Each week, a stuffed, plain manila envelope arrived on her porch.
And each weekend, Kristin Hocker, EdD, would pull journal entries from the envelope and sit with them a while, reflecting on the experiences and perspectives of her students. Then she would grade and comment on each paper and stuff them back into the envelope to be returned to her students at Groveland Correctional Facility.
Hocker, an assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, began teaching her Spirituality, Religion, and Health course to UR Nursing students in the spring of 2020. That same semester, she debuted the class to incarcerated students at Groveland, a medium-security men’s prison located in Livingston County, about 40 miles south of campus.
The Spirituality, Religion and Health course explores the religious and spiritual responses to health and human suffering through a health care provider's lens. “The course is especially significant because it analyzes one’s spiritual and religious journeys, even those who aren’t aligned with spirituality can still recognize there’s more to a human being than just a body,” Hocker said. “Even if not everyone is a provider, everyone is a patient and impacted by a provider-patient relationship.”
The course was offered to Groveland’s students through the University’s Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI). The initiative, founded in 2015, has ambitious aims, such as abolishing the prison-industrial complex and redressing the impact of its systems. But in the shorter term, it is focused on providing opportunities for currently or formerly incarcerated individuals to pursue their education at the University and collaborating institutions.
For individuals that are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, education is a major factor in their successful reintegration into the community and their overall quality of life. A recent study from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice revealed that people who receive some form of post-secondary education or vocational training while in prison are estimated to have a 12 percent higher chance of finding a job after release, and are less likely to be reincarcerated.
That number is significant when the lifetime earning potential of incarcerated individuals is reduced by half a million dollars on average. It also disproportionately falls on the shoulders of Black and Latino populations, who make up three-quarters of the 337,000 New Yorkers who have spent time in prison at some point in their lives.
Last year, REJI was awarded a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide more academic offerings for both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, and bring together local higher education and community partners to build a network of advocates working to lower incarceration in the city and throughout New York.
Hocker had attended several of REJI’s community events on campus. Inspired by their work, she submitted a proposal to teach a course through REJI’s college-in-prison program. Instructors involved in the program teach in an undergraduate program at Groveland as well as Attica Correctional Facility, administered by REJI in partnership with SUNY Genesee Community College (GCC). Incarcerated individuals with a high school diploma or equivalent are eligible to enroll in the college-level, credit-bearing classes in pursuit of an associate degree from GCC.
Hocker proposed the idea to UR School of Nursing Dean Kathy Rideout, EdD, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, who has developed groundbreaking diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout her tenure as dean. Their conversation led to a larger discussion with Joshua Dubler, associate professor of religion and faculty director of REJI, and Precious Bedell, assistant director of community outreach for REJI, on ways the UR School of Nursing could support REJI’s efforts.
Getting approval to teach the course for Groveland students was just the beginning. Aside from the unforeseen challenges stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak, Hocker had to navigate the protocols put in place for faculty members.
All faculty-student engagements were conducted through correspondence, facilitated by the asynchronous nature of the coursework and assignments. Readings, modules, project descriptions, syllabi, and texts were distributed to the students at the start of the semester. Student journals and assignments were then packed into manila envelopes, picked up from Groveland by REJI staff, and delivered to faculty at home. Once graded, the materials would be delivered back to the students.
Although she didn’t get to personally engage with her students, Hocker says that through the structure of the course, she was still able to get to know them as students, thinkers, and scholars.
“If there’s a lesson here, it’s to never underestimate someone’s funds of knowledge,” said Hocker. “It was interesting how much they could tie into the material as a patient, as a caregiver, or family member. They understood the importance of holistic connections and seeing someone in a whole different light aside from the biases, perceptions, and misperceptions that can impact care.”
For Dylan Colunio, the associate degree program at Groveland Correctional Facility changed his life.
Colunio chose Hocker’s class from a list of electives, assuming it was an in-depth mixture of anthropology, history, and religion. Instead, Hocker introduced Colunio and the other students to different ways to communicate and relate to others, he said.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman was one of the books that particularly resonated with Colunio. The book is a spiritual telling of a young girl born to a family of Hmong immigrants who started showing symptoms of epilepsy. The Hmong culture believes that epilepsy is a reunion between the soul and body, but doctors tried to intervene with medical care causing a cultural divide.
“That story stuck with me because it helped me understand expectations for how to support and communicate with one of my best friends as he grieved the loss of his mother,” said Colunio. “Sometimes the expectation when someone is grieving is to talk about it, but I learned that being there for someone doesn’t mean you have to say anything at all.”
Colunio, however, struggled with his own expectations when it came to life after prison.
“I lost everything. I lost my house and cars. In prison you keep thinking about all of the things you have to do when you get out. Being able to understand people who might be going through the same thing helps. Once you’re released you keep thinking—how can I get myself to the point I was before I got locked up? You have to make up for lost time. I had such bad anxiety when I was released because I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
But within days of being released, Colunio landed a full-time job working at Hyundai Mobis, a manufacturing facility. In fact, his employer saw he was college educated and offered to give him money to go back to school. He was also given the opportunity to get certified in welding through Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as additional training and computer classes.
“They saw I was trying to better myself and make the most out of a bad situation. I wish I could go back and tell everyone at Groveland my experience and tell them to take classes because it just shows potential,” he said.
“The whole experience changed my life,” he said, “That little time in the classroom goes a long way. It keeps your mind off what’s happening in there. I felt Kristin and other professors cared about me and that I could better myself and be a member of the community.”
“I could’ve headed down a different path, and I didn’t. Going into a classroom takes you away from the bad. It bounces you back to what matters. It just changes your survival and perspective. If I can maintain a 4.0 in college, then I can do anything. I just have to put my mind to it.”
At the end of the semester, Hocker reflected on how grateful she was to have the opportunity to support the students’ educational ventures, whether they completed a degree or enrolled in education after their release or not. She hopes to continue teaching with REJI.
“Being a part of the REJI project as a faculty member meant I was constantly learning about decarceration and abolition,” she said. “You can’t help but think about the idea of the power of knowledge and education, and who we share that power with. The more opportunities that are provided to people, the more opportunities they have to thrive instead of survive.”