Skip Navigation

Prison Education and Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Amy Remensnyder

Image Credit: Douglas Heuman

Amy Remensnyder is a Professor of History at Brown University. She specializes in the High Middle Ages and is the author of Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France, and La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds. She also teaches the course “Locked Up: A Global History of Prison and Captivity,” which she teaches at Brown concurrently with teaching it at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute, through the Brown History Education Project.

Tucker Wilke: How did you get involved with teaching at the ACI and the Brown History Education Prison Project?

Amy Remensnyder: I started teaching at the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) in 2010, through a program that was founded in 2008 by a Brown undergraduate named Jonathan Coleman with funding from Brown’s Swearer Center. By the time he graduated, the program had become more moribund. It was then revived by another student, Arthur Matuszewski. Arthur got available faculty on campus to come in and do a one-time session in the ACI on their subject.

I wish I could say that the way that I came to this program was that I realized that mass incarceration is a crime against humanity, but I didn’t know that yet. I think the fact that I had never really thought about the prison population of the country is both a sign of my own ignorance and of how well it’s concealed. In the United States, the prison population is hidden from the general population by being incarcerated in prisons that are outside of population centers, rather than being right in our cities.

Instead, I had been looking for some way to become a more engaged scholar and teacher, when somebody at the Swearer Center introduced me to the program. I looked at it and said, “Well, I’m not going to come in and teach just one session, that’s not so useful pedagogically.” I initially taught a four unit class on the Crusades, and immediately found it to be a really rich teaching experience. I felt that this was a place where one of the things I’m good at could be of value because this is a really educationally underserved population. When Arthur graduated, I realized that the program would simply die if I didn’t make it a faculty-run program.

So I took it over and, along with some colleagues in the History Department, re-founded the program. It’s now called the Brown History Education Prison Project (BHEPP), though we are still known at the prison as BELLS.

TW: What were the origins of your class “Locked Up: A Global History of Prison and Captivity?”

AR: After teaching at the prison for about four years, I realized that I actually knew relatively little about the history of the institution that is prison. When we professors want to learn about new topics, we often either do research on the subject, or we teach a class on the subject. I wanted to teach a course about the history of prison and captivity because for me, it’s really important that prison and mass incarceration are seen in terms of a long continuum. Ever since we have written law, we can tell that people have been locking each other up. Every society has had some form of captivity, whether it’s social, political, judicial, or punitive. It was important for me as a medievalist not to try and teach a course that was about modern America exclusively but to really put it in this larger context. I then started teaching Locked Up: A Global History of Prison and Captivity.

For the first year, I just taught the course at Brown, but I found that when I was teaching at the prison, I was talking to the incarcerated students about what I was reading with my Brown students, and then the Brown students had lots of questions about what the incarcerated students were learning. So, I thought I should teach this course both at Brown and at the prison simultaneously.

Overall, I think the class evolved very organically. In the modern, contemporary world, as people who have been oppressed come to consciousness, one of the things they do is claim their history. I see incarcerated people as people who are experiencing oppression, so it became really important to me that they understand their own history

TW: How did you create the dialogue between the Brown students and the incarcerated students?

AR: When I got the course approved by the ACI, I realized that I really had two classes. I had the Locked Up students at Brown and the Locked Up students who were themselves locked up, and I thought there needed to be some communication between the groups. Gradually, I got permission from the prison to bring in these little tiny recorders that I would also use with the Brown students. Every other week, the Brown students would have the job of asking questions about that week’s materials. I would bring those recordings in to the incarcerated students, play them, and record their answers. Then I would bring the incarcerated students’ responses back out and play them for Brown students, and then the next week the incarcerated students would ask questions about the material, and so on.

TW: How have the Brown students and the incarcerated students responded to the dialogue and their classmates generally? Do you see patterns over the years?

AR: Especially at the beginning of the class, one of the things incarcerated students ask their Brown classmates is, “What stereotypes do you bring to your experience of us? Are you thinking we’re all this set of like wild, savage beasts in the way that the media often portrays us?” or “Are you looking down on us, are we a social experiment, are you just observing us, or are you valuing us as fellow students?”

I do think that there are some Brown students who begin the course with a stereotype and lose it by the end. At the end of the semester, I always ask the question, “How was the dialogue for you?” and somebody will always say, “I really entered with this stereotype that they would be kind of less educated and less smart than us and I learned it’s totally not true.” I like to imagine that both sides come out with more respect for each other. Some of the incarcerated students have said to me that one of the things that’s the most important about Locked Up is that sense of being accepted as peers by Brown students.

The incarcerated students also often recognize that a lot of Brown students are going to go on to be influential figures — senators, judges, lawyers, lawmakers — and hope that they will take the course experience with them and advocate for change in the criminal justice system. So, I think the class changes things on both sides. I try to be as honest as possible about what’s happening so everybody has a sense of being treated as partners, and by the end, from what I can tell, that seems to be the case.

TW: How have incarcerated people responded to the content of learning about the history of captivity? Are there differences between their responses and those from the Brown students?

AR: I want to make it very clear that I can’t speak for anybody’s experience, only my perspective as a teacher from what students have said. I was very surprised when some of my incarcerated students said that this class weirdly made them realize how easy they have it, that they are not convicted offenders in, say, the Roman Empire, where they would have had their hands cut off or some other brutal physical punishment. What I did expect, and which some of them do express, is the sense that this is a much bigger problem than just here in the U.S. Sometimes this class gives the incarcerated students a larger framework of analysis for understanding the systems that have produced prison. Many of them come from backgrounds of utter non-privilege, which is not to excuse committing crimes, but the course helps them understand even more the systems that are operative in and create societies, including a society that creates mass incarceration. Many of them already think very much at that level, and this class, I think, cements that.

I think, too, that the incarcerated students, because of their experience, claim a certain kind of authority over the readings that the Brown students simply can’t have. Since the incarcerated students have firsthand experience of captivity, they notice things in the text viscerally that the Brown students would pay much less attention to. To give you an example, in Twelve Years A Slave, there’s a passage where Solomon Northup says that on plantations you could hear the cracking of the whip everywhere. And I remember, they said, “Oh, yeah, it’s just like the cuffs” and I asked, “What are you talking about?”

Well, the Correctional Officers have handcuffs, and you can hear them jingle. That jingle for the incarcerated students produces the same sense of domination that the cracking of the whip would produce for the slave. The Brown students might observe that the crack of the whip must have been traumatic, but they don’t have that visceral sense of what a sound does to a captive, a sound that is associated with the instrument of your deprivation of liberty.

TW: What insights have you gained by thinking about mass incarceration in the U.S. from a historical perspective?

AR: Mass incarceration is often seen as a negative manifestation of the idea of U.S. exceptionalism. We have a sense that something different is going on in this country. That is true, but what is happening here is not so different from anything that has ever happened before. Other modern Western nations do not have incarceration rates like ours, but we are not the only society to have had mass incarceration. I think that by understanding it in this much, much longer continuum, we can see what a perennial problem this is. Societies have always struggled with how to think about people who break what they consider to be the law. Prison, of course, has not always been the dominant form of traditional punishment, so we can ask, why have we come up with this now and why is it so big here? Why is it that humans feel the need to hold other people captive? How do we struggle with that? When you put it in this larger continuum, you can see that prison is not inevitable, that mass incarceration is not inevitable, and that it can be fixed.

It’s also not just a problem for humans. I really make a plug for seeing nonhumans as captives. Now that I know the research around the effects of captivity, I can’t bear to see anything locked up. I think that people who see captivity in this larger context will become more sensitized to all the other instances of captivity in the world and they’ll understand that mass incarceration is also happening in the form of processes such as human trafficking and animal captivity and that these are all part of this larger problem.

TW: How has your work experience teaching in the ACI impacted your Medieval scholarship?

AR: The project that I’m working on now focuses on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, which was used by medieval and early modern Muslim and Christian pirates. Piracy in that era was really about taking humans and either holding them for ransom or selling them into slavery. On this island, Muslim and Christian pirates together created a sacred shrine, where they made very unusual offerings of supplies and food. Lampedusa was a deserted island, so this shrine was there for any mariner who was shipwrecked, but also for any slave who escaped out of nearby Malta, Tunis, or Tripoli, and made it to the island. The pirates made normal offerings such as oil and coins, but they also offered men’s clothing, sailcloth, rope, axes, pens, and all kinds of practical stuff.

So why do you have pirates who create this shrine and make these offerings, knowing that the people who escaped from the slave trade which they themselves have initiated can show up there? Well, it shows a certain kind of compassion on the part of the captors for captives who managed to escape. These pirates could end up being captives themselves just as easily as their captives, as there are multiple instances of pirates who end up being captives and sold into slavery. My realization that these pirates, who perpetrated terrible violence, could have had compassion, and that they were afraid themselves, comes in part from my deep, deep sense of the humanity of my incarcerated students. Many of them have done terrible, violent things that they now completely regret after 20 years, but they’re also men whom I often find to be deeply moral and deeply compassionate. Prison teaching has led me to try and understand men in the past who committed terrible violent acts, to see their humanity and to see their complexity.

TW: Are there any ways that students, alumni, or whoever might be reading can help out with this program?

AR: The Brown History Education Prison Project is now a part of the History Department. It’s officially part of what we do, it’s in our mission as a department, and the way that people can help out is to be advocates for higher education behind bars. They can write letters to their institution and urge them to support programs like this. This is a really important way to address racial issues in our country, because, of course, incarcerated people are disproportionately people of color. It’s really an issue of racial equity. It’s also an issue of social equity, as this was a very underserved population even when they were not incarcerated. People can get involved with whatever’s going on in their local community, they can urge their alma mater or their present institution of learning to support programs of higher learning behind bars, they can give money to the history department, or they can give money to Brown and earmark it for BHEPP, and overall just be advocates on campus.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.