Q: You are a professor in the Department of Religion, Spirituality, and Society but have carved a place for yourself in criminal justice. How did this happen?
A: I’ve been interested in higher education in prison and teaching in prison for a long time. When I was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in Barnard College’s religion department, a former professor asked if I would teach a class at the Bayview women’s prison in Manhattan. I taught a course on citizenship, gender, and politics in U.S. history, and I loved the experience. I saw how important it was to have excellent and rigorous college programs available for people in prison. Years later, the state decided to close that prison, and the building now houses an international women’s rights organization. Some of the students I taught sit on the board of the organization in that building.
Q: How do the worlds of criminal justice and religious studies intersect?
A: I’ve always had the dual interests of studying religious communities in the U.S. and prison and policing systems. My first book was on police brutality in New York City in the 1990s. I noticed, when I was teaching at Bayview, that the only other people aside from family and friends who came to the prison were religious groups to hold Bible studies and other services. It struck me how deeply entwined the religious history of the prison still is in America. The first northern prisons were created by Quakers and Methodists, who called them “penitentiaries” because they believed people should be placed in cells alone where they would pray, work, and reflect, and, thus, become penitent and worthy of release. They believed the early penitentiaries in the 1830s were humane alternatives to public spectacles of torture, shaming, and banishment. However, the conditions of solitary confinement in these prisons were equally harmful.
Q: This academic year marks the first time students can enroll in the Crime, Law, and Justice Studies Program. How did it come to be? What made you want to lead it?
A: At Puget Sound, I created a class that I’ve been teaching for the past five years called Prisons, Gender, and Education, where students participate in FEPPS as study hall co-learners and research partners, as well as learn about the history of prisons and theories of punishment. I also teach a Connections course on crime and punishment, and a first-year seminar called Are Prisons Necessary? As I’ve taught these classes, I’ve noticed how many students are interested in these fields, but there was no one place to minor or major in them. After last summer, with the murder of George Floyd, the issues of abolition, policing, prisons, and racism in our country became more visible to people who might not have thought about them before. The crime, law, and justice studies minor is timely and necessary at this political moment to educate students about key issues related to justice and our criminal legal system.
Q: As an interdisciplinary professor, how do you approach teaching?
A: I want my students to remain hopeful and engaged so that they don’t leave after learning about these systems feeling overwhelmed and without hope. I want them to retain a critical perspective and to know they have the creative solutions to problems that seem intractable. I’m also big on participation and variety—I try to do a mix of discussion and finding interesting ways to understand more theoretical or difficult material. For example, I created a Jeopardy!-like game about Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish that is a good way for students to feel like they are really engaging with his theories.
Q: Outside of the classroom, what do you enjoy?
A: I started taking cello lessons this past summer. I practice every day, and I love learning something new that is both physical and intellectual. I am a bit of an exercise fanatic—I love boot camp, running, and swimming, but I particularly love dancing. I’m also a huge film and television buff, especially post-apocalyptic stories, bleak crime shows like Broadchurch, and period pieces. I spend a lot of time with my two kids, who are 11 and 14. We’re baking a lot lately, and are obsessed with The Great British Baking Show.