‘Not a confessional, a correctional’: author Ravi Shankar discusses his experience with inequitable incarceration


Ravi Shankar

The cover of Ravi Shankar’s memoir “Correctional.”

By Chloe Els, Staff Writer

“The first time I went to jail, I was innocent and indignant,” Pushcart-prize winning poet and author Ravi Shankar quoted from the introduction to his memoir “Correctional,” a testament to his time in the Hartford Correctional Center.

Emerson Prison Initiative hosted Shankar at a virtual event Thursday evening where he shared details about his personal life, including his thoughts on America’s prison system.

In 2009, Shankar was pulled over in Manhattan and ordered to take a sobriety test. He passed, but was detained anyway for almost 36 hours. Shankar believes he was wrongfully convicted and a victim of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy, which was later deemed unconstitutional

“I was a tenured professor and a married homeowner,” Shankar said. “I spoke out. I sued the city for racial discrimination and won a modest settlement—a drop in the bucket.”

The second time Shankar was arrested, he said he was not so lucky, or guiltless. In 2012, he was found guilty of giving false statements concerning a credit card fraud scheme and violating his probation. For this, he served a 90-day sentence at Hartford Correctional.

“[“Correctional”] is the true story of how in my seemingly successful life I ended up in jail,” Shankar said. “Not a confessional—a correctional.”

During this 90-day sentence Shankar spent time with others who shared their stories and wanted him to amplify their experiences to a wider audience. “Correctional,” he said, is his attempt to do that.

Shankar described “Correctional” as a series of letters to loved ones and people he wants to make amends with, rooted in his experiences with incarceration. He described it as deeply personal, but also deeply American because of the inequities he witnessed in the prison system.

“I was only [in jail] for 90 days,” Shankar said. “Yet, in those 90 days, I saw so many things that seemed to be symbolic of larger problems that exist. There was a lot of rhetoric for rehabilitation, but in practice I saw men coming out worse off than they came in. These men are being set up to fail.”

Kim McLarin, the interim dean of graduate and professional studies at Emerson, mediated the event, drawing attention to Shankar’s portrayal of Black inmates in his memoir and her own thoughts on the prison system.

“One of the things that’s compelling about [“Correctional”] is you touch on all parts of the criminal incarceration system,” McLarin said. “I won’t call it the justice system because there is no justice in it.”

Shankar explained the inequities he witnessed are not only present in the facilities, but in the circumstances that lead to arrests. 

According to Shankar, over the past 40 years, there has been an exponential increase in people getting arrested and jailed for minor drug convictions. The PEW Charitable Trusts published a brief in 2022 that found harsh policies established during the 1980s War on Drugs caused a 1,216% increase in the number of inmates convicted for drug offenses in state prisons.

“It’s a form of social control,” Shankar said, referencing scholar Michelle Alexander’s assertion in her book “The New Jim Crow” which details racial discrimination and mass incarceration in America.

Education is one of the ways incarcerated people can reclaim a sense of control over their stories, Shankar said. Currently, he teaches courses in creative nonfiction and memoir writing to incarcerated people through the Tufts University College of Civic Engagement, and said he is a huge believer in bibliotherapy, which he described as “thinking critically to promote healing.”

Acting Assistant Director of EPI Stephan Shane discussed EPI’s accessibility to inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, which offers inmates the opportunity to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Media, Literature, and Culture.

“The program affirms Emerson’s faith in the value of a liberal arts education,” Shane said. “Our first cohort of students graduated about a month ago. Some have since exited prison, degrees in hand, pursuing lives beyond prison.”

In addition to his work in providing access to education in prison, Shankar hopes “Correctional” can also promote positive change in America’s prison system.

“I wish that this book makes us want to correct what is truly broken: our criminal justice system,” Shankar said.