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Colby across the walls

This year, the College is pioneering a new program titled Colby Across the Walls (CATW) that will allow for student and faculty collaboration with incarcerated students and professors.

The program was started in the spring of 2022 by various faculty members from the College’s departments, including the government, theater, and anthropology departments.

Professor Nazlı Konya is initiating the program with her class “Gender, Sexuality and Feminism” taught through the government department in conjunction with incarcerated students in Maine State Prison. Eight times a semester, students taking this course will travel to the prison to have class alongside their incarcerated peers while meeting on Zoom for the rest of the classes.

“I think it started with Catherine’s small experimental class,” said Konya. “She did a class on personal narratives … with the Maine women’s re-entry center. So, as a part of the Freedom and Captivity project they have done a lot … But this is the first year because, at the end of last year, we formed this group called Colby Across the Walls, and this is the very first course to be taught as part of the program.”

A lot of bureaucratic work went into getting the students cleared to enter the prison for their first in-person class on Wednesday, Sept. 9, with their fellow classmates. There were a few speedbumps in getting the class under way, including the cancellation of Professor Raphi Soifer’s class.

“It was basically Raphi and me, and Raphi wanted to teach at the juvenile center at Long Creek because it was a performance studies thing, and I said I could teach anywhere, but I would prefer a long sentence prison because I think that’s a place where there is a very real, strong need for intellectual engagement.”

She went on, “There’s need everywhere but it just comes closer to my heart in some way that’s just … like one of my students said in class, this is the only space of freedom that they have. It doesn’t look like the rest of the prison, so I think it’s important to have that space in long sentence maximum security prisons.,” said Konya.

As Konya mentioned, CATW in part grew out of the Freedom and Captivity project a few humanities departments were focusing on over the past year. Within this focus, Professor Catherine Besteman taught a class in the fall of 2021 where half of the students were incarcerated women at Southern Maine Women’s Re-entry Center called “Freedom and Captivity: Documentary Storytelling.” Tovah Duffat `23 took this course last fall and said this experience gave her more perspective on people outside of the College’s community.

“I know, for [a] chunk of our class … coming from Colby, that we haven’t had much exposure to this system. So, you’re coming in, and you’re really coming in kind of blind only with what you see on TV. You know what you see on crime TV shows … but that’s not really how it is, and you … come in and learn so much not just about these types of things but meeting people from outside this Colby bubble and people that have different circumstances from you and their story and their life and the things that they’re trying to do.” she said.

The melding of two groups of people with different backgrounds, ages, and life experiences creates a whole new educational landscape that colleges are just beginning to break into, Konya said.

“We understand the College as a separate, self-contained autonomous space that has its own really problematic elitist and classist and racial traits, and we understand prison as another side that even does not belong to our educational landscape,” she said. “So, to bring those two sides together, bringing those populations together I think is the greatest benefit, and there are also additional pedagogical benefits that we are lucky to have a class with the greatest diversity of student profiles.”

Konya and other professors involved are trying to spread word about this program, so that more students understand the importance of unorthodox classroom settings.

“What I want them to know is [that]  this is an incredible opportunity for Colby students,”she said. 

“It’s a little bit of a time commitment to an extent, but it’s a very, very unique opportunity that I think they should take advantage of, and … it’s not just collective classes but a broader form of engagement inside and outside a broader form of intellectual engagement … Colby students should also try to take courses from incarcerated professors because [the professors] are going to have that incredible opportunity as well.”


~ Mahika Gupta `23

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