Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about experiences faculty, staff, and students have had working with the Georgia State University Prison Education Project (GSUPEP). You can learn more about the project at their website (https://perimeter.gsu.edu/gsupep/)
by Victoria Justice (vjustice1@student.gsu.edu)
      Recently, through the partnership of the Georgia State University Prison Education Project (GSUPEP) and Common Good Atlanta, I was given the incredible opportunity to participate in Dr. Cantrell’s English class at Phillips State Prison. Dr. Cantrell’s English class was not my first experience with correctional education, and it certainly will not be my last. A couple of years ago, through GSUPEP, I was introduced to Dr. Lindsay’s philosophical enrichment course at the Atlanta Transitional Center. Through these enrichment classes we read and discussed the works of Franz Kafka. The thoughtful insight of the student’s in Dr. Lindsay’s course inspired me to become more deeply involved in the organization. Now, I am currently working as GSUPEP’s first intern. Through my internship I have been given the opportunity to experience all of the inner workings of the organization and it has led me to meet other professors who teach in prisons throughout the state of Georgia.
      Similar to my classroom experience with Dr. Lindsay’s philosophical courses, the literature we were assigned in Dr. Cantrell’s English course was deep and thought provoking. Our class discussion and activities were based on James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew as well as the first half of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. My initial thoughts for going into Dr. Cantrell’s session with these particular readings were positive. Our weekly readings were well written and offered a wide array of possibilities for discussion. Prior to class I marked down a few of my favorite quotations from the literature, and I was truly looking forward to hearing what the other students liked, or disliked about the readings. While listening to the conversations around the room, I noticed quite a significant contrast in each student’s thoughts, perceptions, and understandings of the two pieces. I thought that the clear contrast in the perceptions among these students was a valuable lesson in itself. The sense of individuality can be greatly portrayed through the discussion of literature.
      I noticed a similarity between the students in the class at Phillips State Prison and the students from the classes at the Atlanta Transitional Center, they often offered so much more than was expected of them. This is something that surprises me every single time I attend these sessions. Attending classes on a traditional campus, it is sometimes difficult to find students who have completed the readings, even in my graduate courses. However, I notice less of this when I attend classes in correctional facilities. Often times the students have not only completed the assigned readings, but have also read unassigned literature from the same author. Even more so, I often noticed students who have read biographies on the author to better understand the author’s relationship with the protagonist. The amount of critical thinking I am exposed to in these correctional courses has always been immensely satisfying. The students and their endless abilities and potential are the reason that I will continue to attend these courses, and hopefully teach my own.  

The Georgia State University Prison Education Project seeks to bring higher education into prisons, support reentry into society by those who have been incarcerated and reduce recidivism. GSUPEP offers support and opportunity to incarcerated students to promote lifelong learning that strengthens human character, increases understanding of life experiences and motivates students to engage in productive citizenship.You can learn more about their work at https://perimeter.gsu.edu/gsupep/