If you walked by the Viewpoint Conference Room in Ackerman Union on a Friday morning in September, you might have stopped to listen to the applause and shouts of approval. You might have heard students and a few faculty members recite this chant:
It is our duty to fight for freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and protect each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
This was the UCLA Prison Education Program Orientation, which included theater exercises and formerly incarcerated inspirational speakers.
Launched in 2016, the program brings together UCLA students and faculty and young people who are incarcerated in correctional facilities. During the fall quarter, UCLA students travel one day a week to the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar (for incarcerated male students) or Camp Joseph Scott in Santa Clarita (for incarcerated female students) to participate in courses designed to create a “transformative and collaborative learning community,” says Bryonn Bain, a professor in the UCLA Department of African American Studies and World Arts and Cultures/Dance and the program’s founding director.
Bain hopes that the incarcerated students will rewrite their own narratives, and that the UCLA students will see how the prison system impacts their communities.
UCLA students who want to participate must sign up, interview and attend orientation and a “Trauma Informed Care Training” class. They also must audition for a spot in one of Bain’s “Hip-Hop and Spoken Word” classes before they can attend any on-site classes at Sylmar or Santa Clarita.
UCLA professors lead the classes, which sometimes start with an icebreaker exercise before the lesson of the day, which might focus on issues ranging from feminism to racism, history and intersectionality. Students do a lot of writing, says Rosie Rios ’17, administrative director of the Prison Education Project. Homework, she adds, can include a two- to three-page reflection paper, which students can share at the next class.
The final exam, she says, “could be a theater-based performance or spoken word, or a mixture of both. There’s also a research paper for both UCLA students and incarcerated students,” and everyone who completes the course receives college credit.
“In addition to the two correctional facilities we’ve been in,” says Bain, “we’ve been invited to bring courses into three others.”
L.A. County has the largest jail system in the country. “It seems to me,” Bain says, “that there is a special responsibility to engage with students incarcerated in the City of Angels.”