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Learning in Prison

PCSJS Portfolio's picture

As part of my 360 I had the opportunity to participate in a seven week art workshop with women in a Philadelphia prison.  The experience was so recent that it is hard to step back and figure what it actually meant for both me and my classmates to be doing art together in that space.  I went into the class thinking that it would be an exercise in shared learning about tough political and social issues like systemic racism, racialized incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve long been interested in restorative justice, particularly in relation to my work in the HIV field, and the course seemed to tie in perfectly with some of my other academic interests.  I was also excited because I saw the class as an opportunity to share some of the ideas I have learned in a privileged college setting with people who might not otherwise have access.

What I found challenged my expectations, and continues to challenge how I understand incarceration, raising awareness, and political activism.  I went into the course thinking that it could be a powerful mode for consciousness raising amongst my incarcerated classmates, and that they would be moved by literature on prejudiced criminal justice policy and the prison industrial complex.  These were topics that motivated me to take the course, and I assumed that learning about these issues would be important for women currently living within the system.  I was very moved by books like The New Jim Crow, which talks about the ways in which new “coded antiblack rhetoric” swiftly entered into the criminal justice system following the civil rights movement and the rise in political and economic opportunities for Black Americans. White people in power use policies such as the “war on drugs” as a way to maintain their control.  This is perhaps most apparent when looking at sentencing guidelines, where it is obvious that drugs used more often by black people are much more heavily penalized than drugs used more often by white people.  By allowing for mass incarceration amongst poor, urban, black communities there is less chance for them to receive high levels of education, less chance for them to become engaged, and certainly less chance for them to change racial dynamics in our country. 

But when my class went into the prison, most of the conversations and group discussions surrounding our artwork focused much more on issues of personal growth and responsibility, rather than larger systemic problems.  Part of this was simply the institutional barriers in place – we were in a prison after all, and the incarcerated students needed to earn credit for “leadership” or “re-entry” programs.  But part of it was that the professor tailored the class to fit within the framework that our incarcerated classmates had requested.  Many of my incarcerated classmates appreciated being able to talk about their own personal shortcomings and about how they have grown.  They didn’t deny the importance of interrogating the criminal justice system, but saw an emphasis on personal responsibility to be just as crucial and relevant.  Part of me was incredibly frustrated – and I wanted to scream that it wasn’t their fault, it was the system’s fault.  But part of me also realized right away that it was not my place to be dictating the terms of our shared learning.

The women I was taking the class with did in fact know what they needed to thrive – from both the perspective of the system they are in, and from their personal educational desires.  I ended up being touched by the ways in which we all engaged in discussion, when it did occur, and saw the exchange as a way for us all to reciprocally help fulfill each other’s needs in the classroom.  I still feel that education on topics of inequality in the criminal justice system are important, but I had to rethink its role in the type of class I took.  I learned to take a pause when trying to apply abstract theoretical concepts to an actual person.  I cannot diagnose somebody else’s needs, and I certainly can’t lecture them on their situation in life.  I still think that looking at issues of racism and the school-to-prison pipeline is important, and I still feel a little bit like there was a missed opportunity this semester.  At the same time, I feel like I participated in something meaningful and powerful, which was it was – and that I need to harness my passion about the broken criminal justice system, and become even more involved going forward.


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