Seven criminal justice students had a unique opportunity this semester to take a course from incarcerated educators at the Federal Correctional Institution - McKean.
Since 2007, Dr. Tony Gaskew, director of the criminal justice program and founding director of the Prison Education Program, has been teaching incarcerated students at the prison, gradually moving from teaching victim-impact classes to full college courses at the facility.
Through the post-secondary prison classes he taught, Gaskew met two incarcerated educators who had exceptional teaching skills and were subject-matter experts on the development of social movements in America.
“The level of scholarship these men demonstrated on the theoretical and applied intersection of structural violence and the creation of social movements, surpassed anything I had ever seen in my life,” Gaskew said. He thought this could be the perfect opportunity to push the boundaries of higher education pedagogy in directions it had never gone before.
Gaskew secured the permission of prison officials to allow the incarcerated educators to develop and teach the college course, and he then handpicked the students to whom the class would be offered. “Given the instructors, course content, and timing, this was clearly going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I encouraged some of the top students in the criminal justice program to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.
Matt Bedekovich, a graduating criminal justice major from Monaca, was one of those seven. The small seminar was the third class he had taken at the prison.
The course, Special Topics in Courts: The United States of America v. The United States of America, examined the construction of three major social movements in America: Black Nationalism, American-Indian, and Occupy Wall Street, along with the adversarial response to them by the criminal justice system. Using five required textbooks and more than a dozen supplemental readings, students were exposed to the invisible histories and root causes of social movement transformation, and challenged to assess, critique, and evaluate the connective relationship with policing strategies of intervention.
“It was personally challenging because I was exposed to contradictions,” Bedekovich said.
Bedekovich plans to be a law enforcement officer and is applying to the Pennsylvania State Police Academy, a process that takes several months. “I'm going to carry this experience with me forever,” he said.
Gaskew said, “This innovative course offering is a direct by-product of our amazing 10-year relationship with the Bureau of Prisons FCI McKean, and their incredible and forward-thinking leadership.”