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Antioch In Extremis

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It’s a 20 mile drive from Antioch College’s campus to the Dayton Correctional Institute (DCI), a state women’s prison just west of the city for which it’s named. If you know your way, and if there’s no traffic on US-35 going into Dayton, you can make it in just under half an hour. Even if there is traffic—and even if you somehow miss that last right onto Germantown Road, too—the trip won’t take you more than 40 minutes. It’s not far away.
Driving there, you pass through a drably uniform landscape—the sub-suburban desolation typical of this corner of the Midwest: Taco Bell, strip mall, stucco church, strip mall, billboard advertising the services of a personal injury attorney, his grin as rapacious and mirthless as an anglerfish’s. Then the buildings of downtown Dayton, abrupt and unnaturally stout. Then you’re there.

You don’t feel you’re far from home. Yet, unless you’ve had the misfortune of intimate acquaintance with our nation’s penal system, that’s exactly where you are: You’re about as far from home as a person can get. And you’ve arrived before you could even finish your podcast.

There are many profoundly strange things about prisons, and about the system they’re built to serve. This is just the first.

Inside-Out courses bring traditional college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for semester-long learning.

DCI is surrounded by two fences approximately ten feet apart. Each fence is topped with a spool of concertina wire which, when viewed at close range, looks jagged and dentate, almost medical. In the interval between the two fences, the ground is covered with a snarl of the same, so to walk across this interval is to, effectively, forfeit any skin beneath one’s knees. The fences’ sole aperture is covered by a gatehouse. It’s through this gatehouse that anyone who wishes to enter or exit the prison under protection of the law must pass, and it’s through this gatehouse that, in the fall of 2015, Emily Steinmetz led a group of eight students.

This was class. Steinmetz was an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Antioch College; the students were her students. They had enrolled in a course called Inside-Out: Race, Gender, and Citizenship. This was its first meeting. Class was to be held in a visiting room inside the prison.

Inside. In the sense that I’m using it, there are as many definitions of this word as there are prisons, which means at least 6,125 definitions of “inside” in the United States. At DCI, though, “inside” means this: behind the fences, through the gatehouse, behind the twin glass doors of the main entrance—a glass both pitch black and perfectly reflective: just as suited to obscuring what’s behind it as to revealing what’s before it—through a metal detector, and then behind several sets of steel security doors, the purpose of which would be perfectly clear even if they didn’t open with a reluctant pneumatic sigh and shut with a malicious clanking finality.
In other words, no class offered in Antioch’s 160-plus-year history had ever been quite so inconveniently located as Inside-Out.

But in addition to the eight Antioch students enrolled in the class, there were eight incarcerated women enrolled; and the inconvenience of having to go somewhere pales in comparison to the inconvenience of having to stay somewhere; and this is especially true when one is compelled to stay there by heavily armed guards. And modes of inconvenience aside: Where else were they going to have it? Of course it was in prison. That was the point.

Inside-Out wasn’t just a single class, after all. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, operated out of Philadelphia’s Temple University, is an entire initiative to offer classes like the one Antioch did in the fall of 2015. According to the program’s website, “Inside-Out courses bring traditional college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for semester-long learning.” To achieve this, Inside-Out trains college professors—over 900 at their last count—to organize and facilitate classes in prisons. Steinmetz was one such professor.

So, Inside-Out was far from unprecedented, then. But that didn’t guarantee the success of this particular iteration of the program. After all, Antioch is unlike most schools that participate in Inside-Out, and DCI—well, all prisons essentially operate as fiefdoms: If a prison’s administrators don’t feel like offering a particular program to prisoners, then (with the exception of certain programs it would be unconstitutional to withhold) they don’t have to, and they certainly don’t have to explain why. Innumerable things could have prevented Inside-Out from taking root at Antioch and at DCI.

None did, though.

KaDae Brockington ’21, Dr. Jennifer Grubbs, Mary Evans ’20, and Adam Green ’20

Like ice, for example. Whatever ice may mean to you, it means more to someone incarcerated at DCI. Distributed twice daily, and only on days when the heat is truly intolerable, ice is coveted, hoarded, traded, and fretted-over as much as any valuable commodity on the outside. More, even.

This may be hard to imagine, but you can get there. Listen to ice hitting a glass: You can hear the bright, unsentimental music of precious objects—bone china, good silver, blown glass, and rare coins. Ice is delicate, ethereal. Improperly cared for, it simply disappears. It seems like it could be rare.

At DCI, it is. Containers lined with trash bags and scrounged bits of foam are jury-rigged to keep stores of it from melting. People trade their phone cards for ice, trade the odd illicit cigarette, trade food from the commissary—vast amounts of food; the exchange rate is abysmal. Getting ice, keeping ice, rationing ice: At DCI, people spend entire still, summer days thinking about nothing else.

This all sounds a little like a rejected Twilight Zone episode: “Imagine, if you will, a world where ice is worth its weight in gold…” But no. It can just get really, really hot in prison. That’s all there is to it. It can get really hot, and the incarcerated cannot control the temperature of their surroundings: They have no thermostats to adjust, no windows to open, no fans to plug in. Instead, sometimes, they have ice. And when they do, they hold on to it.

Mary Evans ’20 took Steinmetz’s inaugural Inside-Out class. When I talked to her this week, during a break from her job as a producer at WYSO, she was excited: On the basis of her work for the radio station, she’d just been offered a job working with Jonathan Platt ’96, a Yellow Springs resident whose storytelling project, Story Chain, helps incarcerated people in southwest Ohio share their stories with their children. For Evans, what started as a work-study position had turned into the promise of post-graduation employment doing something she loves. It’s a quintessentially Antioch success story.

“And, you know, I owe it all to Inside-Out,” she told me. “That’s where it started.”

For any other Antioch student, “it” would clearly refer to her keen interest in prison justice. For Evans, it means something a little different: It means her being an Antioch student in the first place. When she took Inside-Out in the fall of 2015, she was an inside student, incarcerated at DCI. At the time, Evans was serving an eight-year sentence for a drug-related offense. She already had an interest in prison justice, then—imprisonment will do that to a person—albeit in a somewhat unfocused, oblique way.

“When I got eight years for a drug offense, it really threw me for a loop,” she explained. “I understood I’d committed a crime, and understood it was a crime that deserved punishment. But it seemed so arbitrary.” According to Evans, Professor Steinmetz gave these notions focus, context, and direction.

“The very first book she assigned us was Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, and it blew my mind. I was raised in a rural community—in Gallipolis, Ohio. They didn’t teach me about Angela Davis in school.”

The readings Evans encountered in Inside-Out were immediately relevant to her. In reading The Communist Manifesto, she saw how the concept of alienation applied to incarceration—how her punishment was imposed by the state and rendered to the state, rather than to the people affected by her actions. In Wendell Berry’s The Pleasure of Eating, she found an explanation of just why the poured concrete-and-brushed-steel environment of prison felt so unnatural. “Everything we read was like that,” Evans said. “It was like it was written about us, except it was written in the past, by people who never even knew us.”

It didn’t take long for Evans to apply what she was learning in class to her life as an incarcerated woman. “Even as the class was still being taught, I started taking on radical approaches to my work in the prison—like a true Antiochian,” she told me. “And, because of that, I actually got a lot of things done inside that they said would never happen.”

As a result of her work in Inside-Out, and with the help of Steinmetz and several of the course’s outside students, Evans founded The Symbolic Interruption, a newspaper written and published by women incarcerated at DCI. The idea of a prison newspaper had been proposed before, but never to much effect. Apparently, DCI admin all but told the interested parties they’d have better luck proposing a Free Guns for Prisoners program. But, Evans said, “[Inside-Out] taught us how to be activists—how to protest, how to advocate for ourselves. Without it, The Symbolic Interruption never would have existed.”

Most of all, Evans told me, Inside-Out re-taught her something incarceration made her forget: She had agency. “It made me realize not only can I learn the things I’m taught, but I can be them. I can embody them. I can enact these changes.” When the class ended, Evans, with the help of Steinmetz, applied to Antioch. She was accepted. Within a week of her release from prison, she was on Antioch’s campus, enrolled in classes as a full-time student.

“Without Inside-Out, I’d be back in prison, or I’d be dead,” Evans said. Sitting across from her, at a picnic table behind WYSO, it was hard to picture this. She’d just been talking about her plans for the future, gesturing enthusiastically all the while. She seemed, more than anything else, to be relentlessly alive. Maybe it was hyperbole. Maybe she knew just what I wanted to hear. For a little while, I allowed myself to entertain this cynical line of thought. But when, at the interview’s end, she said “This program saves lives. It saved mine,” it was with enough conviction to render all follow-up questions moot. I turned off my tape recorder, and thanked her for her time.

This program saves lives. It saved mine.

The mirrors in cells are not mirrors at all, but highly polished stainless steel, usually just a flat surface of the combined sink-toilet fixture, in which you can’t see any of your face’s features, but only the dim, fuzzy shape of a face. This is strange, too, and I could write about it, possibly dragooning it into metonymic service, if I wanted to explore what incarceration does to a person’s identity. Or the baffling ubiquity of a prepackaged pastry called the Sweet Texas Honey Bun in prison commissaries. Or how prison is never truly dark, and never truly light either. And these are just the first examples that came to mind. The modes of strangeness are, in prisons, basically innumerable. But to focus on these discrete instantiations is to ignore a bigger fact—ultimately, I’d argue, the fact of incarceration—which is: the US penal system is incredibly weird. Not the prisons, not the features of the prisons, but the system itself. When someone has committed a crime in the United States, we respond by putting them in a building with other people who’ve committed crimes, and not letting them leave. This has been shown, in numerous academic studies, to have essentially no therapeutic or rehabilitative value.

Consequently, many people have sought, and seek now, to reform the system, or at least ameliorate its malign effects. Inside-Out tries to do this, and does so by making uneasy peace with the system. It doesn’t actively seek to dismantle the system, anyway. It exists within it.

Some people do actively seek to dismantle the system. They call themselves, aptly enough, prison abolitionists. Angela Davis is one such person: Her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? is a foundational text in the prison abolition movement. It’s largely responsible for introducing the idea that it is possible, and desirable, to abolish prisons entirely. With what prison abolitionists hope to replace them varies. Many aren’t even sure. They simply believe there must be a better way. This is from Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization founded by Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore dedicated to the advancement of prison abolition:

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the prison-industrial complex both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy.

Jennifer Grubbs, Antioch’s current Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology, has spent a lot of her time in academia working to imagine what a better way might look like. She’s also the Antioch’s current Inside-Out facilitator. This quarter, she’s teaching a class at DCI, just as Steinmetz did before her, and she describes herself as a prison abolitionist.

I interviewed Professor Grubbs in her office in McGregor Hall. We spoke for the better part of an hour, the first several minutes of which I spent warily eying a wall-mounted bookshelf that, it seemed to me, was precariously full. Many of the books were about the anthropology of space and place. In fact, that’s the name of the Inside-Out course she’s facilitating this quarter: “The Anthropology of Space and Place.” Though I confess I know nothing about anthropology, much less the anthropology of space and place, I found myself making inferences about Grubbs based on her office, and doing so in a way I thought seemed abstractly anthropological. There were the (very full) bookshelves. At the wall opposite them, there was a desk, covered in papers and various open books, post-it notes jutting semaphorically from their pages. Against the far wall of the office, the windows of which looked down on the quad, there was a foldable crib. This, I knew, was sometimes inhabited by her son, Durruti, who’s named for Buenaventura Durruti, the famed Spanish anarcho-syndicalist. All in all, I thought, it seemed like the office of someone who cared deeply about her work, and had a strong ideological framework she could apply to it. In the interview that followed, this suspicion was confirmed.

“I became interested in [Inside-Out] my first quarter here,” Grubbs told me, “and, in a sense, I inherited the class from Emily Steinmetz.” When Steinmetz relocated to the DC metroplex to be closer to family, Grubbs was hired to fill the position she left vacant. Her office, too, once belonged to Steinmetz. But Grubbs’ interest in Inside-Out was more than just a matter of continuity.

“I came to Antioch with a deep connection to doing prison justice work, restorative justice being my own guiding politic, and prison abolition being something I felt strongly about,” she explained. “So, I kind of fused together what I felt I wanted to be doing with the way it was done at Antioch, and then I went through the training to do that myself.”

Grubbs’ Inside-Out training took place at a men’s prison in Michigan. Despite having done fieldwork interviewing previously incarcerated people—her research centers on environmental and animal rights activists who engage in direct action, many manifestations of which are criminalized—before the training, Grubbs had never spent time in a prison before. It was a sobering experience for her.
“It’s a different reality, in prisons,” she told me. “I saw just how precariously the people there live: in these tiny, tiny cells they try to make feel like a place of home. But they’re so clearly not a place of home, and they feel no sense of connection to their metal dresser, or their one shelf, or their bunk bed.”

The chief cause of that sense of precarity is a simple one: Incarcerated people are subjects of the state, and subject to the state—to its rules, and to the sometimes arbitrary enforcement thereof. “I’ve actually had formerly incarcerated people come to my classes to talk about this,” Grubbs told me. “About having deep issues with their personal space now, because they were so used to the possibility of being shaken down by a CO [correctional officer].”

It’s a form of powerlessness Grubbs has, to a certain, attenuated extent, shared in feeling. “You’re brought in as a subject of the state,” she said, “because it’s the state that gave you permission to be there in the first place. So you have to not comment, and you have to be apolitical in some sense to continue to get access—even when what you’re seeing is so obviously deprivation.”

It’s a peculiar balancing act, having to shelve one’s political convictions in order to act on them. Grubbs described it to me as “decentering yourself.” To illustrate this, she described a preliminary interview with a founding member of Inside-Out. She began the interview by asking Grubbs why she was interested in facilitating Inside-Out classes.

“So, I said, ‘I am a prison abolitionist. I’ve advocated to get people out of prison. I’ve done activism to raise awareness about conditions in prison, and I want to do this as a form of social justice.’ And when she heard that, she pretty firmly corrected me.”

It seemed this was exactly what Inside-Out wasn’t about. “She said, ‘This is not activism. Inside-Out is going inside a prison to provide a class. If you want to be an activist, then it’s separate from this.’”

There was something a little counterintuitive about this distinction and, initially, Grubbs struggled with it. “At first, I had trouble with that. But I think the nuance Lori’s striking—and I’m learning this—is if you want them to let you in, you can’t go in there as a prison abolitionist. Very quickly, you’ll be met with bureaucratic red tape.”

Here, Grubbs paused. I looked up at her from the notebook in which I’d been scribbling interview notes. There was, it seemed, shared acknowledgment that we’d hit on something vital.
“It’s a challenge,” she said.

Antioch is a school intoxicated by theory. It always has been. Maybe it has something to do with our roots in the Christian Connection: with those stern-mouthed, wild-eyed men whose photos hang in Antiochiana—with their belief salvation was so near-at-hand one could happen upon it behind a hedge, like a stray cat. Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s both. Whatever the reason, even among liberal arts colleges, Antioch’s proved an unusually nurturing environment for big ideas about better worlds.

Yet Antioch is also bolstered by practice. For all we talk of changing the world, we’ve always been relentlessly engaged with this world, as it is now. Community governance forces us to reckon with Antioch as it is in order to realize our ambitions for what it could be. Co-op challenges us to take what we’ve learned in the classroom, and put it to work off-campus. Our Farm allows us to indulge high-flown rhetoric about sustainability and environmental stewardship, but only if we’re willing to dig around in the dirt for it—if we’re willing, quite literally, to ground ourselves.

This is our position: somewhere in the liminal space between theory and practice. It’s often uncomfortable, but it isn’t untenable. And it’s defined us.

This in mind, Inside-Out begins to look a lot like Antioch in extremis. The tension between theory and practice is there, and the space between the two is where the action takes place, but everything about this conflict is exaggerated and distilled—reduced to its very essence.

Prison abolition—a cause to which both Grubbs and Steinmetz are dedicated, and to which a majority of the students to whom I spoke either obliquely or explicitly subscribe—demands, as Grubbs put it in my interview with her, “a far larger political imaginary than I, or any one person, could possibly propose.” It is, in other words, as structurally ambitious a theory as any you care to name, and one that seeks to upend an institution as entrenched as any in American society.

Similarly, the “real world” of prison presents all the complexities and impediments of the real world, only amplified. Oftentimes, the advancement of theory is hindered by public indifference. Prison abolition doesn’t tend to face this problem in prison because COs and prison administrators, provided they’re aware of prison abolition, are rarely indifferent to it. They are overtly hostile. What’s more, the logistical difficulties posed by the “real world” attain hellish dimensions in prison. Of the five Inside-Out students and facilitators I interviewed for this piece, each told me—wholly unprompted—how very difficult the arbitrary nature of prison bureaucracy made things. As Grubbs put it: “I go to the prison, and some days I take my shoes off. I go to the prison, and some days I don’t. I go to the prison and I bring my clear bag full of notebooks. Some days, they ask me what the notebooks are for. Some days, they don’t. Some days, they don’t let me bring them in at all. Whatever it is, it’s all arbitrary.” While she can choose how much, if at all, to push back against these strictures, Grubbs explained, at a certain point, she finds herself forced to accept a difficult truth: “Ultimately, they have the authority. That’s prison. It’s a cage, and they have the keys.”

In this way, Antioch faculty and students who participate in Inside-Out find themselves wedged between theory and practice. They find themselves right where they’ve always been—only more so. What are they doing now that they’re there? If Inside-Out’s classes here are Antioch in extremis, then what does that singularly Antiochian synthesis of theory and practice look like under these especially trying circumstances? I talked to Adam Green ’20, one of two students participating in Inside/Out this quarter, to find out.

We don’t forget who they are, or pretend their lived experiences aren’t different than ours. It just stops mattering.

Adam and I spoke in a bustling Cedarville coffee shop. At every table but ours, students from the nearby Baptist university sat, talking of Baptist university things. Many were dressed in athletic warmups designating them members of Cedarville U’s various sports teams. The students who weren’t excitedly discussing the Cedarville Lady Yellow Jackets’ volleyball prospects were engaged in the particular brand of highlighter-intensive close reading—lots of colors going at once: neon blues and pinks and greens—that’s the hallmark of serious Bible study. The place felt about as removed from Antioch as DCI.

So, when Adam said, “I’m very against the US prison system, and prisons in general,” it sounded like he was responding to the question, ‘What’s something you’re pretty sure no one has ever said in this coffeeshop before?’ But that’s not what he was doing. He was formulating a thought about the power dynamics at play when he goes to DCI for this quarter’s Inside-Out class, The Anthropology of Space and Place.

“I’m against these systems,” he continued, “but I have to play nice. I have to laugh along with the COs when they joke about incarcerated people—which they do. A lot. But even though I really want to not be complicit in that, I have to laugh along, because they can just kick you out. They have that power.”

It was the very same thing I’d heard from everyone who’d been inside DCI, and I told him as much. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d imagine. But it’s worth it, I think. Because—well, wait: You know the name of the class isn’t actually Inside-Out, right?”

I told him I did.

“Well, that’s part of what makes it so powerful,” he said. “Because it doesn’t emphasize how it’s different than any other college class. It doesn’t make its subject this inescapable fact of incarceration. It puts inside and outside students on equal footing, because it’s a class like any other. The room just happens to be different.”

Adam explained that the structure of the class, despite its venue, is the same as that of any other Antioch anthropology class. “Most of our homework assignments are written responses to the readings, but then in class, it’s just discussion and activity-based. We break off into small groups and discuss how we relate to what we read. It’s just… a class.”

I tried to ask a few more questions about the strangeness of prison, of incarceration, of the whole setup, but to my surprise, Adam didn’t seem interested. In fact, he seemed interested in the opposite. “So, unlike what I gather about previous Inside-Out classes,” he said, “this is strictly an Anthropology course. It doesn’t make prison its subject; it doesn’t engage with prison abolition. It’s identical to a course that’s been offered on Antioch’s campus for many years now. Same structure, same material—just being taught inside DCI.” I nodded. This was not the direction I expected the interview would go. I realized my questions would have to be extemporaneous from here on out.

“So, uh, what’s that like?” I asked, awkwardly.

To my surprise, Adam’s face broke into the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen on an interview subject—a wonderful, full-faced thing: It looked like his features had yielded to the weight of sheer delight. “It’s really, really great,” he said. “There’s this moment that happens a few minutes into class, pretty much as soon as we get started discussing the texts. The inside students stop being inside students. We don’t forget who they are, or pretend their lived experiences aren’t different than ours. It just stops mattering. I don’t even think about it. They’re just students. Exactly like us.”

I realized, a few days earlier, Mary Evans had told me about the very same moment, seen from the other side: “Of course I was wary at first,” she told me. “It was like, ‘What, are they just here to look at me? Or like see me as some kind of charity case?’ But then we started talking and we were just all there for the exact same thing: Just to work through these ideas and to learn.”

For Mary, this realization led her to Antioch—to keep working through ideas, to keep learning. For Adam, it led him to a newfound appreciation of what happens on the outside—of what happens at Antioch. “One difference between the inside students and outside students is that the inside students are just better. They’re better prepared; they engage more deeply with the readings; they don’t bullshit half as much.” I asked him why he thought that was. For a minute, he was silent. Then, he spoke:

“I think it’s a question of privilege,” he said. “The opportunity to take a class for college credit is, to an incarcerated person, a big deal. For us, we have the choice of 50 different classes a quarter. But its sort of made me realize how lucky I am. Like, I get to take all these classes for credit. I get to be involved with Inside-Out.”

Yes, prison is strange. It’s overwhelmingly strange. It’s so strange, that within the context it imposes, it makes incarcerated people seem—seem fundamentally different, somehow—by default. This isn’t so. And I believe this is why Inside-Out matters. Because it transcends the strangeness of its surroundings, and of its circumstances: It is a class. Its students are students. They are there to learn. That’s all.

When I talked to Mary, she told me something that seems important now: “There are a lot more people just like me still on the inside,” she said. “People as smart as I am, and as passionate, but with different passions than mine: political economy majors inside, environmentalists inside—and this program gives them the same chance I had. It lets them be those things, rather than just incarcerated people. It sees them.” This was in answer to one of the first questions I asked her: Why is Inside-Out such an important program for Antioch?

Well, here’s your answer. Here’s a victory for humanity. Here’s a feel-good story. Here’s the Antioch College you know and love—the one you feared ceased to exist the moment you walked over the mound: It’s all here. Except it isn’t. Should Grubbs leave, there’s nothing to guarantee this program will stick around, and rebuilding it is a time-intensive process—and not a cheap one. For each professor who undergoes it, Inside-Out training costs $3,000, not including travel expenses. For now, Antioch is working to make Inside-Out classes a permanent part of the curriculum. Grubbs is working to help inside students gain Antioch credit for taking them. There’s still work to be done. But we’re making progress, and one day—maybe soon—practice might catch up with theory.

If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here.

Ben Zitsman ’20 is a Literature major.

Published in Fall 2019/Winter 2020 issue of The Antiochian, a magazine for alumni and friends of Antioch College.

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