if the event could be triggering in any way.

For the in-class presentation, students research interventions into the problem for which they raised awareness in their popular education project. They look at interventions proposed by incarcerated folks, activists, community groups, and NGOs, and they propose one solution or intervention that they themselves can imagine. For each they are asked to evaluate the operative assumptions about punishment, redemption, or restoration.

Even better for collective thinking is the group project for the course taught fully inside. Together inside and outside students are asked to prepare a group presentation that explains a restorative or transformative justice theory, concept, or practice. This can be a strategy or practice that has worked, a theory about what is necessary, or a less well-known religious idea or text that has been used as a resource for restorative or transformative justice.

Groups are formed by doing a concept map around a question they have thought about ahead of time: What restorative justice and transformative justice practices do we want to know more about? Students write their ideas on the board, and I cluster the ideas. Students then indicate with post-it notes those issues that they would be happy to work on, in order of interest, and we form groups on the spot. Groups form around topics such as indigenous traditions; de-carcerating mental health; ethnic studies programs; children of the incarcerated, breaking the cycle; liberation theology; and family group conferences. (Spotlight on Teaching co-editor Jessica Tinklenberg, who is also program director of The Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning, helped me think through this process).

If they wish to foreground case studies of a particular kind of harm to be addressed by the practice, I suggest that they pick a hypothetical issue; in other words, it should not be taken directly from a group member’s life story. They are asked to bear in mind the potential of upsetting people in the room who may have experienced trauma from social harm, including trauma in the system.

Students are encouraged to include participatory activities as part of their presentation. Particularly effective was one group’s activity of a role-play for a family group conference. In this restorative practice, a person responsible for harm is put into conversation with the person harmed and community members. In small groups, students practiced listening to the imagined experience of the survivor and circumstances of the person responsible. Non-carceral community agreements were suggested, including agreements that would benefit the whole community, not just the involved parties.

Of course, these assignments don’t actually change any material circumstances. But students begin a serious collective consideration of the wide range of societal problems that are too easily “solved” by incarceration. They are actively involved in envisioning alternative interventions and more radical thinking about responding to harm. I have anecdotal evidence that these courses have impacted the kinds of work some students go on to do, and it is something that the Critical Justice group at the Claremont Colleges has planned to follow more closely with the college credit courses. Such tracking is, in fact, essential for a claim that this kind of teaching creates change.

Concluding Reflection

The critique of empathy offered by Hartman, Wilderson, and Pedwell offers a vital caution to those of us involved in prison education, especially where inside and outside students learn together. The potential downsides of teaching in prison are clear: it could easily become something that gives further credibility to the system; it could produce the kind of colonizing enjoyment that Hartman analyzes; or it could lull outside students into thinking they’d done enough. These are sobering concerns, to be taken seriously.

Pedagogical design can and should think beyond empathy. Perhaps this means envisioning what David Seitz calls queer citizenship, that is to say, social belonging that is not dependent on the usual norms of behavior and status for inclusion. Seitz imagines queer citizenship as joint recognition, struggle, and modes of belonging that are created in “coalitions among people with incommensurable histories of trauma and pleasure, alienation, affinity, and loss.”17 All of this requires vulnerability on the part of those entering the prison, students and professors alike.

By creating classroom communities based on mutuality between inside and outside students, collectively interrogating larger structures and inequalities, and proposing alternative ways to deal with social inequalities and harm, we work toward alternative modes of belonging and create change. It is my hope that such strategies can move us a little closer to world where abusive policing, punishment, and social exclusion are not the lucrative norm.

1 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19.

2 Carolyn Pedwell, “De-Colonising Empathy: Thinking Affect Transnationally” Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Special Issue, Decolonizing Theories of the Emotions 16, no. 1 (2016): 27–49. Made available by the author at https://www.academia.edu/25905125/De-colonising_empathy_Thinking_affect_transnationally.

3 Hartman, 17.

4 Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 190, https://doi.org/10.1215/quiparle.13.2.183.

5 Frank B. Wilderson III, “‘Raw Life’ and the Ruse of Empathy,” in Performance, Politics and Activism, ed. Peter Lichtenfels and John Rouse (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 181-206. Quote on p. 185.

6 Ibid.

7 Frederic Ware, review of Teaching Civic Engagement, eds. Forrest Clingerman and Reid B. Locklin, Reflective Teaching, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/resources/book_reviews/teaching-civic-engagement/.

8 See Reid B. Locklin with Ellen Posman, “Discourse, Democracy, and the Many Faces of Civic Engagement: Four Guiding Objectives for the University Classroom,” in Teaching Civic Engagement, eds. Forrest Clingerman and Reid B. Locklin, (New York: Oxford University Press), 3–22.

9 Joe Bandy, “Best Practices in Community Engaged Teaching,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, last accessed December 29, 2019, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/best-practices-in-community-engaged-teaching/.

10 Tanya Erzen, Mary R. Gould, and Jody Lewen, Equity and Excellence in Practice: A Guide for Higher Education in Prison (St. Louis, MO: Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and San Quentin, CA: Prison University Project, 2019), 28. www.higheredinprison.org.

11 Ibid., 27.


13 Erzen, Gould, and Lewen, 9.

14 Charles Atkins, Joshua Dubler, Vincent Lloyd, and Mel Webb,“‘Using the Language of Christian Love and Charity’: What Liberal Religion Offers Higher Education in Prison,” Religions 10, no. 3 (2019): 16.

15 Hartman, 21.

16 Atkins, Dubler, Lloyd, and Webb, 16.

17 David K. Seitz, A House of Prayer for All People: Contesting Citizenship in a Queer Church (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 215.

Erin RunionsErin Runions is professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Pomona College. She explores how biblical teaching and citation shapes political subjectivity, gender, sexuality, US national sovereignty, war, and biopolitics. Her most recent book is The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex and Sovereignty (Fordham University Press, 2014). Her next book, The American Prison as Secular Hell traces the influence of biblical teaching and popularized discourse about hell on the prison-industrial complex. She has been teaching in prisons since 2005 and is also involved in the struggle for environmental justice in the city of Pomona.