Lily Hodges

The word “criminal” holds a lot of moral judgment. Only “bad” people get arrested and go to prison, right? Wrong.

Statements like these fail to explain why people of color and poor people are disproportionately represented in prisons in the United States. Those without the privileges of claiming whiteness aren’t disproportionately immoral. Nor are those without the means to hire a lawyer more likely to be guilty. Instead, they are constantly trapped in a cycle beyond their control. I am here as a Mellon Public Scholar because I have made a commitment to serve those who have the most experience with marginalization and the least access to justice. This summer, in pursuit of helping this population, I hope to extend the resources of UC Davis to a prison or jail near campus.

Getting caught breaking a law has little to do with morality, and more to do with power and access. I used to think the law was fair, but have come to believe that it really just works for those with money and connections. Inequalities in the creation and enforcement of laws have unraveled my faith in this country’s system of justice. As an educator, I try to challenge this flawed system by using my time to teach incarcerated students. As a public scholar, I aim to reimagine “criminals” as students who have a different knowledge to be shared, a knowledge that we should all learn from. I don’t want to condemn our poor and our people of color to a life without the option of taking college classes.

The last time I taught a class in San Quentin, my students wrote on an essay either in favor of or against the humanities. The assignment served as a tool to practice writing thesis statements and topic sentences. However, the students’ first question after introducing the assignment sailed over writing style. They were more interested in this: What are the humanities? I still don’t have a clear answer to that question, or to who constitutes the public. They’re questions that are wracking classrooms these days, and often leave me scratching my head.

In spite of this, I have a visceral belief that the public humanities will be a necessary part of solving the United States’ justice problem. After debating those topics for a while in closed classrooms on campus, I turn to practice to dig deeper for the answers and solutions. By extending UC Davis’s resources beyond our campus and into spaces typically excluded from this kind of education, I hope to begin (re)imagining what a public humanities solution to mass incarceration might look like.

I think an important part of our society is being left out of these conversation. Maybe these guys will have the all answers, after all.