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My Life with Lifers: Lessons For A Teacher: Humanity Has No Bars

My Life with Lifers: Lessons For A Teacher: Humanity Has No Bars

by Dr. Elaine Leeder

Paperback(New Edition)



"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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938288029
Publisher: Terra Nova Books
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 139
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 Years

About the Author

Elaine Leeder, MSW, MPH, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA. Previously, she was a Professor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She has thirty-five years of distinguished accomplishments and experience in aca­demia and public service.
She has published four other books and more than two dozen articles on sociological and psychological issues. Her third book, The Family in Global Perspective: A Gendered Journey, is being used at dozens of campuses in the U.S. today.

Read an Excerpt

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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