A Taste of Prison

Over the course of this past semester, I have had the opportunity to take ANTH-101: Cultural Anthropology. However, this course was not taught on the St. Davids campus but instead took place at SCI-Chester, a medium security prison that is also the home of Eastern University’s Prison Education Program (PEP), where I have also been a student worker for over two-and-a-half years. PEP provides a transformative educational experience to incarcerated students seeking to obtain an Associate of the Arts (A.A.) degree in the Liberal Arts, which consists of about 80 credits and four semesters. As student workers, fellow co-worker and friend Ellie Greer and I were offered the opportunity by Dr. Fantuzzo, the director of PEP. 

When discussing Greer and I’s attendance within the Anthropology course inside SCI-Chester, the vision was for us to be the first students at Eastern to take a PEP course and essentially allow more students to attend PEP classes as an integrated experience after evaluating Ellie and I’s experience. 

“PEP looks forward to offering ‘integrated classes’ at SCI-Chester next academic year. This means courses where some Eastern students are incarcerated and others live on the main campus. Taking Professor Meneses’s course at SCI-Chester this semester, Téa and Ellie have been trailblazers for ‘integrated courses.’ We suspect many students will follow their lead and integrated courses will help substantiate Eastern’s commitment to faith, reason and justice,” Dr. Fantuzzo said.

Before beginning the anthropology course inside the prison, I was concerned mainly about the lack of resources available. Due to Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) protocol, electronics such as cell phones or laptops are not allowed to come into the facility. Not only that, but pencils, paper, notebooks, and textbooks are also not able to be brought in. Basically, nothing is allowed to be brought in the facility except for your person and state-issued ID or driver’s license for security purposes. Instead, Greer and I each have a set of textbooks, a notebook, a syllabus, and a pen that we keep in a closet within our designated classroom. When asking Greer what she struggled the most with when first adapting to class in prison culture, she concurred that the most difficult part of adjusting to SCI-Chester was not being able to bring in anything, unlike a typical undergraduate class.

Despite the restrictions on resources, Greer and I have become immersed in prison culture, which is extremely important when taking a cultural anthropology course.

“I feel as though the unique classroom environment that SCI-Chester provides creates an immersive environment to another culture that you would not be able to experience in a traditional classroom,” Greer said.

As this is the first time that traditional students have joined a PEP class, professors were not really sure how both sets of students would interact with each other. However, Dr. Meneses, professor of ANTH-100, had very positive remarks when asked about how all of the students, traditional and PEP students alike, interacted with each other.

“Having the EU on-campus students join the PEP class has been a very good experience.  The on-campus students were kindly welcomed by the SCI Chester students, and they blended into the classroom environment nicely. Truly there was no distinction between them as students. It was one class, and it went well!” Dr. Meneses said.

Another unique experience of taking this particular course was having the course TA be David Garlock, an Eastern alum who also happens to be a formerly incarcerated individual turned criminal justice reform advocate. 

“I was drawn to Eastern because of the motto ‘Faith, Reason, and Justice’ along with the fact that the faith of Eastern is demonstrated by the prison, street and other ministries. This is now demonstrated in having students from main campus taking classes with their fellow students at SCI-Chester. This is what Jesus would do! Matthew 25:34-40 is being fulfilled with this partnership. I can’t wait to see more students get this opportunity to meet their classmates who are on the inside,” Garlock said.

Those who seemed to get the most out of our attendance in the class were the students themselves. When asked, one student said, “Your presence in the classroom gives us a sense of normalcy and humanization that we desperately need.” Another student also commented on our integrated class experience, saying, “You guys motivate me to do better and better. We’re not around a lot of young people and it’s inspiring.”

Overall, I have enjoyed my experience taking ANTH-101 in SCI-Chester, and it has been immensely impactful within my academic career. If you are looking for a course to take next semester, consider taking a course with PEP!

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