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Prison English, Part I: The instigator

Inside Orleans Parish Prison—one of the worst jails in the country—an English class takes place, not to help inmates fulfill GED requirements, but simply to facilitate their study of literature and books. In this three-part series, Room 220s Ari Braverman explores the parts of the program that make it work—and make it worthwhile—from the founder of the program, Nik De Dominic, to the many local writers who teach in it, to the inmates who take part in it. The program is currently an all-volunteer effort, though it is looking for funding.

By Ari Braverman

OPP English program director Nik De Dominic. (Portrait by Aubrey Edwards)

OPP English program director Nik De Dominic. (Portrait by Aubrey Edwards)

Nik De Dominic arrived early to our appointment at the CC’s on Esplanade and was already drinking a latte from a paper cup by the time I sat down. We were meeting to discuss the Orleans Parish Prison Project, a humanities-based local prison education initiative that De Dominic runs. When I asked him why he thought his project was important, he gestured emphatically over his left shoulder. “OPP is right there.

It was easy to forget Orleans Parish Prison was just over a mile from where we sat.

De Dominic’s laid-back charm and talent for projection make it easy to see him enthralling students any classroom—even one in prison. He told me funny, elliptical stories as we talked. He was candid about dropping out of high school and summarized the culture shock of relocation with a pithy “The South is funky, man.”

A native of Los Angeles, De Dominic arrived in New Orleans shortly after graduating with his MFA from the University of Alabama. He was teaching in OPP within the year, having drawn an initial crop of visiting teachers from a local cadre of University of Alabama writing alumni. Now, he says, he’s never at a loss for enthusiastic academics who want to go inside and teach a class or two.

The project draws inspiration from similar—albeit degree-granting—ventures run out of Bard College and Boston University, as well as De Dominic’s experience teaching in Auburn University’s Alabama Prison Arts and Education Program (no such formal, university-based program exists in New Orleans). As we talked, he reminded me more than once that the end goal is to help inmates develop the mental flexibility required for success in a turbulent economy. He contends that exposure to the humanities is an essential component of this process.

Nik De Dominic also teaches full-time at Delgado and is a poetry editor at the New Orleans ReviewHis poetry and essays have appeared in a number of publications. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his essay “On Teaching in the Staton Correctional Facility, Elmore, AL.”

Room 220: Why did you want to start this program in New Orleans?

Nik De Dominic: I was teaching for Bard at its early college program in New Orleans, and Orleans Parish Prison invited us into its high school. I taught for a semester through Bard, and when the Bard program took a different direction I took ownership of the project in OPP. But the philosophical reason is bigger. In OPP there was a group of students who were looking to interact with texts that, as an educator, I find interesting, and there were a group of educators and lecturers in town who were ready to work with this population.

I do it in New Orleans because I’m here. If I were elsewhere I’d be doing it elsewhere. The big question is really: “Why prison?” I’ve taught in a variety of environments. I’ve taught at the university level, I’ve taught in high school, and I’ve taught community collegeI find prison to be a perfect environment to teach writing. Michael Martone, a professor at the University of Alabama, used to talk about math prodigies and music prodigies and lead the question: “Why are there no writing prodigies?” Because writing, at its base, is experiential. You can find a 7-year-old who’s got a mind for systems and who can knock out logarithms or a piece by Chopin, but with writing you need to muck it up a bit. In this environment, this group of guys has such a variety of experience to draw from. My program helps give them the tools necessary to voice that experience.

Rm220: Why Orleans Parish Prison?

ND: As I understand it, if you catch less than five years, you can do all five years in OPP. In other states you would most likely get shipped off to state or federal prison.

OPP is essentially a parish jail. The main difference between a state or federal prison and a county jail comes down to—for lack of a better term—extracurricular activities. Resources. If you spend five years in county jail, you’re spending five years on a tier. If you spend five years in a state facility you have the option to take a woodshop class, to get your GED, learn accounting—though there is a GED program in OPP. All these other things are available to you. It doesn’t make sense in our small community, New Orleans, to be okay with guys going into this little box for five years and then getting out right there on Tulane and Broad.

Rm220: How do you think the freedom of what to teach—because this isn’t in a college or university with a set curriculum—affects the class? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of your setup?

ND: The class is structured in 16-week increments. Every other week, visiting lecturers come in and teach texts they believe sparked their intellectual interest.  There’s a huge breadth to that. The text in a given class could be three short stories from Borges or something from Foucault or a text on contemporary art. It could really be anything. In the in-between weeks, I run a primer in preparation for the person coming the following week. It’s interesting to me as a teacher because I’m not teaching the same material every time. My role in the classroom is about facilitation—especially of exploration of different texts. It’s really cool for me to be in there, investigating these pieces with my students.

We do have some student population flux, so the program is structured episodically.  Guys get released. They get shipped upstate. There are other programs going on, so it’s difficult for us to maintain exactly the twelve dudes we start with in the beginning of the semester. By the end of the semester, we usually have four of the original 12, and we’ll let additional people in as we’re moving along, as word of the program spreads on the tier. Doing that lecture-by-lecture allows students to come in and go out.

Rm220: How’s the quality of student work?

ND: Their thought-making is really f***ing good. I don’t want to weigh it against other students because there’s value to teaching in every kind of environment, but their thought-making is often more complex than in early American lit seminars I’ve taught at university. That’s because OPP students tend to be older, because they have more exposure to more things, because their backgrounds aren’t so defined. For them, it wasn’t: “I went to this junior high, I went to that high school, and I took these AP classes, got this score on my SATs, and then I ended up here and now I’m taking American lit with this funny dude.” In classrooms, we draw analogues to our own experience to make sense of the alien. We’re introduced to something new and figure out how we can put it with all the other stuff we know. These students do that differently because of their experiences.

Rm220: Is there a common profile among the people you teach in OPP? Who’s the typical student?

ND: Every time I’ve taught in prison it’s made me question my assumptions about prisoners, because the demographic inside is vast. It’s 18 to 50, all races. There is a socioeconomic variance. They never fit the stereotype as convicts. They’re dudes who happen to be in this place.

I think the prejudices I’ve lost are part of larger cultural clichés of prison and prison systems. I have no idea what it’s really like on the floor, so I don’t want to pretend to know, but these are really smart, fast students. Not having done this here or in Alabama, I would never have realized that. Our system, our society, throws people away. Most people outside the prison system are not exposed to it, and as we are coded through education and work, we get further and further away from its reality. Unless you have a relative who’s been locked up, or if you come from a certain place, you’re not going to be exposed to these men, so you have no way to interact with prison apart from the idea of prison presented through film or pop culture.

Rm220: How does race operate for you in the prison setting? You said the demographic is varied, but how do you think about your own race and privilege in relation to your students?

ND: I think about systemic racial issues that are present in New Orleans. I think about ways in which I’m treated, navigating my day to day, and the ways my students are treated navigating their day to day—and, of course, I see huge inequities.

I think about every day how groups of people benefit from who they are, from being this, from being that, and I think about how they go about receiving those benefits from society while being unaware of them. It’s hard, right? Thinking, for example, “Wow! I made a really good impression on that person,” when I probably made a really good impression on that person because I’m blond and blue-eyed and over 6-feet tall. All of these things are definitely at play.

That dynamic has always frustrated me. You asked me to describe the student population inside OPP. They’re just students. It’s something I consistently think about—that if things had come down differently in my life, in many of our lives, being in prison would be a very real possibility. For these men, it’s their reality.

Rm220: You talk about writing as an experiential thing. Has running this program affected your poetics?

ND: The way language is used by different groups of people—and how it presents itself in people we don’t think of as traditionally educated—has always interested me. Nobody in my family finished high school, except my dad, who finished by way of the Navy. But he was a successful art director for many years, and my mom is a very successful businesswoman. One of the things that allowed them to succeed without the pedigree was their ability to talk. My mom’s incredibly savvy and my dad is a storyteller, and these are ways that I grew up watching people use language.

I teach at Delgado, too, and there I have five classes—so I teach 175 students, total. I’m always listening to how my students talk to each other and what they’re saying. That’s the thing about language that interests me, about teaching that interests me, about my students that interests me: the way they use language, that a phrase or word will suddenly erupt for them. The way a phrase weaves itself in and out of vocabulary, how it peaks and troughs, or trends. That’s what I find fascinating, and that’s what interacting with all sorts of students from all sorts of places does for my work.

Rm220: Do you see people’s output develop from the beginning of the course to the end?

ND: The writing changes and develops because they’re asked to engage with it every day, every week. They become more familiar with it, more used to using their tools. While I don’t believe I teach people how to think, their thinking does change because they become more comfortable discussing texts, more comfortable writing. I try not to introduce students to a lot of needless academic speak. I want them to talk about the work in a way that makes sense for them to talk about it. If they ever want to come to the point where they’re saying “You know, David Foster Wallace isn’t post modern, he’s post post modern because of this that,” that’s fucking great, but right now it’s just about reading “Consider the Lobster” and talking about how f***ed up it is to boil sentient creatures. It’s less about coding and more about exposure.

Rm220: You’ve said before you believe that teaching critical thinking in prison through the humanities is important in a very practical, concrete way. Will you elaborate on that?

ND: In most prison programs, as well as most community colleges and technical schools—and we’re even seeing traditional universities go this way—professionalization is the end goal. And ultimately, I think that’s a flawed model: Say you go to junior college and you learn AutoCAD. You get out with your two-year certificate and you probably make really good money messing around with AutoCAD and cutting shapes out of blocks of aluminum at the boatyard. In prison the programs are also usually trade-oriented: “We’re going to show you how to use this type of carpentry tool so you can produce this particular thing.” While I think there are immense benefits to these types of programs, I also think there’s more benefit to being exposed to the liberal arts or humanities. Given the economy in this country and our stigma against convicts, people get out with these skills that don’t necessarily translate into real economic results. Those jobs aren’t available. What happens when we see Avondale, the shipyard, close down? Delgado’s got all these programs funneling students directly into Avondale. Now these programs are toast.

I don’t know who promised it, but I feel that Americans have the attitude of, “I was supposed to get this, I was supposed to get that,” and all that stuff’s not there anymore, especially for the population at OPP. When the system fails, however we’ve coded you to work within that system also fails, because job training is not necessarily flexible. Being able to think about the world dynamically, to think about it in terms of text and language and how we can manipulate those things is immensely beneficial on the market. There are two types of thinking when it comes to education: professionalization, in terms of trade, or in terms of thought. Academe, however f***ed up it is, truly values its people based on their capacity to think. A person who can think can have a skill become obsolete and understand how to adapt and change that skill, to evolve as the market evolves. Some of these guys I’m teaching have felony convictions and can’t get a job at a bank, but they can think.

This interview by Ari Braverman is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie. Tomorrow: Braverman's Prison English, Part II.