A literature course at Wilmington College gives students a chance to delve into the human experience not only through the intriguing characters they encounter in great novels but also via a shared experience with a unique set of classmates — incarcerated women at Dayton Correctional Institution.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the College to complete the semester online, students in Dr. Ursula McTaggart’s Literature in the Prison Environment class made weekly visits to the prison. There, behind the razor wire, metal detectors and rigorously regimented routine, they found many inquisitive, thoughtful and caring, well, fellow students.
“We’re all students there for the same purpose, to learn from each other,” said senior Roman Kirschner, noting the incarcerated women range in age from the early 20s to 70 years old and bring as diverse a range of life experiences. He was especially impressed with the “depth of insight” exhibited by the inmates.
“Prison inmates are often portrayed as subhuman individuals, but we’ve found that, when you interact with them, they are people just like us,” he added. “The intellectual quality of the inmates has been mind-blowing to me.”
Both Kirschner, a sport management major from Czech Republic, and freshman Lucy Enge, a political science advocacy major from Cincinnati, are minoring in race, gender and ethnicity studies.
The class has been studying such unique pieces of literature as Dante’s Inferno (1320), Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1902), works by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and the 2018 memoir, Heavy, by Kiese Laymon.
“The inmates’ different life experiences add such an interesting dynamic to our discussions,” Enge said. “The differences between us disappears when we’re there talking with them. I really appreciate the depth of our discussions.”
Kirshner calls that “organic interaction,” something that just happens as a result of collaboration and mutual respect.
“The class concept unites us together,” he added, noting he had been looking forward to taking McTaggart’s course since his freshman year and is pleased to have been able to enroll his final semester.
“Going to prison is a good premise for ‘most unique course.’ This has been the coolest class in my minor,” he said. “It’s the culmination of all my efforts in my race, gender and ethnicity minor. It’s so unconventional.
“This has been a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Enge recalls hearing about the course — described to her as “a book club at a prison” — when she visited the College while a junior in high school. “I thought, ‘That’s so neat.’ I knew I had to take the class, so I moved my schedule around to have this experience,” she said. “I’m only a freshman but I think, in the end, this could be one of my favorite classes.”
Enge is involved with the College’s Mock Trial Team and Amnesty International Chapter, both of which have addressed incarceration and the death penalty.
“This experience has caused me to evaluate things and think deeply about what our criminal justice system be? Redemptive violence, violence solves violence?” she said. “Americans are very punishment driven. We see that in the number of incarcerated when the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its incarcerated.
“All this was just a concept before seeing their faces,” she added. “Each viewpoint expressed in our discussions often challenged another viewpoint.”
McTaggart, associate professor of English, said such classes are important in facilitating students’ understanding of the system of mass incarceration — “not only academically but by interacting with people who are affected by it. This allows all students to learn from one another’s experiences.
“This experience also promotes the Quaker value of respecting all persons.”
McTaggart’s course is part of the nationwide Inside-Out Program, which began with Lori Pompa at Temple University. She completed the Inside-Out training in Detroit last year.