02 - Classics and the Incarcerated: A Symbiotic Relationship

In the past decade, Classical scholars have been working to remake the field, pushing back against the field's white, elitist reputation and calling out the oft-touted rigor of its philology as exclusionary gate-keeping (Eccleston and Peralta 2022: 201). At the same time, the discipline itself seems perilously close to a death-spiral, with departments and programs being shuttered both in secondary schools and in higher education.

In recent years, too, as problems with our criminal justice system have gained increasing attention, a handful of educational institutions have worked to rejuvenate prison education programs, which were devastated by the elimination of the incarcerated population's access to Pell Grants with the 1994 Crime Bill. The recent reversal of this policy will once again put a college education within reach for thousands of incarcerated individuals, and likely spur more colleges and universities to institute accredited prison-education programs (Mangan 2022).

This paper argues that the inclusion of Classics in these prison education initiatives has the potential to be transformative, not just for the incarcerated individuals along with their families and communities, but also for the field of Classics itself. Prison populations are overwhelmingly from minority, lower-class, and under-educated communities - the very communities that have traditionally been excluded from access to classical learning. Yet my own experience, as well as that of others who have taught classical material in prison contexts (see Capettini and Rabinowitz 2021), demonstrates that many incarcerated individuals find enormous relevance and utility in classical literature, history, culture, and art, often identifying with characters in ways that offer catharsis. At the same time, most of my incarcerated students are eager to sign up for beginning Latin for reasons that seemed to be twofold: they are clear that they want access to a language that will help them navigate the terminology that they feel disadvantages them in the legal system, but more implicitly, they signal that they want access to an area of knowledge that is marked as "elite."

Classics has the potential to inspire incarcerated individuals in unexpected ways while offering them many of the tools that will help them transform their lives and those of their children; but at the same time, the inclusion of Classics courses in prison education initiatives can help transform our own relationship with the material, providing new perspectives, new uses, and new insights, driving home the continuing relevance of classical antiquity while simultaneously taking a sledgehammer to the gates of exclusionism.


Kirsten Day, Augustana College