What I Learned Teaching Literature Inside

Issue 27 by Jennifer Sapio

It is the opposite of ironic to teach Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment inside the Travis County Correctional Complex. It is apropos, apt, appropriate. Perhaps too on the nose. TCCC houses pre-trial and county inmates in a 130-acre facility just east of the Austin-Bergstrom Airport. Pay attention during take off and landing next time you fly into town for SXSW or ACL, and you’ll be able to see the barbed wire.

I had heard about “Del Valle” when I was a child. The jail was metonymous for the town in which it was located. My dad’s best friend, whom we called Big Bear—after, obviously, his stature, his beard, and his grizzly personality—had wound up face down on Old Settler’s Boulevard, his hands cuffed behind his back, the trooper’s lights blazing, as we drove past one night on the way home in 1989. He ended up at TCCC to face his possession of marijuana and methamphetamine charges. I remember riding in the back seat, months later, when Big Bear was released on work duty, and we drove to Del Valle to pick him up. He was slightly thinner, but still a massive man, and he was hungry. We went to the nearest convenience store on Hwy 290 and Dad bought him a plastic-wrapped sandwich and some Doritos. Big Bear said to no one in particular, “Jail’s not a place you wanna be. Even the sandwiches are lousy.” And I internalized this creed as if it was his final benediction to me. I took what he said to heart. I stayed away from Del Valle for the next twenty-five years. To my shame, I couldn’t even bring myself to visit when my sister was incarcerated there in 2015. I sent money to her commissary account for snacks. She said she ate Ramen everyday when we spoke on the phone, minute by costly minute, but I never walked through the visitor doors, past the barbed wire and metal detectors and officers until years later as an Inside Literature instructor.

Inside Literature is a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Kaitlin Shirley, who earned her degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas. She specialized in Russian Language and Literature, so when my application came across her desk with a proposal for teaching Dostoevsky in the Spring of 2019, she wrote me back within twenty-four hours and invited me to interview. We had studied in adjacent departments at UT. I had worked for her dissertation supervisor as a Teaching Assistant during my graduate career. While we weren’t personally acquainted, Kaitlin and I had been on the same listserves for a long time. We were digital acquaintances. I had been aware of and drawn to her work developing the Inside Literature program for the past five years. Now that I no longer had any family members incarcerated on premises, I was eligible to volunteer.

I pulled up about an hour early on the first day of class, and I sat, anxious, in the driver’s seat in the parking lot watching family members and attorneys, volunteers, and officers parade through the entry doors. My book club was reading James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, so I opened the paperback to busy the minutes until Kaitlin arrived. That was a mistake. As I read about the pregnant Tish visiting her beloved, speaking to him through the pane glass on a telephone receiver, I thought about the racist history of policing in our country and about the failures of the justice system, and the human devastation that results. I saw young mothers in the parking lot readying their children for visits, older mothers in the waiting room preparing to see their progeny behind bars, and I was overwhelmed with the experience of human suffering that I was witnessing. I felt like I was entering an inner sanctuary wherein ancient rituals occurred, hidden from vulgar sight, these incarcerated humans caught somewhere between life and death in limbo. Our society traditionally keeps these moments of ultimate humanity—birth, incarceration, death—behind closed doors, not to be considered or discussed in the light of day although experienced by so, so many. This year I had sat in vigil with my father over his father’s body on the morning he passed. I had to gird myself to face the cold, hard reality of my grandfather’s presence in death. Not a pretty sight, but divine in its humanity. I felt similarly walking in that first day at TCCC: scared, sad, and honored to share the same space on the planet with these humans.

My students were in the men’s maximum-security unit, but we only knew their names, not their alleged crimes. This kind of clean slate was the foundation of our work together. There were no judgments, biases, or fears that hindered our experiences in the moment. I was a teacher. These were my students. I was going to teach literature, by golly. We distributed books and a reading schedule and taught the basic close reading process that would bolster the quality of our analyses and discussions for the duration of the seven-week course. The book was our common denominator. Reading it, I thought, was the work that lay ahead. What I didn’t realize then was how much I would learn in that room about resilience and the sanctity of life.

Between the first and second week of class, I went on a trip with the ninth graders for my day job. We spent the week at the Waco Hunger Relief Farm learning about global distribution of wealth, resources, and food. We learned about the waste epidemic; we composted, harvested, and planted sustainable, organic food. We studied food deserts and learned about food insecurity. I was tired and sunburned after a week of manual labor on the farm in Waco when I walked back into the classroom at the TCCC. We were talking about Part I of Crime and Punishment. We met Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s protagonist, and we heard about his destitute economic and devastated mental state that precedes the double murder at the end of the first part of the classic novel. My students were horrified by Raskolnikov’s living conditions, the self-described “closet” wherein he lived, but they refused to exonerate him from personal responsibility for his actions. I had taught this text in high school classrooms for years, and the younger students were generally more willing to play the game, to imagine what you might be willing to do in dire straits. What if you had to steal to eat, they would excitedly inquire. Dostoevsky’s unreliable narrator seduces the reader nearly into believing that he might legitimately need the moneylender’s riches; she had enough to spare after all. Maybe Raskolnikov would then be able to afford some decent tea or a warm meal. My mom always says that we were so poor growing up that we had pimento cheese sandwiches every night, but I would never say that I was hungry. The question of what someone would do when they were starving was exceptionally more potent for me after that week on the forty acres in Waco. How much of the global population would actually trade their freedom for the shit sandwiches served to my students on the inside, I wondered. “It’s all relative,” Dostoevsky writes in the novel. There’s no food insecurity on the inside, but the “air, air, air,” the “hands-breadth of ground” that Raskolnikov desires, if even an escape from the confines of his own mind, is what those on the inside wish for most.

For several weeks, Kaitlin and I co-taught the classes. She literally showed me around the facility, told me which doors you needed to pull closed behind you and which you needed to buzz to get in. It was challenging as a teacher by trade and a humanist by sentiment the first time I saw an inmate being escorted in cuffs by two officers down the long corridor inside the facility. I knew the rules indicated “no talking” in the corridor although the guards would sometimes smile at me and say “hi” or “good afternoon.” But how should I interact with the human in handcuffs and a uniform in transit down the hall? I mean, he could have been a rapist for all I know, but still I didn’t feel comfortable ignoring him and walking past. In what context in the world would you walk down a long, quiet corridor in broad daylight and ignore the humans passing within inches to your left? I obliged to the no talking rule, but I also raised my visage to acknowledge the men walking freely as well as the other man they escorted down the hall. Shit, I thought, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The program orientation didn’t cover how to manage your feelings before, during, and after you get locked inside the block with your students.

I hadn’t been immune from interacting with the criminal justice system until this moment. It’s just that usually I was on the other side. I called the police once during a fight that had turned violent with my sister. I had wept, begging for officers to release my boyfriend when he was picked up from our front yard for a warrant. I had waited for hours outside of the jail facility in downtown Austin for various members of my family throughout the years. I knew that everyone inside had a life and a family. People didn’t disappear when they went inside those doors. Human connections radiated out of that place, touching families on the East side as in Westlake, across class and race and gender lines. My niece was born inside. So I considered it a sacred honor when, during weeks four and five, I was the sole instructor in the room, performing the sacraments of close reading and discussion, the strange alchemy of literature and experience, history and human connection in the present tense that turned to gold in the classroom.

The class dwindled from the fourteen who initially signed up until two men sat with me in a circle, and in week six when Kaitlin joined us for the last time, the two instructors outnumbered the one consistently engaged student, who had never missed any of Inside Literature’s classes offered inside the max block at TCCC. Another teacher may have been discouraged by the turnout. Was I failing, she might query. How can I better reach these students? Should I have selected a more accessible text to teach, she would wonder. Kaitlin encouraged me not to take any decline in attendance personally. You never know if our students are released, or sick, or napping, or playing basketball, or in court during our class time. Those who do show up are there for a reason, and we can teach as long as we have one willing student.

I had learned this lesson poignantly during my seven years as a program facilitator for UT’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. In fact, over the years, we redesigned the INSPIRE: Empowering Texas Women Leaders program to account for this attrition. We accepted twenty freshmen into the program and hoped for a strong cohort of six students who would complete the program by senior year. I would plan our cohort meetings for weeks, reserving space on campus, paying for refreshments, and inviting guests only for last-minute cancellations to come across my inbox up until I walked into the meeting. I would be disheartened. Only seven rather than fourteen women would reap the benefits of my well-planned events, I pouted. I had such self-important ideas then. It took me a while to realize, maybe even until the first cohort graduated, until I heard seniors reflect on the influence of our conversations, and the consistency of support they felt, on their time at UT. For many, it was a scary, fun, and important time in their lives. Many of them were the first in their families to go to college, or to leave their hometown, or to risk it all like they had so courageously. The women who participated in the INSPIRE program got out of it what they put in. Once I realized this truth, I stepped aside and let the young women lead our time together. Whether one or twelve people showed up, we always had a purposeful and powerful experience in the space we held. Although there are distinct differences between my work with undergraduate women at UT and my work inside the men’s maximum security block in Del Valle, the similarity was that my job in both cases was to receive the humans ready to do our work together for that day. Students self-select, and the teacher’s job is to meet those who are seeking.

By the last day, our class consisted of three students and me. We sat in a close circle and discussed Part Six and the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We reach the denouement of the novel, in which our protagonist Raskolnikov, whose name in Russian indicates his “split” nature, reaches a decision finally on the question of whether he will confess or not. Svidrigaylov, on the other hand, makes a decision that increasing numbers of people today are choosing, namely to take their own lives. Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov illustrate a spectrum of human experience with loss, shame, and regret. For too many, like Svidrigaylov, “the world is too much with us,” the weight of suffering is immense, and the answer is a morbid one to Hamlet’s existential question “to be or not to be.” I couldn’t help but think about how two members of our school community, one sophomore, and one parent, made that tragic choice in the past year. But Raskolnikov chooses a way out. He says he heard from someone (and here’s where maybe Dostoevsky’s own mock execution comes into play) that a man facing his imminent death would rather stand facing an abyss on a hand’s breadth of ground if only to live. That’s how precious our lives are. That’s the theme of resurrection in human mythology. It’s the story of Lazarus. And Jesus. And my sister. It’s how a person can come back from the precipice of death for a second chance. It’s called hope. And my students had it.

The three men schooled me on what reading Crime and Punishment on the inside meant to them. They talked about societal injustice and economic realities that contribute to people choosing crime. They talked about personal responsibility for one’s actions and the communal good to which we all contribute. They talked about mental health, about isolation and negative thought patterns and harmful behaviors that plague our society, as they plagued St. Petersburg 150 years ago. I personally had struggled with my mental health for half my life. I was presently, at the time I was teaching the course at Del Valle, experiencing a psychological “exacerbation,” if you will. I would identify with some of Raskolnikov’s symptoms as we read about them week by week. I too would sometimes sleep in my clothes. I too would isolate and lash out at my family. I too would move about my day on auto-pilot, winding up at the Pennybacker Bridge or Sunset Valley Market without remembering how I got there. For me, reading Raskolnikov’s salvation in the Epilogue—where he faces “terrible suffering” and “infinite happiness” in Siberia doing hard labor with nothing but his Bible to keep him company at night—the ending was incredible, as in not believable, and dissatisfying. I began to doubt Dostoevsky’s genius. Wouldn’t the story be better left with the ambivalent ending of Part Six? Shouldn’t Raskolnikov’s confession and the endless ellipses that follow be the conclusion of the story?

No, my students sang in chorus. Raskolnikov finding peace on the inside resonated with those three men sitting in front of me. They saw the benefits of the external moral compass resetting a man’s soul in that way. When Raskolnikov says he has “only seven years” to serve, my students said that was just right. That’s how you had to look at your time, as only what remained, one day less than yesterday. While time was the punishment for your crime, they said, it was also a chance for a revival of spirit. It was life, each minute an opportunity for self-improvement. Some are imprisoned by their own minds out on the streets, and some, it turns out, learn how to live freely on the inside. For my students, it wasn’t just a fancy quote that the “mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Indeed, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” My students had been tested at Del Valle in ways I can’t comprehend. They hadn’t crumpled or withered or withdrawn. There they sat, engaged, committed, discussing a Russian novel on a Saturday afternoon.

“It’s ironic,” one student said on the last day of class. “I got eight years and so did Raskolnikov. I read Crime and Punishment when I first got locked up, and now I’m reading it before I’m about to get transferred out.” “And what’s the takeaway for you after reading the second time?” I asked. “It’s all about love,” he replied. “If you don’t have some form of connection, some kind of love,” he continued, “I don’t know, all I’ve gotta say is find it.” I kept it together all the way out of the facility, through the long corridor and the locked gates, out past the metal detectors and the officers and the barbed wire before I broke down and burst into tears. Choose love. Choose life. Resurrection is possible. That’s what my students inside the block taught me when all along I thought I was going to be educating them.

About the Author

Jennifer Sapio

Jennifer Sapio is a teacher, writer, activist, and mother, who lives in Austin, Texas with her family and two children. Dr. Sapio earned her PhD in English at the University of Texas. Jennifer is currently completing her second manuscript, a memoir called Revise and Resubmit. One of her recent works of poetry, “Parent-teacher conference,” was published by Sonder Midwest in April 2019.