Literature and Exile
GSU doctoral student goes behind prison walls to teach the classics
Story by Leah Seupersad | Photography by Meg Buscema
Doctoral student Sarah Higinbotham has been teaching in Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga., since January 2009.
It’s a Wednesday morning in September and Sarah Higinbotham makes her way through the iron gates topped with razor-wire that surround Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga. Passing security detectors and armed guards, she reaches a small room where 13 men, convicted of crimes ranging from drug offenses to murder, are waiting for her.
Clad in white uniforms, the inmates sit in the prison’s career center and listen as Higinbotham, a GSU English instructor and doctoral candidate, begins her lesson on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” an epic poem on the foundation of hell and the fall of man.
One inmate asks, “How is sin related to the disfiguration of the characters?”
“Why did Milton make the female characters the most powerful?” asks another.
The students had been instructed to read three chapters, but on this day, the discussion moves well past the requirement. Higinbotham isn’t surprised. In fact, she likens her classes here to graduate seminars.
“I learned very quickly that I need to keep the pace rigorous and aggressive in order to challenge them,” she says. “The level of preparation is more demanding. They have read the footnotes, read the scholarly introduction, discussed it and taken notes on the reading.”
Though the students sit intently with their books open, the words “DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS” emblazoned on their backs serve as a reminder that this is a very different classroom setting.
Still, Higinbotham says, she has never been scared or frightened. “There’s no guard, but I’m under constant supervision,” she says. “But even if I weren’t I would not hesitate to meet with these guys. They are, at times, the most human people that I meet all week.”
Higinbotham leads a discussion with GSU students involved with the Georgia State Prison initiative.
The Allegory of the Cave
Higinbotham has been coming to this medium security prison since January 2009. That was when the university allowed her to teach a semester of world literature to the prisoners and document her experiences for course credit toward her Ph.D. She earned two semesters of credit, but since then, she has been coming
“The first semester was such a remarkable experience and their academic achievements were so stunning,” Higinbotham remembers. “After I taught the first class and was ready to teach the second, it filled in 10 minutes and there were 90 men on the waiting list.”
That first semester Higinbotham didn’t even have a classroom. She taught Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in the prison’s visitation area.
Higinbotham’s choice of material often relates to her pupils’ condition. In the “Allegory of the Cave,” for instance, humans are depicted as being imprisoned by their lack of knowledge and education.
This semester, Higinbotham says, the inmates have requested literature that deals with living in exile. Besides “Paradise Lost,” the class will also read “Dante’s Inferno” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
“When they lose their relationships with others, in many ways they lose their identities as human beings — they sort of become their mistakes,” Higinbotham says. “Reading the humanities, great books like ‘Paradise Lost,’ Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ Camus’s ‘The Stranger,’ etcetera, helps the students reclaim and reground their humanity.”
To be eligible to take Higinbotham’s course, an inmate must have passed the GRE and maintain specific behavioral mandates.
“Because there is such a gulf in their mind between the educated and them, to all of a sudden read Plato and think, ‘Oh, I understand that and I am completely capable of doing this,’ it means
so much to them,” she says.
Her students say that the class is more than just a chance to escape the monotony of prison. Moreover, they see altruism in their instructor.
“Professor Higinbotham is not coming for the money, prestige or self-glorification — if there’s any to be gained from teaching in prisons,” says one inmate. “She believes in changing society by coming to the heart of the problem, recognizing that many men made bad decisions because of their lack of education.”
Says another: “Since Sarah’s arrival at this institution, she has given many of us a chance to express our newfound gifts with others.”
And although Higinbotham boasts about the scholarly achievements of her imprisoned students, she also admits that, on some days, teaching inmates can be challenging as well as rewarding.
“It’s sometimes really tragic. There are guys who are suddenly transferred and guys who go into solitary confinement. So I come prepared to teach and four of my guys are in the hole,” she says. “Their lives are really painful and they live with a lot of regret, and that comes up in the discussions. But despite the burden, I feel for them and the way they have suffered for what they have done, and the way they suffer for what they have done to their families. Despite that pain, the experience itself is just so enriching... to feel like people aren’t just trying to get a grade.”
Higinbotham figures that around 50 inmates have completed her courses since she began the program. Ultimately, she would like it if her course was part of a degree program, but as it is, her class is one of only a few offered at Phillips.
“There really haven’t been college courses in prisons since the 1990s, because most of them folded when they lost Pell grant eligibility,” Higinbotham says. “The warden at Phillips has been very supportive.” she adds.
Higinbotham notes that post-secondary education, while expensive, is statistically proven to be one of the most effective ways to change lives and reduce crime, whether it’s teaching university freshmen to keep them out of trouble or teaching the incarcerated to reduce recidivism.
“[Teaching at Phillips] has been so valuable in my teaching and my outlook on education,” Higinbotham says. “So many students are jaded into thinking that college is just a maze they run, and that the education itself has no value, just the degree. I don’t believe that. My students at the prison will probably never get the degree, and they still covet this experience and are so motivated
For her work with teaching in Phillips State Prison and co-founding the Georgia State Prison Initiative, Sarah Higinbotham was awarded the 2011 GSU President's Award fro Community Service and Social Action for Outstanding Community Impact.
Education and the Human Experience
Higinbotham, who was an adjunct professor at Kennesaw state for seven years and currently teaches introductory English courses in GSU’s Freshmen Learning Communities, says her inspiration for teaching stems from growing up in a family with strong beliefs about education and service. She grew up in Morgantown, W. Va., where her father was a statistics professor at West Virginia University and her mother taught 5th grade.
“My mom and dad were really generous people socially,” she says. “They really taught me that strength is for service not status. So you take your strengths and privileges and you use them for other people.”
At GSU, Higinbotham’s dissertation focuses on themes of justice — not in prison, but in Renaissance literature.
“I love poetry and I like exploring the human experience,” she says. “I think that is what my prisoners get, too, when they read Shakespeare, Mary Shelley and John Milton. They are entering the human experience.”
One former inmate agrees, saying that after reading Robert Fitzgerald’s “Homer’s Odyssey” he was able to reevaluate his situation.
“Because of the 20 years Odysseus had to endure while longing to be home with his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemakhos, I realized that my situation was much better, even in this environment,” he says.
This fall, Higinbotham has combined her GSU teaching and prison outreach to develop the Georgia State Prison Initiative, a program offered in partnership with University Housing that allows GSU students to learn more about issues surrounding crime and incarceration.
Through the initiative, Higinbotham and several faculty members from the Department of English will teach college level classes at the prison. And every other week, Higinbotham meets with GSU students in the program to facilitate discussions that further their understanding through readings, writing and documentary films.
“They are learning about mass incarceration and the issues that surround it, but what we hope they understand is that, just like I developed a program on mass incarceration, they can develop a program for a girls’ home, or just feel empowered to take on their own social issues,” Higinbotham says.
The initiative has several other goals, including refining writing skills; extending understanding of social justice to real-life situations; and fostering personal convictions about the causes of crime, the problems with prison and the challenges of re-entry into society.
“With Georgia State being an urban campus, sometimes students are not necessarily aware of things occurring within their local community,” says Tasha Coppett, GSU’s freshman residence hall director and a co-teacher with the initiative. “This is an urban issue that I wanted to bring to students awareness; how the prison rate, incarceration rate and parolee rate affects us here within Fulton County.”
The two student populations will interact through exchanged papers and an optional prison visit. The students’ final work will be submitted to the GSU Undergraduate Research Project Conference held on campus in March.
“I think the inmates can help the Georgia State students understand the value of education, and I think the Georgia State students are good for the inmates because most of them are very isolated. Most don’t have contact with their families, and this is a chance to be heard,” Higinbotham says.
For Higinbotham, donating her time to both of these programs is nothing short of a privilege.
“I don’t think a lot of universities would have given me this chance, but Georgia State has a strong social justice initiative. We are a large urban university and mass incarceration is an urban issue. So it really has made sense,” she says. “When I look back at all that time I don’t feel any sense of burden. I feel grateful that I had the chance.”