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Photo from Madison Dawkins

A recent Penn graduate and two current Penn undergraduates are working to design a new academically-based community service course that hopes to illuminate issues of mass incarceration.

College junior Madison Dawkins, Engineering senior Anna Estep, and 2017 College graduate Lindsey Sawczuk are designing a syllabus for the class, which they plan to call, "The Health and Mindfulness of Incarcerated Populations." As part of the course, students will visit the Riverside Correctional Facility to discuss physical and mental health with incarcerated women. 

While there were initial talks to host the course in the School of Social Policy & Practice, these were not finalized in time for the Spring semester of 2018, said Penn Nursing professor Kathleen Brown, the faculty advisor for Dawkins and Estep’s independent study. Instead, a version of the course is being offered through the Nursing school with the title "Women and Incarceration" (NURS-555). 

Dawkins said that in their plans for the future of the course, students will spend time visiting and learning about the prisons as well as get acquainted with the foundations of mindfulness in the classroom.

Estep said a main reason for creating the course is to shed light on a topic to which many students are not exposed.  

“The more people that are aware of this issue, the more we can get done policy-wise in order to stop mass incarceration," Estep said.  

The course will have a similar format to an independent study that Dawkins, Estep, and Sawczuk had worked on together, and will be taught by Brown.

Estep said she believes that the ABCS class, which is based on her independent study, will offer Penn students new perspectives that “humanize” the experience of the women incarcerated.  

“You don’t really understand the problems with mass incarceration until you work with these people and you see just how much the system has failed them,” Estep said. “A lot of them aren’t even guilty, they’re being held there simply because they can’t make bail.” 

In their independent study, the students led workshops related to physical and mental health for the women incarcerated in the behavioral unit of the Riverside Correctional Facility. Each session started with an introduction to a health-related topic that an incarcerated woman chose and was followed by a guided mindfulness session to encourage the women to reflect on their feelings and perceptions. 

Dawkins said she also thinks that the format of the study and the upcoming class gives agency to the incarcerated women by letting them actively participate in and lead the workshops. 

In an effort to list the class as an available ABCS course, Dawkins reached out to Tia Yang, the Netter Center’s ABCS research and program coordinator in October 2017. Yang said she believes that Dawkins’ project worked well with the goal of an ABCS class. 

“Her approach was really community-driven, and she evaluated her outcomes based on the fact that they had positive outcomes from the community,” Yang said. “That was a positive thing to see.”

Dawkins and Estep said they hope that the course will help students reflect on their own experiences and focus on mindfulness. The class may assign weekly logs about self-care, as the course expects both students and inmates to practice mindfulness, Brown said.  

College sophomore Ayanna Coleman said she plans to take the class and believes its emphasis on mindfulness can help her manage her own high-stress situations. 

“Realizing where you are and making the best of your situation, I feel that can help me as a student,” she said. Coleman added that the class's practices could allow her to accept that Penn is a stressful environment without letting that "overwhelm her."

Editor's note: In a previous version of this article, it was indicated by three independent sources to The Daily Pennsylvanian that this class would be offered in the School of Social Policy and Practice during the Spring of 2018. After the article was published, a Public Relations officer from the School informed the DP that the course is not currently being offered in the School. The DP regrets the error.