Paris as Classroom

Prison Education

What AUP’s Prison Education Program Teaches Us About Learning

How do we learn? At AUP, our answer is built on the idea of sharing diverse perspectives and reflecting on one’s own place in the world. We believe it is vital for students to connect with their communities, engage with new viewpoints and rethink their own assumptions.

The Democracy Lab on Prison Education is a fantastic example of this process in action; it brings together AUP students and people detained at Paris La Santé prison to learn through collaborative textual analysis. The approach is inspired by Walls to Bridges, a Canadian nonprofit, and the United States’ InsideOut Prison Exchange program, both of which provide for-credit courses in prisons and through which “inside,” or incarcerated, students learn alongside “outside” students enrolled in colleges and universities.

AUP’s version in Spring 2023 took eight French-speaking undergraduate students into La Santé to learn alongside people detained there through a series of reading workshops, discussions and creative activities. It was designed to encourage participants to ask fundamental questions about what it means to learn from each other, particularly when connecting across the huge divisions created by the carceral system and class.

In 2023, Professor Hannah Taieb of the Department of History and Politics, the founder and architect of the prison workshop in France, organized the Democracy Lab on Prison Education at AUP alongside Professor Roman Zinigrad, a law professor in the same department. The workshop is hosted by AUP’s Center of Critical Democracy Studies, which promotes the practice, study and life of democracy both within and beyond the University. It builds on a previous collaboration between Taieb and two former AUP professors, Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, who ran a multilingual prison education project in 2019, and is continuing in June and July 2023, as Professors Taieb and Kuo conduct a six-week summer class in La Santé.

During the Spring 2023 workshop, both inside and outside students took part in icebreaker exercises designed to overcome the initial barriers they may have experienced when it came to engaging with one another. “Whatever stereotypes people have about incarcerated people become hard to retain when they’re talking face-to-face,” says Professor Taieb. She explains that this also applies to the stereotypes inside students may hold about university students: “We’re rejecting both the isolation of university communities and the prison walls that separate people into two categories.”

Participants then read short texts that dealt with themes such as memory, learning, separation or the senses, and experimented together in small groups to create a written or performed response. This process of self-expression encouraged participants, both “inside” and “outside” students, to develop critical thinking, nurture intellectual and emotional maturity, and establish new learning environments. Students find themselves asking fundamental questions about each text; not only “What does this mean?” but also “Why does it matter?” “This Democracy Lab provides our students with an opportunity to formulate questions and engage in conversations that they can’t have anywhere else,” notes Professor Zinigrad. “The workshop is essential to their understanding of contemporary questions of human rights and social justice.”

Feedback from participating AUP students highlighted the benefits of learning from those with different life experiences. Student Ria Phi called the class one of her most meaningful experiences at AUP so far. “I got to see firsthand the value of taking interdisciplinary approaches while experiencing the joy of human connection,” she explains. Another AUP participant, Gabby Bashizi, agreed that the program helped her understand how different life experiences impact individuals’ interpretations of the same texts: “I deepened my understanding of both the French language and of our humanity.”

At the end of each of these Democracy Lab programs, organizers hosted a graduation reception in the prison itself, attended by AUP students, staff and faculty. The event included readings from both inside and outside students, and all participants received a certificate of completion in recognition of their work. “Over the months we’ve been running the program, people’s initial approaches to prison have been replaced with something more human,” says Taieb. “Instead of seeing prison or people in prison, they’re instead seeing faces and names.”