Engaged Learning

USF Class Meets Incarcerated Students Where They Are

by Annie Breen, USF News

Students who enrolled last fall in Philosophy 214, The Social Contract, traveled not just across campus to get to class — they headed across the bay to San Quentin State Prison.

The class brought together USF undergraduates and San Quentin inmates in a course offered jointly by USF and Mt Tamalpais College (MTC), a two-year college that offers higher education classes at San Quentin. It was developed by USF Adjunct Professor Jennifer Fisher, who also teaches at MTC, which is formerly known as the Prison University Project.

The San Quentin incarcerated students were eager to learn and prepared to participate, Fisher said. So were the USF students.

“I made a point to sit on the other side of the room where I would be surrounded by incarcerated citizens,” USF student Jesse Bowman ’23 said. “That seemed like the point of the class to me: for free citizens to integrate and interact with incarcerated citizens.”

Location, Integration
There was no question about where the integrated classes would take place: USF students would have to travel to San Quentin. Navigating this was a feat in itself, as each USF student had to obtain a special clearance to attend the classes. “It took longer than I would have liked,” Fisher said, “but it was worth it once we were all in the room together.”

The point of the course was to examine what’s known as “the social contract,” an implicit agreement among members of a society to follow certain rules and accept giving up some freedoms in exchange for some protections. Fisher wanted to explore the notion and encouraged her students to think about “how educational and carceral institutions play into this voluntary contract.”

Tackling Tough Issues
“We talked about controversial issues, and there were some intense conversations,” Fisher said. She noted that the USF students were open in acknowledging their privilege, and students developed emotional connections after learning side-by-side. “All of the dynamics — racial, class — were right there on the surface.”

Fisher hopes to offer the philosophy class again, and said “nobody can prepare you for the level of welcome and the sense of being with people who are the opposite of what you’ve been led to expect. I had a student say of the class, ‘I wouldn’t tell anybody anything about it before taking it, because what’s great about it is that you walk in and you have all these expectations and biases, and they drop immediately.’”

 “It’s an impactful experience.”