summer 2013 | St. Lawrence University Magazine
By Allison Shea ’13
To be honest, I initially took the upper-
level English course, Life Sentences,
for the shock factor.
I was looking forward to
the surprised gawks I’d get from classmates when I told
them I was on my way to my jail class, to learn alongside
real” inmates. Granted, it would mean an hour-long van
ride to the Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone every
Wednesday afternoon for a three-hour class, and then
another hour-long van ride home. But when else would I
get an opportunity like this one?
There are few people on St. Lawrence’s campus I would
trust to drive us through blinding North Country storms
each week and walk us down long prison hallways as
much as I did Bob Cowser, a one-time semi-pro football
player gone English professor.
Each week we met our incarcerated classmates in a
fluorescent-lit room with no windows. There was just a
blackboard and a couple of beat-up desks and chairs.
It’s been over a year since I took that class, and though
I can’t tell you the names of some of the inmates or the
authors of the three books we read, I can tell you what
Cowser often told us: “Once you know something, you
can't un-know it.” From analyzing alternative approaches
to discipline and crime, to designing a more effective
prison and re-entry system to reduce recidivism rates, to
comparing the institutions of higher education and pris-
ons, each class left me wide-eyed and occasionally silent in
Never before had I been so pushed out of my comfort
zone, so blatantly aware of my place of privilege. I guess
what I mean to say is that it’s a different experience to talk
about injustice and inequality in a Global Studies class in
Carnegie Hall than it is to hear about it through the nar-
rative of an incarcerated classmate.
For the first time, we were able to humanize the criminals
in our community, to acknowledge them not by their past
offense but by their thoughtful contributions in class. Of
course, it was difficult to ignore some of the obvious dif-
ferences – half of us in dark green jumpsuits, half of us in
comfy jeans and wool sweaters. Our imprisoned class-
mates had to interrupt the class to ask a correction officer
for permission to use the restroom, while the rest of us
could easily slip out without a word.
But boundaries dissolved quickly, as soon as we launched
into discussion, whether about the assigned text, the latest
political scandal or the meaning of ethics. While I walked
away from the class with a dogged determination to be an
advocate for a more effective prison system, our incarcer-
ated classmates promised us, some of them with tears, to
continue their educations.
While I always knew that experiential learning is a core
part of a liberal arts education, it wasn’t until completing
Life Sentences that I really understood why. Whether
alongside inmates or community members, the lessons
students learn at St. Lawrence are not lost upon leaving
the classroom, but taken with them and incorporated into
their lives.
Life Sentences is a Community-Based
Learning course modeled on the Inside-
Out Prison Exchange Program begun
at Temple University. Performance
and Communication Arts major Alli
Shea was enrolled in fall 2011.
In My Own Words
Wednesday Afternoons in the Prison at Malone, New York