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Voice in Prisons

Uninhibited's picture

I found the questions that Jones and d'Errico asked to be very important but most often neglected when the public and media talk about schooling in prisons. First, they ask about the goal and purpose of education in prisons. This question really asks those who attempt to do schooling in prison to question their purpose, are they there because they see the prisoners as deficient and in need of reform? Or are they there because they believe that the curriculum will provide an opportunity for learning and growth? Then, the question about who educates and what type of education will take place went even deeper. This question really had me thinking back to the purpose of education. Should these classes provide them with the skills necessary to apply and find jobs after their release? Should they focus on exploring the liberal arts and the humanities? Most importantly however, was the way in which we think about and attempt to answer this question. If we have the idea of a prisoner in mind when thinking about which kind of education should be provided, then we automatically fall back into labeling prisoners and setting up a system that already names them as inferior. How then can we strip ourselves of misconceptions about who incarcerated people are, and see them as human beings who need to experience growth just like the rest of us? What is it about incarceration that completely changes our views of the kind of education "they deserve"? And in thinking about this, why aren't their voices present in creating curriculum and programs? Much like we've talked about the importance of student voice in the classroom, their needs and wants out of a classroom are just as important in creating responsive curriculum. 



Dan's picture

"Deservingness" of education

"Deservingness" of education is such an interesting question (although to me it's not a question at all)-- which is so deeply tied to the dehumanization of incarcerated people... and that feels influenced by economic factors, conservative rhetoric, and moral positions on "crime." Of course all people, regardless of where they are caught in the system would benefit from being educated --- but what that looks like is another question. After reading Delpit, I really don't know. This brings me to Uninhibited's question of what is the purpose of education? Is the purpose of education different for these precarious lives? Those who are completely abandoned and even threatened by the institutions of power? Does it look the same for us?

jo's picture

an idealistic answer

"How then can we strip ourselves of misconceptions about who incarcerated people are, and see them as human beings who need to experience growth just like the rest of us?" This question from Uninhibited's post is really striking and I think it's a really important one, especially as we prepare ourselves to go into a prison and engage in teaching and learning with incarcerated people. The best way I can think of to answer it (or maybe just process it) is this: I try really hard to see everyone as human, nothing more, nothing less. Though everyone in the world is SO different, from our bodies and minds to our backgrounds and experiences, we all share some fundemental similarities and I honestly believe that we are born pure and innocent, with no other desire than to love and be loved (sorry if this is starting to sound really cheesy or idealistic, I'm just gonna run with it). And then, from the birth canal to being pushed down in Kindergarden to being bullied in middle school to failing a class in high school being dumped to losing a loved one to.... every single day of our lives we are hurt in some way, some days more than others, some of us more than others. This hurt builds up, weighs us down, and some people get trapped beneath it. In Vision class last week we talked a bit about how our experiences do not necessarily define us, how some people are able to rise above advirsity, above the hurt, and they "succeed" where others do not. I agree with this, and I am by no means trying to discount the hard work and perserverance that must take (I will admit that, as a privileged person raised in the culture of power, I don't really know what that is like). So I want to celebrate this but at the same time recognize that it is not true for so many people raised outside the culture of power, and for this reason, the United States prison system is so vast and bustling (is this a problematic way of describing it?).

So, looking at Owl's post, what do "criminals" or "prisoners" or "offenders," even murderers, deserve? They deserved love and caring from birth, they deserved a world where no one is oppressed, where no group of people wields power over another, they deserved what all human beings deserve (though don't often get), and most importantly, they deserve to be treated like human beings.

I realize this "answer" or response to the above posts is incredibly idealistic and perhaps not very practical, but its what I feel in my heart and I am trying to learn to share more of that, especially when I'm afraid to.

Owl's picture


The question you raise is definitely one that I think we all grapple with, especially since I think your question can also apply to other minority groups that are kept out of the conversation on what education is and should be (eg. children with disabilities, women, etc.). What I find interesting, however, is how this notion of 'deservingness' somehow plays into how we view education. I think the problem with thinking about education as being something that is deserved, especially when it comes to incarcerated people, is that you run into differences in criminals and crimes committed. In our vision course, a lot of the labels we found ourselves constructing around who incarcerated people are, seemed to view them in a more forgiving light than most of society might view incarcerated people. However, the problem with viewing them in such light, is that we run the risk of neglected the crimes they have committed. I am fully understanding of the fact that there are multiple factors that play into why a person both committs a crime as well as what type of crime they committ, but I think that much of society understands incarceration through the criminalizing lense. In other words, in order for many to determine whether an individual is deserving of an education, they must first know who committed and crime, why they committed the crime, and what kind of crime was committed. For instance, it might be difficult for any person to say that a murderer is 'derserving' of anything much less an education. I don't agree with this perspective, but I do think it is something worth considering when answering your question about the education of prisoners. I think that it tells us how much of real education must be more preventative than anything. 

jhunter's picture

Deserve, Deserved, Deserving?

I think the perspectives in both Uninhibited and Owl's posts are quite interesting.  It's so difficult for me to think about these issues without wanting to break each sentence, or actually each word, down into component pieces.  You asked, what is it to deserve?  In this situation the prisoner is the subject who deserves the object, in this case education.  I feel that putting the incarcerated individual in the subject role makes many people uncomfortable, not just because, as you said, many people equate incarceration with malevolent/destructive activities like murder, sexual assault, armed robbery, etc. but because it's difficult for us to see prisoners in the same position as ourselves because that means that any one of us could make the transition from person and subject to the oft-conjured image of an isolated figure behind bars, faceless and nameless. 

I think it's a lot easier to say that education is deserved or that prisoners are deserving of an education because of the more passive construction of both statements.  In this situation, we don't have to think of the incarcerated men and women as active subjects but merely as recipients of a benevolent other's decision to bestow them with an education.  I'm not sure if I'm articulating fully what I'm struggling with here, but I just wanted to point out the interesting ways we interact with language and our own voices when speaking about prisoners, education, and what it means to deserve.

Sarah's picture

Deserve/Have a Right to Education

This question of deservingness really struck me as well.  If you ask me if I think incarcerated people should have access to education, I would automatically say "yes!".  But when I begin to think about what goes into that, I am maybe less loud and automatic in that "yes".  For example, when I read that Pell Grants are a major source of funding for prisoners, I realized that was something I had never thought about.  Who pays for incarcerated people's education? It was my initial reaction to be frustrated by that.  Maybe that is not "right" or "politically correct" to feel, but I did think about how that meant there was less Pell Grant money available to students like myself. At the same time I can logically consider if many of these people had been given access to quality education in the first place, they might not be incarcerated, and would instead attend college freely and still need that Pell Grant.  I also felt sympathetic for the correctional personnel when I read that conflict sometimes arises because the prisoners are recieving benefits that are beyond their reach.  It's not fair that the correctional personnel don't have access to education, but that doesn't mean it should be taken away from the prisoners.  In terms of education, I think it is a slippery slope to think some people are more deserving than others.  This is how we end up with schools that teach menial skills to poor children of color and higher level thinking to wealthy white children.