Written by Annalisa Plumb
I happened into Marek Fuchs’s class my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence by accident, after being bumped out of a popular neuropsychology class that filled up quickly with seniors. The options for remaining classes were disheartening; I had in large part chosen Sarah Lawrence because of the ability to “steer your own education”. I hadn’t considered the possibility that just because I didn’t have requirements for a major did not mean I would get to take every class I registered for. Looking through the list of alternate registration classes, my interest was piqued by a writing course titled “Wrongfully Accused”. In all honesty, a large part of my interest came from the fact that there was no course description and the class hadn’t originally been in the course catalog. I became even more intrigued when the professor’s office was exceedingly difficult to find; what this says about me I’m not sure, but in being bumped from a class I suddenly found myself with a throw-it-all-to-the-wind attitude.
What I remember about meeting Marek is that for all the intrigue and mystery surrounding his class, he was immediately knowable. He joked about the class having somehow been left out of the course catalog, about the horrible school coffee we were drinking, and about being entirely devoid of emotion. “I avoid feelings at all costs”, he would tell me repeatedly over the following years. Yet, here he was, teaching what I learned would be a journalism class about the criminal justice system and wrongful convictions. I registered for the class.
A year and a half later, in the spring of my junior year, I emailed Marek to tell him that I was interested in taking the combined course he was teaching with Sarah Lawrence students and inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. I had heard about the class from older peers and was curious about Bedford Hills- the only maximum-security women’s prison in the state of New York. The class would take place inside one of the prison’s college classrooms. “Call me,” Marek had replied to my email expressing interest, “This class isn’t for the faint of heart.”
Saying that the class at Bedford changed my life sounds trite except that it is the only way I know how to simply express my experience. Having always thought of myself as someone with a strong moral compass, I can tell you that my understanding of people was rocked in a way that made me reevaluate myself and others. I admit that initially I wanted to take the combined course for some of the same reasons I had wanted to take Marek’s class my sophomore year: the mystery, the wow-factor of going into a prison, what I imagined murderers and violent felons to be like. I had one classmate, let’s call her Leah, who I sat next to sometimes. She was pretty, young, easy to talk to and she laughed a lot. When we read and discussed In Cold Blood, I remember being surprised that she judged Perry just as harshly as she did Dick, though Dick was clearly the more ruthless killer of the pair. I later found out that Leah was in Bedford for manslaughter. Almost all of the women at Bedford have committed violent crimes, and yet my experience of working alongside them all year showed me that people are not as uncomplicated as the criminal justice system wants them to be. The ambivalence I felt when I learned about Leah’s crime, and all of my classmates crimes for that matter, still works in me. Being inside Bedford didn’t give me many clear answers; it made most of what I already knew more complicated. Perhaps the one thing I know for certain, however, is that the women in the college program at Bedford have all found it transformative. Almost all of the women at Bedford have had rudimentary educations prior to imprisonment. The recidivism rates should speak for themselves; nationwide recidivism rates are 67%, compared to recidivism rates as low as 4% for inmates with college degrees.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on all the great teachers I’ve been privileged enough to study under and how much they’ve shaped my thinking. If you had told me four years ago that one of my greatest mentors would be a journalism professor who also coaches basketball and is a volunteer firefighter, I would have laughed. I’m a city kid and an actress; I’m someone who has historically connected to metropolitan sensitive types, but Marek Fuchs is one of the stand-outs for me because of his directness. He has none of the highfalutin air of academia, and though he is obviously smart he does not force this on you. One of the most impressive things in thinking back on the prison class is that Marek was able to almost seamlessly lead a group of people who, viewed from a distance, could not be more dissimilar. I called him up to ask him some questions about his experience teaching at Bedford Hills. I’ve typed up our conversation here:
A: Hey Marek how’s it going? Thanks so much for talking with me this morning.
M: Hey Annalisa, my pleasure. I’m good, I’m good.
A: So the reason I’m calling to interview you, aside from my own selfish interest, is that I’ve been working with this group of women who identify as artist activists. We’re calling ourselves Healix Collective. We’re trying to figure out our role in community empowerment and social progress. Personally it’s been really important to me that as I find my own voice as an activist, I also remember that I am always learning. I don’t want to claim to be an authority in any one area, and I think that’s where this interview idea stemmed from. I know we’re hoping to feature people on our website who have been role models/teachers/leaders in some way and are involved in issues we believe are important to speak to.. I thought of you.
M: That sounds great. That sounds really great. Yeah please let me know what else you guys have going on this summer.
A: I’ll definitely keep you in the loop. So can I ask you a few questions about the Bedford class?
M: Yeah, yeah, of course.
A: So, I know some of this already but I’d like to ask you anyway for people who might not know about this class you teach. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in teaching a class in prison?
M: Well, someone from the prison’s college program came to Sarah Lawrence to try to round up some professors who were willing to teach there. Marymount Manhattan administers the school, but they wanted to get a variety of professors. Somebody, nobody is too sure precisely who, put up their hand and said, “Why don’t we mix half Sarah Lawrence students with half inmate students.” Everybody in the room kind of blanched, but to Sarah Lawrence’s everlasting credit the idea took hold, which was really great. It took about two or three years to get it up and going. And as if the idea weren’t stupid enough I also thought what better thing to teach than journalism. What more challenging place to teach journalism than in a place where power is absolute? So that’s how it was conceived. I mean, conceptually, it’s the stupidest idea in the annals of academia, but it somehow worked.
A: And you signed on to it from the very beginning?
M: Yeah I was signed on. It’s unclear whether I volunteered or asked- I don’t quite remember. It just kind of took hold.
A: Why were you interested in doing it?
M: I was always interested in prisons and I’d done a lot of reporting in maximum-security prisons, so I always had that interest, but I never thought that my teaching would be linked to prisons in any way. When it seemed like a possibility I was totally into it.
A: That’s great. What were you thinking before your first class? Did you have any idea what it would be like?
M: I was really, really nervous the summer beforehand. I thought about it a lot because we were trying to meld two groups that couldn’t be less alike. In terms of life experience, even in terms of age, I’d never thought of having some people who were 21 and some people who were in their 40s in the same classroom. I knew that the prison system would be really dedicated, because in order to get to college in prison, stay in there, and get to the point where they’re taking advanced classes, they have to give up a lot of yard time… I mean they really have to be dedicated, but I didn’t know what their education would be like; I just didn’t know how the class would meld. And because the prison’s on a limited budget I didn’t have total free reign in terms of what books I could assign. So I was nervous. Once you get there though, you’re just talking to really dedicated students. In both cases, with the Sarah Lawrence students and the inmates, these weren’t risk averse students. On both sides they had risked a lot to be there, so there were interesting people. When you have interesting people, books, and ideas, and you start reading and talking about them, all the differences fall by the wayside pretty quickly.
A: That was definitely my experience of being there. I think finding that balance is easier said than done though. How did you do it? What was your approach to integrating yourself as a mentor in a women’s prison? Did you feel like you were well-received? I mean, the students you were bringing from Sarah Lawrence were going to be so obviously privileged and stick out like sore thumbs in that environment and you had to somehow be a middle man. What was that like for you?
M: I just assumed and recognized the fact that we were going to be perceived, at first, with no small degree of suspicion for any number of reasons. We were going to be perceived with arched eyebrows- if not furrowed eyebrows. Like what the f*ck are you doing here. But I always think that in the end, humor and good faith are good equalizers. If you’re just willing to joke around and keep things light and then they see that you’re there and you’re truly interested in what we’re learning (journalism), what we’re reading, and you’re truly interested in the penal experience, you can build faith over time.
A: Yeah I see what you mean. What’s your perspective about what this college program has done for the women at Bedford? Have you seen how that has changed people? Do you think that these kinds of educational and rehabilitative programs are beneficial to the inmates?
M: Yeah definitely. A lot of my inmate students outside of class will basically tell the same story and that’s this: before prison their thought systems were really disordered for any number of reasons… terrible upbringings, total lack of education, drug abuse, etc. Then they came to prison and, oddly enough, suddenly had this great opportunity to get a great education. It’s like they could superimpose these totally new thought structures on their lives and how they perceive the world. To me, that’s in it’s purest form is what education should be all about.
A: Can you say a little more about that? What do you mean?
M: Look, a good education should give us ways to see the world that advance our understanding of other people and heighten our sense of how the world works. If you haven’t had education in the past, as many of these inmates haven’t, you’re seeing the world through these lenses that don’t necessarily help you understand what other people are going through and don’t necessarily help you understand the way the world works. The recidivism numbers a few years ago- I don’t have the most recent numbers- but a few years ago out of the 67 inmates who were released with a college degree only one has come back. That’s really incredible, especially because parole is so technical; a lot of people get nailed for these stupid parole violations.
A: Yeah that is pretty amazing. I’m curious if you’ve noticed that the climate inside the prison has changed post-election? I guess I’m also wondering if you think that there’s been an increased interest in involvement in problems with mass incarceration. I’ve noticed that many people suddenly seem to want to have more involvement in social justice issues.
M: I think people are concerned about Trump, but I don’t think that necessarily translates. I don’t see any increased interest in mass incarceration post-election, and I don’t trust that feeling entirely.
A: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean? What don’t you trust?
M: I think there are a lot of feelings that are felt now for good reason- they’re very grounded- but I’m not sure that too many people, in a lasting way, are willing to put those feelings into action. I don’t think people say, “Hey there’s a lunatic for president, so I want to take a risk and take a class in a prison.” I think for most people that’s kind of going A-Z. In the prison itself, it’s kind of the land that time forgot. They’re concerned about Trump but they’re really at a remove. There’s also no outlet for any sort of activism there and prisons are myopic places filled with people who can be quite myopic. The larger world isn’t always a huge concern. In society over time, I have seen certainly much more interest in the issue of mass incarceration, but I don’t think that anything has changed since Trump.
A: That’s interesting. Maybe I’m guilty of fueling those panicky feelings in some way myself.
M: I think it’s been easy for a lot of people to do.
A: Can I ask why is this your last year teaching this combined course?
M: For a number of reasons. At this point, having taught the class for four years, I’ve had every student at the inmate college.
A: Do you want to continue to be involved in some way even if you aren’t teaching?
M: Yeah definitely. I don’t know yet exactly what that will look like. I have this idea to have a class that is made up of guards and inmates as a way to foster a relationship that is the definition of fraught. We’ll see how that idea goes. It might take a long time to put into effect.
A: Wow. That would be wild. I’ll be so curious to see if that can happen. Do you think that they would have you back to teach that?
M: You never know. Stranger things have certainly happened. If you had told me that this class I’ve been teaching would ever come to fruition- let alone last for four years- I’d have told you you were crazy. We’ll see.
If you want to learn more about the Bedford Hills College Program, come to Healix Collective’s screening of “What I Want My Words to Do to You”: a documentary about a writing workshop inside the prison. Info about this upcoming event can be found here
You can also visit Marymount Manhattan College’s website to learn about the Bedford College Program here
Another great resource for information about higher education inside prisons is the organization Hudson Link, which was started by former inmate and inspiration Sean Pica. Check it out here