Last month, Beth Malmskog wrote a post for the AMS blog PhD Plus Epsilon about teaching mathematics at a nearby prison. Malmskog is a math professor at Villanova, and in the post she writes about a course she and her colleague Katie Haymaker taught in the spring at Graterford State Correctional Institution. Malmskog had previously written about giving a one-off lecture at Graterford and the Math Circle she and Haymaker started there the next year. Despite the difficulties of teaching with limited supplies and access to technology, Malmskog describes the course as a great experience.

I had more fun teaching this class than I have ever had teaching. The most striking thing about the course was the amount of energy in the classroom throughout the semester. The students were engaged and game, willing to dive in to any discussion, to speak up with questions, comments, and occasional complaints, and to try activities for themselves. Every day when I walked out of class, I felt that I had actually connected with the students. Along with this gameness, most of the students were fairly mature and serious about learning, while still being ready to make jokes and speak up in class. I wished I could have brought my on-campus students, as a demonstration of what a classroom can be like. I love working with my on-campus students, but I feel that self-consciousness and expectations of what a college classroom “should” be can really limit their experience. What could college be like if students really engaged every minute of class time and saw class as a dialogue? I have tried to create this classroom atmosphere in many classes, with varying degrees of success. At Graterford, this atmosphere just happened on its own.

Francis Su spoke about one of his incarcerated students in his MAA Retiring Presidential Address, Mathematics for Human Flourishing, posted at his blog The Mathematical Yawp. I know a few of my friends have taught math in prisons as well. But before reading Malmskog’s posts I hadn’t really thought about how that worked.

It turns out there’s no one way to do it. The Villanova Graterford program is somewhat unusual in that students can earn a degree with in-person classes and professors get the same credit for teaching at Graterford as they do on campus at Villanova. Other schools and states have different programs, including correspondence classes and non-credit classes. The Prison Studies Project website has information about many, though not all, programs around the country. (Thanks to Annie Raymond of the University of Washington for pointing me to the Prison Studies Project.) A blog post from the U.S. Department of Education has information about the Second Chance Pell Program that gives grants to incarcerated students through 67 schools around the country.

Another side to the intersection of mathematicians, education, and prison is the fact that the U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world and an incarceration rate far higher than most other countries. The system is rife with racism and inequality. If you’re interested in getting involved in studying and working to fix some of the problems with our criminal justice system, Phil Goff writes on Cathy O’Neil’s blog mathbabe.org that Justice Needs Nerds.

I can only hope that teaching mathematics in prisions takes root in all States. This would be incredibly beneficial not only to the inmates, but to mathematics as a whole !