Knox College pilot program gives students, Henry Hill prisoners an opportunity to learn together

When Leanne Trapedo Sims was in the process of being getting hired as an assistant professor at Knox College in Galesburg, she saw the institution’s closeness to the Henry Hill Correctional Center as an opportunity.

“Literally, it’s five minutes away,” said Trapedo Sims, who co-chairs the college’s Peace and Justice Studies program. “Almost, I think, no college education programs across the state have that proximity. So really, I think about the people at Hill as our neighbors, in a sense.”

In the last spring semester, Trapedo Sims piloted the college’s first “Inside Out” course, built around a methodology established by Lori Pompa at Temple University in the late 1990s.

Leanne Trapedo Sims

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Leanne Trapedo Sims

“It’s this idea that somebody is much more than the mistake they’ve made in their lives – and sometimes people are also innocent in prisons – and that everybody deserves education; education is a human right,” Trapedo Sims said. “So when I knew about this with Henry Hill, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do this.”

The program provides an opportunity for Knox students and men incarcerated at Hill to learn alongside each other. Trapedo Sims said the experience has been transformative for both groups.

“It is an opportunity to kind of talk to people about the power of liberal arts, the power of humanities, to change or transform lives,” said Trapedo Sims, who now has two additional Knox faculty members – Fernando Gomez and Gonzalo Pinella – teaching with her as she expands the prison education program.

Trapedo Sims said the prison education program works to disrupt common beliefs, narratives and stereotypes about the men behind bars.

“I think a lot of people think that the people inside who are incarcerated can’t really perform academically,” said Trapedo Sims, who had her college students and the prisoners work on creating a writing “zine” together. “I think the students were really blown away about how proficiently the men write and think – they are very much critical thinkers. Their creative work is beautiful; there are a lot of artists at Hill.”

Trapedo Sims is teaching a Life Writing course at Hill this term, with a focus on Native American memoirs. Gomez, an associate professor and chair of Modern Languages, is teaching Spanish at the prison, while Pinella is teaching art as a visiting professor of art from Colombia.

Before participating in the spring Inside Out course, the Knox students take Trapedo Sims’ prison education practicum course to prepare them for being inside Hill.

“They need to really learn how to navigate the correctional facility, which is very different from navigating Knox College, clearly,” she said. “So I really talked to them a lot about dress code. I talked to them about how when we go in there, we have to be very professional; we have to be polite. So I do spend a lot of time talking to them about all these things, as well as talking to them about mass incarceration in the U.S. so they get kind of a foundational knowledge of what is going on in the U.S. with prisons.”

Trapedo Sims notes that many safety measures are put in place to protect both the Knox students and the men at Hill. Participants in the program only use first names, no personal information is shared, and there’s no continued outside correspondence once the course is complete.

Nine Knox students who participated in the program last spring recently joined Trapedo Sims in attending the National Peace and Justice Studies Conference at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She said the program changed the way many students viewed prison inmates.

“This class was really, really successful, and I think it was successful because I had a whole year of building a community with the men at Hill because I taught creative writing with one of my students, and then I had a whole year of working with the Knox students in the American Crime and Punishment course and the Prison Education As Practicum course,” she said.

“In fact, all the students that took this class decided to become Peace and Justice Studies minors, so it also sort of really enlivened the interest in peace and justice and to think about prison education as one aspect of peace and justice.”

Trapedo Sims recently published a book entitled, “Reckoning With Restorative Justice: Hawai’i Women’s Prison Writing.” She said she sees a connection between the experiences of the women inside Hawaii’s only women’s prison and the men at Hill.

“Native Hawaiians only make up 20% of the population, right, but they are very highly over represented in the prison population – I think they make up about 45% of the population in the women’s prison,” she said. “We can kind of look at this idea of why so many native Hawaiians are locked up in Hawaii, and in some ways there’s a parallel to why there’s so many black and brown or communities of color locked up in the U.S. in the mainland.”

“So we really see education as an arm of restorative justice because when you start to work with the people behind bars, you can really see some people’s trajectory into prisons. I’m not trying to condone large kind of crimes, but some people really come from poverty, a lot of people come from poverty. A lot of people come from hopelessness, from despair, from drug addiction.”

Trapedo Sims said she’d like to continue expanding the prison education program, potentially to a point where men at Hill could earn Knox degrees – although she admits that’s a long ways away. Still, she sees the notion of college students an incarcerated individuals learning side-by-side as a step toward a broader look at justice.

“I would love to sort of bring this out more to the community and have more community impact, like to talk to people in Galesburg or even in Peoria about getting people more interested in this,” she said. “In some ways we could have a larger conversation. That will be something I would love to do, like more of a restorative justice lab at Knox, just talking more and thinking more about restorative justice.”

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