Tuesday, May 21, 2013

“Solutions That Actually Work”: Teaching Conflict Resolution in Prison


An interview with Jonathan Shailor, Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

By Dave Buchanan


In the past month (April 20-May 20), University of Wisconsin-Parkside Communication Professor Jonathan Shailor raised enough money to purchase a complete set of textbooks for a college course that he will teach this fall at Racine Correctional Institution, (RCI) a medium-security state prison for men in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.

I asked Jonathan about the course, about his history of teaching in prison, and about his motivation.

Tell me about the Conflict Analysis and Resolution class you’re going to teach at RCI? Is it different in content from the CAR classes you teach here?

The class is Comm 285: Intro to Conflict Analysis & Resolution.  It will be identical to the course that I teach here – it’s an introduction to a “communication perspective” on conflict, with an emphasis on understanding how patterns of conflict develop, from the interpersonal to the international level.  We explore the choices of interpretation and action that people make on a moment-to-moment basis, creating either destructive cycles and chaotic patterns, or opportunities for healing and transformation.

This will be the first course that the university has ever offered as a regular college course in a correctional setting.  Prisoners with a high school diploma or G.E.D. will be able to enroll as special status students at the university and take the course for credit.  I am very grateful to RCI Warden Paul Kemper and Education Director Paula Decker for their support of this initiative.  Both of them have a deep understanding of the value of education in helping to reduce recidivism.

How long have you been teaching conflict analysis and resolution at RCI? Is there a success story you are particularly proud of from this program?

My career teaching at RCI began in 1995, and has developed over four phases. In phase one (1995-2004),  I taught classes in The Theatre Empowerment, where we used storytelling, dialogue and theatre as tools for exploring the men’s conflicts, and for imagining alternative responses to recurring situations.  In phase two (2004-2008), I initiated and directed The Shakespeare Project, which involved prisoners in an annual nine-month journey of study, rehearsal, and performance.  That experience was very much about socialization and the development of problem-solving and conflict resolution skills.  Men of differing races, religions and sexual orientations, who normally would avoid one another on the yard, learned to work closely with one another, to respect one another, and manage their differences constructively.  In phase three (2008-present), I began writing and publishing on this work in earnest, including a book I edited that brought together prison theatre facilitators from across the United States (Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre - Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011).  Phase four begins this year, with the first formal college course in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

There are many success stories…  it’s difficult to choose only one, and even more difficult to convey the nature of that success in only a few sentences.  The clearest indications that this work is making a positive impact are in the letters that I receive from former prisoners and their family members.  The wife of an ex-offender writes to me that her husband is changed - now he listens to her and the children - and he credits this change to his experience in The Theatre of Empowerment course, where he learned the difference between the archetypal male roles of The King (visionary, creative, generous, bestowing blessings), and the Tyrant (controlling, fearful, rigid, self-aggrandizing, punishing).

How does your involvement in this program benefit our students?

I have great stories to tell!  I learn a great deal from the prisoners I work with, and I share that learning with our students.  I have also involved students directly in some of my classes at Racine Correctional Institution, bringing them in to work and learn alongside the inmates.  It is always a profound experience for the students.  They are deeply moved by the humanity of the prisoners, and the potential that they see in them. 

What is the Prison Outreach Fund? Who created it and what is the fund money used for?

I created the UW-Parkside Prison Outreach Fund as a resource to support university-related educational programs in Wisconsin correctional facilities.  The immediate need was 15 textbooks for this class in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  The cost of one textbook is $146, and RCI rules prohibit inmates from buying any book that costs more than $75.  These books will be loaned to the prisoners, and will remain the property of the university. 

I have always taught at RCI on a voluntary basis (no compensation 90% of the time – the exceptions being a couple of semesters when stipends were paid).  I am teaching this fall for no compensation. 

My intention is to continue to grow the Prison Outreach Fund, so that a reservoir of support for university outreach will exist.  There will always be expenses – mostly, books and other educational materials.  If the fund grows to be large enough, we might be able to offer modest stipends, as encouragement for other faculty who are interested in teaching behind bars.  I would love to see a cohort of faculty and teaching staff who are dedicated to this work on an ongoing basis.

What textbook will you be using and why was it selected for this class? Is this the same volume you use for classes here?

The textbook is Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot’s Interpersonal Conflict (9th edition).  I like the book because it provides a broad overview of conflict resolution concepts, and shows clearly the practical value of those concepts.  I complement this material with my own training and experience as a mediator and facilitator, and with case studies from a range of cultural and historical settings.

You mentioned people you never even met contributing to the Prison Outreach Fund. Without naming names, were there contributors who surprised you and, if so, why?

First, I want to say that I am deeply appreciative of the many generous contributions that came in from my friends and colleagues on campus.  I was also surprised, and encouraged, by contributions from a local veteran’s organization, from two children, and from an acquaintance who is worried that his own brother may soon end up in prison.  One couple, who lost their son a year ago (he was attempting to save his roommates from a fire), donated a large amount in his name.  They happened to hear my appeal for donations on his birthday, and I guess they took it for a sign.  He was a passionate advocate of getting books to prisoners.

What is your ultimate goal in teaching at RCI?

The Prison Studies Project at Harvard University notes that “studies conducted over the last two decades almost unanimously indicate that higher education in prison programs reduces recidivism and translates into reductions in crime, savings to taxpayers, and long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities to which formerly incarcerated people return” (see “Why Prison Education?” at
http://prisonstudiesproject.org/why-prison-education-programs/).   My ultimate goal is a saner, safer society, where we respond to patterns of addiction, hopelessness and aggression with solutions that actually work.

To contribute to the UW-Parkside Prison Outreach Fund, write your check to “UW-Parkside,” and mail to

Dr. Jonathan Shailor
UW-Parkside Prison Outreach
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
900 Wood Road
Kenosha, WI  53141-2000


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