My Life With Lifers Lessons For A Teacher: Humanity Has No Bars "I have always been drawn to darkness," Elaine Leeder writes. "I know I always championed the underdog." As a sociology professor at Ithaca College in the 1990s, she began teaching at Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York. When she moved to California, that same desire to help led her to the prison education program at San Quentin. Then, inspired by her lessons, a group of Leeder's students approached her about working with a program the prisoners had established to aid in their long and difficult process of redemption and transformation. She accepted. These members of New Leaf on Life-the San Quentin "lifers"-have been sentenced to terms ranging from fifteen years to life in prison. Unlike Death Row inmates, who will either die in prison or be executed, many of the lifers are eligible for parole after having spent twenty to thirty years behind bars. But too often, they never see that opportunity because of the popular view that they are all "hardened criminals," killers incapable of rehabilitation and unfit to be free. What Leeder has learned, however, is that incarceration does not dictate character. Her students, although they are convicts, are committed to making their time in jail a life sentence in the best sense, not a death sentence. They have gone the extra mile to come to terms with their crimes, and have often managed to redeem their lives. My Life With Lifers shares the journey of a woman "on the outside" as she discovered the true nature of life in prison, and the roadblocks-so many of them unneeded-on the inmates' path to freedom. What Leeder's experiences add up to is both a fascinating human story and a reasoned and impassioned case for prison reform.
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About Elaine Leeder Elaine Leeder has devoted her life to remembering and speaking out for the marginalized members of society. In her commitment to moving U.S. prison policies away from an atmosphere of fear and revenge, she also aims to help her own college students make sense of a changing society and influence its direction. Driven by both love for her students and the nation’s vital need for social change, Leeder works tirelessly as an educator, author, and speaker on subjects ranging from the Holocaust to global perspectives on families to therapeutic issues facing female prisoners and their children. Dr. Leeder, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University in California, has thirty-five years of distinguished accomplishments in academia and public service. She began her career as an undergraduate at Northeastern University, where she earned a B.A. in sociology with a minor in psychology before receiving a master's in social work from Yeshiva University in New York and a second master's degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Leeder earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1985. She served as a sociology professor at Ithaca College before joining the faculty at Sonoma State, where, in addition to her duties as dean, she teaches courses in introductory sociology and family violence. Dr. Leeder is listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in America, and Who's Who of American Teachers. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, outstanding teacher awards, research and travel grants, and numerous awards from student and community agencies. In addition to her academic career, Dr. Leeder has served as a psychotherapist, consultant, and advocate for social justice. She was a visiting scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and has twice sailed on the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea. In addition to My Life With Lifers, Dr. Leeder has written more than two dozen articles on sociological and psychological issues. She is the author of four other books: The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer (1993); Treating Abuse in Families: A Feminist and Community Approach (1994); The Family in Global Perspective: A Gendered Journey (2003); and Inside and Out: Women, Prison, and Therapy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?
I have always been drawn to darkness and the dark side of people's lives. It may be because my father's family was killed in Lithuania during the Holocaust; it might also be because my mother's people were immigrants from Poland, with many of the troubles that immigrant families experienced, including poverty and mental illness.
My childhood home always had the shades drawn so the neighbors would not see what was going on inside. In my father's village in Lithuania, it was the neighbors who turned in the Jews and watched them being marched off to the pits where my family was shot and buried. My father spent his whole life remembering his dead mother, sister, and brother, and feeling survivor's guilt for having made it out alive before the war began.
Whatever the cause of my being drawn to darkness, I know I always championed the underdog. In the first grade, a young African-American friend called for me on the second day of school, but my mother told me I could not walk with her or be her friend. I knew something was wrong with the way we dealt with the "other." To me, there was no "other"--she was my friend, and I would spend time with her, no matter what I was told.
This rebellion stayed with me through childhood, college, and later life. By the time I was in college, I had marched with Martin Luther King before his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In Boston, where I went to school, there was a rich tradition of rebellion, and it was easy for me to find it. I smoked pot before it was "in," beginning as early as 1965. I joined civil rights and antiwar activities, and I was in a feminist consciousness-raising group as soon as such movements emerged. In these groups, I discovered that as a woman in a patriarchal society, I, too, was an underdog.
In 1995, in what was to be a pivotal moment in my career, I took the high school students to the Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York for a tour by the warden. I was struck by the cold, harsh facility and the fact that it was 150 years old. When the tour was over, I asked the warden if the inmates had any educational opportunities. He said they had only GED classes and some self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). In an impetuous moment of generosity, I offered to bring some college education programs inside. The warden was thrilled, and thus began my career with prisoners.
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