‘Teaching Tragedy to the Incarcerated,’ by Nancy S. Rabinowitz.

Teaching Tragedy to the Incarcerated. Presented by Nancy S. Rabinowitz at the ‘Diversity and the Study of the Ancient World’ conference at Roehampton University, November 2017. 

This brief presentation will focus on my experiences teaching Greek tragedy in prison—a marginalized and highly racialized space in the U.S. While this work is unlikely to change the profile of the field (the prisoners are unlikely to become academics), it does work to increase access to it. Thus, it is my most direct form of social justice work.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. As Michelle Alexander has argued in her book, The New Jim Crow, this is effectively a form of slavery; one of the men I teach in prison reminds me that the 15th amendment outlawing slavery did not make it illegal to make slaves out of felons. In prison in NY state the daily wage for jobs ranges between .10 and 1.10. Mass incarceration is also clearly institutionalized racism. Young black men are more likely to go to prison than to get a four-year college education, and black men are five times more likely to be in prison than white men (in some states that is 10 times, according to the sentencing project).

While there is an active prison abolition movement in the U.S., there are also attempts to ameliorate the existing system through the arts and education. Federal grants for higher education for inmates dried up some years ago; state and private funding is flowing more freely again because there is a growing consensus that having received some form of an education helps convicts stay out of jail once they get out. We can’t make grand claims based on the small numbers, but even if the consensus is mistaken, education is of value and should available to prisoners, the students said when I read them this paper.

We also can’t really generalize about prison education. Programs differ from one another. For instance, some lead to a degree, some are single courses, and still others are not actually courses, just volunteer discussion groups (that is where I fit in). In college prep or college courses, the men get credit, write papers, and take exams. The teachers grade them! Classicists participate in a broad range of ways from one of the most formal (the Bard Prison Initiative) to one of the most informal, my own. There are similarities of course – security at all facilities, for instance, and the fact of surveillance. But differences emerge as well from the kind of institution served. Are the incarcerated men or women? Are the facilities a jail or prison, are they medium or maximum security? Is it a program heavy facility or one with few programs?

Inside/Out, a Temple University initiative with many other university partners, integrates college students and prisoners in the same room. As a member, Sara Rappe at University of Michigan taught Classical Civilizations 479, “Socrates and other Prisoners of Conscience,” to a class of 30 students, 15 outsiders and 15 insiders. They discussed Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, Gandhi, King, Angela Davis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Much as I would like to do so, however, I could not offer such a course where I live and teach because of strict rules about the ages of volunteers.

Some of the initiatives come from colleges and universities themselves, some are organized on the state level. For instance, the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey State Parole Board, to (a) provide higher education courses for all students under the custody of the State of New Jersey while they are incarcerated, and (b) assist in the transition to college life upon their release into the community.

What are we actually doing when we teach ancient material in prison? In an essay in Eidolon Jessica Wright points out a conundrum: “Choosing to teach Latin in prison — placing Classics at the center of a social justice initiative — made it even more obvious to me how right Greenwood and Vasunia are. . . . [about the place of Latin in colonization] Program directors asked us to send any Latin graduates their way. Introducing Latin as the foreign language option magnified the specter of the exceptionalism of Classics in ways that felt at odds with the (anti-imperialist, anti-racist) project of prison education.” In order to mitigate this contradiction, Wright changed her pedagogy from traditional methods to a more open process. As a result, she had a student say to her that “the classroom was the only space in which he felt safe to say “no” — that is, to disagree both with his peers and with figures of authority, “without fear of retribution.” Prisoners were appalled at her notion, and they have now asked me to teach Latin and/or Greek. They’d love to learn a language.

My program in a men’s medium security facility has no infrastructure and little official support, though Hamilton does provide the books for free; it is never clear that they will arrive safely at the school building, where I teach. The prisoners don’t receive credit, and all of the teachers are volunteers. We don’t meet more than every other week. The shifting population characteristic of medium-security prison is part of the problem we face teaching there. Preparing for this talk, for instance, I did not know who would be in class, who would have gotten the books, and if they would have read the book. The first night I only had two men; thereafter different problems emerged. More recently, I had a different two, and one had been out of the facility so did not have the book. Nonetheless, we had a great conversation. The population of the prison is mostly black and Latin, but my group has always been disproportionately white. So the new audience here is class based more than racial, but of course, these men have been marginalized and isolated by virtue of their incarceration.

Initially I was reluctant to teach tragedy because I assumed other modern texts would be more relevant to the students. Indeed, outsiders have challenged me on that basis—why not teach black writers instead (though that was based on a false assumption of the racial makeup of the group). Working with Rhodessa Jones, whose Medea Project has built plays around 5 ancient myths, inspired me to try a performance of a Greek play. I assigned Antigone and Fugard’s The Island, based on Antigone. The first time we read it was hilarious. There was lots of fooling around, as in The Island, about playing Antigone and Ismene–a little exaggerated imitation and joking about playing her with “the girl’s voice.” When I called on one man, a big guy who is clearly devoted to body building, to be Antigone, he said he’d never live it down in the weight yard—and the others laughed at the image. The play never came off because I broke a cardinal rule: I was punished for taking something from the men out with me.

I did not give up on tragedy, however. Since then we have discussed many plays, Philoctetes and Ajax, the Oresteia, and Medea, some of them for publication on the APGRD’s web site and in preparation for this talk. In what follows, I will share what my students have had to say with you. The prison administration is very reluctant to have us write, in part because of anxiety about their reputation. But there is another more positive reason for caution which I share: I don’t want to exploit my students. I am committed to treating the men as co-authors, but they cannot be here. Thus, I share my writing with the group before presenting it; they are invested in my writing and presenting their voices publicly. When at one point, I suggested that perhaps we should not bother going forward, they were adamant that we continue. One man explained why contributing to the Medea volume was important to him: he got to hear his own words and those of his friends; he was proud, and glad that they were able to be heard via my speaking. Another man agreed with him, saying how happy he was to be part of something beautiful that was bigger than prison.

When I come in, I often ask how they are doing. That conversation may take quite a while if someone is facing a parole hearing, for instance, and wants to talk it over with us. This is one place where the prisoners can talk freely: there is no guard in the room, and it is quiet. Prison is always noisy, and the men in the group find many of the conversations outside annoying and stupid. I learn a lot during the “check-in.”

Of course I’m not officially there to get educated, but let me share with you what they had to say about the plays we read from their positions. For instance, interesting questions emerged in our discussion of Agamemnon: what will be waiting for you when you come home? What happens to children in the absence of the father? What happens to the children when they witness violence between their parents? Could Agamemnon have done it any other way? Did he go to Troy because he wanted the wealth of Asia—// to drug money? embezzlement? Why did he bring home his “whore” and ask his wife to take care of her?? And for themselves: How do you remain a dad? What does it mean to be separate, miss family events?

A lot of our conversations centered on masculinity, making the connections to the men’s own lives. Who was the father figure, the model for them? Is it the cool dude, the basket player? Most of them say they grew up without men or models of healthy fathers in their lives; several of them have many children with different women and are not in touch with them. They talk extensively about the pressure to be a man, to be tough, in prison, though the threat of rape seems to be less pressing now than it used to be. They explain: “Who is a real man in prison is defined by what you see; it is superficial and external.” There is pressure to “Get your weight up,” but another man asserts that you don’t have to be huge: it depends on character, there is another way to dominate a situation. One of the men cultivates a calm attitude: waiting on line at the water fountain in the yard for instance, when the macho man thinks he can just cut in, this individual lets him. His attitude is “I can wait.”

There is another strong message, some say, that masculinity is control over yourself and others; don’t be sensitive, don’t get involved. But other men disagree, saying, you don’t have to follow the code: one older, religious man is proud of intervening to help someone out. I wonder how much he gets away with because of his age, race, or years on the inside. In prison, fights do not typically cross race or age lines.

The ancient warrior code of honor seems relevant in prison. In discussing the Ajax, I introduced the idea of Bryan Doerries’ program—he discusses Ajax and Philoctetes with vets—and they saw the parallel more with other kinds of violence rather than war. For instance one man agrees that in prison there is a code of masculinity that requires fighting, but he does not have to fight a kid who thinks he’s tough. Honor is about saving face with your peers. Another sees the similarity to white motorcycle clubs and gangs; that is a warrior culture more than the military.

For some the loss of an inside or a sense of self while in prison is a grave concern. What happens to the “real you” with all this pressure? Will you take prison behaviors with you (like taking your silverware off the table in a restaurant out of habit?)? There is ambivalence about how much control they actually can have, how much choice is available to them. When we discuss the gender conflict in Agamemnon, they have a clear interpretation of why Aegisthus is so violent in the end. They understand it as a response to a lack of power: “Because incarcerated men lack power, lack control and are therefore deprived of traditional measures of masculinity, they also attempt to gain it by putting others down; they need to assert themselves because they are not certain of themselves.” Aegisthus’ domination by Clytemnestra comes through as a reaction in his relationship to the chorus.

As with my Hamilton students, personal experiences color reception. When we discussed Orestes in Libation Bearers and Electra saying he must act, they saw it as about themselves, saying things like this: “Now is the time! Your life is in trouble. It is time to change, face the beast.” They see that every moment is a choice. They talked about the need to be responsible, accountable, and they blamed the characters who were not. In general, the prisoners in my class do not deny that they committed the crime; they are willing to do the time.

We have had wonderful conversations about some of the big ideas. For instance, when we discuss the gnomic statement that “wisdom comes through suffering” in the Agamemnon chorus, the men assert that they are learning a lot by being in prison—it is a necessary evil that leads to growth. Reading The Apology, they said something similar: that prison gives them the opportunity to live an examined life; we discuss the differences between their lives and the lives of monks in other kinds of cells, and I bring up the daily humiliation they face. How similar are they really to monks? What is it on the outside that distracts from philosophy?? One man had a great deal of sympathy for Odysseus in Ajax, in fact more than one, when he pities Ajax, saying “It makes me see that we who live and breathe are nothing more than phantoms, or insubstantial shadowings.” (Taplin 123-6) They connect with the idea that the gods have power over Odysseus and Ajax.

In short, the incarcerated men use the plays to think about themselves, and I encourage them in this. We discuss at various times the role of this class in helping them avoid violence, revenge, anger; they think of it as giving them tools: “a way of doing surgery on ourselves.” I want to underline the point that others who teach in prison have also made. It is not the texts so much that make the difference. I do this work as a classicist, but also as a human being. And I speak to the men as human beings. That is one of the main things about our encounters. The inmates are not numbers in there. Their opinions are taken seriously, and they are more than their crime.

So to come back to my doubts: this is not the revolution of course. It is perhaps putting garlands on the bars. In the end, to do this work you have to believe that creating an oasis for a few individuals is worth something. This is a program for the few, a handful out of a population of 1800, but it is worth something to the ones who come, and therefore to me. Recently I have felt like abandoning the course because so there are so many obstacles in the way. But then I have a wonderful session and realize that it is too much fun to give up.

Let me end with a quote from one of the men from the early days of the program: “The Greek tragedies really did provide me with an opportunity to think very seriously about what makes me tick. Why do I make the decisions that I make? Where is the precedent for this or that?” He had earlier said that the group has “become like a therapy session.”  I feel that in the prison program, more than at Hamilton, I can directly help people to live the examined life, and participate with them in examining my own. Given the maleness of the texts and the environment, the men recently asked me what I got out of it. I told them that as a feminist critic, I need to understand masculinity. But the truth is simpler: I enjoy teaching there (when it is going well). There are limits that we must observe, but within those boundaries we are free to fly high.

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