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From June 8th – 12th, 2022, Danny Murillo, the Michelson 20MM Foundation Smart Justice Fellow, attended Basecamp 2022: Prison Educators and Faculty Retreat, hosted by Spark Grantee The Transformative Education Collective. Following the event, Danny shared his reflections and lessons learned.

By Danny Murillo 

The delicious food and drinks were plentiful as the Transformative Education Collective, a Spark grantee, hosted Basecamp 2022: Prison Educators and Faculty Retreat in Tehachapi State Park. Moving away from the traditional conference-style presentations and panel discussions, this unique in-person wellness-oriented training retreat focused on co-learning, dialogue, community building, and individual and collective well-being. 

Educational opportunities in prison are empowering and transformative for incarcerated students; they also have the potential to transform the social and cultural dynamics of the prison institution and society. All students, including those currently and formerly incarcerated, deserve the right to access quality postsecondary education. For incarcerated students, this includes dedicated classroom space; face-to-face classroom-based instruction; and comprehensive in-person student support, such as counseling, advising, tutoring, library services, and coordination with on-campus programs.

The co-learning guide included an introduction to the Native Land by a Kawaiisu Member and a range of topics, such as transparency in teaching practices, challenges to student success in the carceral classroom, and unpacking how trauma and biases impact both incarcerated students and practitioners.  

The Transformative Education Collective invited me to facilitate two sessions. The first was an introduction to the efforts of the Michelson Smart Justice Think Tank, and the second was a conversation on incarcerated student empowerment as well as the role of faculty and staff leveraging their power to support incarcerated students’ academic success and transition. 

As I reflect on my participation as a facilitator and participant, I experienced many learning opportunities. For instance, introducing the Guiding Principles for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Students allowed me to get an outside perspective. Developed by the Smart Justice Think Tank, the guiding principles represent a student-centered approach to accelerating the success of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. There was concern from attendees that higher education institutions would adopt the guiding principles without providing additional funding, resulting in an additional workload for staff and faculty. Attendees also expressed the need for more professional development for higher education in prison practitioners at the same time, they highlighted the need to couple this professional development with a human-centered approach to teaching and learning. Lastly, during a session I attended as a participant, one takeaway was that the role of faculty in higher education in prison is to build on the knowledge that incarcerated students bring with them into the classroom from their lived experiences. 

The Prison Educators Retreat aims to learn and collaborate in sharing and creating knowledge to better serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated studentsThe California Community College system was well represented by faculty and staff working in postsecondary education programs in prisons and jails, accompanied by some attendees from Illinois, Mississippi, and New Hampshire. 

To serve in postsecondary education in the prison program is an opportunity to participate in the transformation through education of people whom the carceral system has discarded. It is impossible to measure the impact that faculty and staff have on incarcerated students’ lives. Time and again, we hear stories from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students sharing their stories of transformation and empowerment; within many of these stories we hear of staff or faculty members showing up for their students day in and day out. 

Postsecondary education prison programs and the institutions they represent should provide faculty and staff with the necessary resources to succeed as social and institutional change agents. Faculty and staff cannot and should not carry this responsibility; however, they are the ones who are face-to-face with incarcerated students. The Prison Educators Retreat did a great job of fueling attendees with a renewed fire to advocate for faculty and staff members teaching in prisons as well as for their students.  

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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