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reflections as an abolitionist on prison education

rb.richx's picture

part of the purpose of prisons in their current ideal, form according to most individuals, is to rehabilitate deviant individuals. prisons are now more frequently called ‘correctional facilities’ in this vein of this rehabilitation ideology, alongside deterrence and isolation. this lie – that the prison-industrial complex is separate from maintaining authority and creating political gain, and is instead existent for rehabilitation and safety for the general public through “tough on crime” and “criminality” language – continues the cycle of oppression against people of color, poor people, lgbtq+ people, disabled people, immigrants/undocumented people, among others.

through this common knowledge, i think that prisons have become sites for limited education. any programs that exist long-term or on a large scale are for similar pr as the renaming of prisons as ‘correctional facilities’; people want to know that their family members have access to some human rites, even if limited, and there is a perpetuation of the good, wholesome citizen who has been rehabilitated within the system, in which certain people are let out ‘early’ because of their cooperation and constant work towards being productive under capitalism. often these people are those who might perpetuate the ‘bootstrap’ myth, who have taken many of the programs offered within the prison system and maybe go “above and beyond” to fit the specific mold of ideal, productive “citizen”.

to work within this system to educate these largely oppressed individuals is convoluted at best. the kinds of education that incarcerated individuals receive is likely religiously based or limited in a way that lacks the kind of critical thinking and breadth of knowledge that might allow one to view the pic and other systems critically.

this is not to say that current prison programs are not valuable; if an incarcerated individual feel that their quality of life has greatly increased, then who am i to say that these systems are false? many people have learned the “redemption genre” and internalized it in a way that it has become part of their identity (meiners, right to be hostile). however, the toolsets that these programs provide are limited, if prisons even have enough programming to involve any significant percentage of their incarcerated numbers in the first place. in a sense, it is difficult not to see the improvement in quality of life to fit a certain mold merely a type of brainwashing. even if positive effects are had, these are often at the detriment of the communities and cultures that a person came from or could be part of if not incarcerated.

as an individual who wishes to abolish prisons but also provide more tools to those “doing time”, how might i go about both? in this way, i wish to take a closer look at a possible way to structure some of the course material inside the bryn mawr classroom and inside the prison classroom(s). this is not intended to be a critique of the ways that jody structured her classroom, but instead to recreate a similar classroom, using hers as a model, that focuses more on a limited upheaval of the pic’s cycle and on the education of incarcerated individuals to better their understandings of the larger societal systems that have put them in this particular place and made them a more obvious part of the pic than those who are not incarcerated or directly benefitting from the incarceration of the aforementioned communities most affected by the pic. i intentionally say that this upheaval of the pic is on a limited scale, as anyone following this particular path is not inherently doing work to undo the pic at its foundations or fighting the oppressors. instead, this part of the work is critical to repair the broken lives and break the cycle in some way, using restorative justice principles. 

for classes and programs similar to the ones set up by our 360, i think it is important to first analyze and understand what prison programs currently do. part of this is simply understanding what the pic is and how it functions. to this, i think that having readings such as fasching-varner et. al, “beyond school-to-prison pipeline and toward an educational and penal realism” and gould et. al, “college civic engagement and education behind bars: connecting communities, creating change” are important to use as grounding tools for students. understanding the programs that exist currently will give educators/students/etc. a better understanding of what tools are already offered to the incarcerated individuals, so that we do not continue to repeat the same ones over. other texts that are more accessible to those outside of academia/within the prison might also be beneficial as an initial reading for the classroom on “the inside”.

then, it is also important to have some understanding of programs that exist outside of the prison to base our classroom(s) off of. this might be simply an in-depth conversation about other courses that students have held in the bi-co, but could also extend to examples outside of our privileged institution, such as the citizenship schools we discussed with joel’s class. such discussions and readings will provide a base of education that doesn’t focus only on the pic and will largely benefit everyone both “inside” and “outside”. these readings will likely steer student-facilitators to find or use texts that involve topics of minority discrimination. depending on the shape of the prison classroom, this could take many forms depending on the attendees’ literacy and preferred methods to intake information – reading du bois might be wonderful for some and harder for others, and citizen is a wonderful work that may not be concrete enough for all readers. because such classrooms have limited amounts of time, it will likely be impossible to cover every possible topic, so it is important to take an intersectional approach to various histories. for example, discussing abuse survivorhood, anti-black discrimination histories in the united states, islamophobia, and transmisogyny are useful and important tools within the pic, but may not speak to everyone in the ways that they personally need after the trauma of incarceration and the traumas that have gotten them there.

it is important to not put value of some types of texts above others; a mix of types of texts will likely be the best way to get a well-rounded classroom experience. certainly theories and histories are valuable, especially to those who might not seek these texts out themselves. however, one should not devalue texts that are fictional or that aren’t theoretical in the traditional sense. finding ways to incorporate reading that they might already be doing might be an important measure to take within the classroom. megan sweeney’s reading is my window: books and the art of reading in women’s prisons provided insight on how specifically this reading operates for incarcerated women and the importance of self-help books, which are often seen as lesser by academics. in a way, these texts offer a different kind of theorizing, and likely will help some of the incarcerated individuals see some of the ways in which they are held to fit a certain mold in order to be deemed worthy of leaving the prison system.



at the end of a 360 semester, students must create a final project of some sort, and the program encourages some form of that to be public. much the same, i think it could be attempted within the prison class. because the class within the prison is constantly changing as people come and leave the prison, and with the general unpredictable nature of life within the prison, creating such a project would likely be difficult if it takes a form that carries well beyond the classroom. however, this might encourage participants to get involved in creating or adding to a community that exists within the prison – either to continue the education process or to create some program that encourages the betterment of themselves, each other, and the prison system, if not spread prison abolitionist ideology.

the creation of this prison classroom and the final projects would greatly depend on the ways that individuals respond to texts and various exercises. because classrooms like this exist in such a limited amount – or perhaps not at all – within the current state of the pic and us education, it is important to know and use what information each semester’s student-facilitators record. part of this classroom configuration, then, necessitates a form of archival and pedagogical structure that uses each previous classroom experience as the foundations of the next. it should then be in some way required for the student-facilitators to read some collection of past work and also spend some time also relating this information back to the prison classroom; in this way, this work would function much like an ethnography, in which no information will be taken, gathered, or otherwise told to “outsiders” without the consent and understanding of those currently incarcerated. this is not necessarily about taking out identifying information, but instead to also relay past work and findings to the current classroom, who may instead say or decide that they, as a group, would actually like to try something that may not have worked in a previous classroom. this allows for as much of a constant give and take and pedagogical layering to hopefully create a classroom that provides tools and information that would allow incarcerated individuals to carry out some sort of reform from within – either within the prison or within themselves. some of this work has begun with anne and jody’s online book/classroom, in which they have compiled some of their students’ past work and written about the process of education on the inside. i think this work could be taken further, wherein the facilitators record all of their lessons digitally as well as take down responses to these lessons within the classroom (from those incarcerated and not) to better understand what works and what doesn’t. in the end, it would be ideal to also get information from everyone (again, from those incarcerated and not) on what subjects and questions remain unspoken within the classroom.

the latter may not be an easy task to do without encouraging constant reflection on the part of everyone within the classroom. during our last meeting in december 2015, i was rather insistent on asking the incarcerated individuals about their experiences with our classroom. the questions i created, though, did go somewhat unused because my fellow facilitators said the questions were leading. and while i didn’t protest because i agree, i don’t know that these weren’t important discussions to have. in particular, i’m thinking of a question that i phrased in our lesson plan something similar to this: “do you think there are/were unspoken barriers and hierarchies to our classroom? for example, do you feel that we college students pressured you as incarcerated individuals in certain ways? what about vice versa?” thus these questions and conversations went unspoken yet again, after two different semesters (as the subject was somewhat mentioned in “conversations you wish you could've had” via

there were few women present in this last class as well; of the five, i knew four, and of those four, few had been to the majority of our classes that semester. i and my fellow facilitators pressed several of the questions anyway, but received extremely little feedback. such is the nature of a classroom like this one; without encouraging a stronger reflection on each class aside from our ending go-around – in which most everyone gave one word about how they were feeling at the end – i don’t believe we had given them the tools to give full, well-formed feedback. the more classrooms that encourage reflection and criticism, the more i believe incarcerated individuals will feel empowered enough to find and give said criticism. i feel that there is some kind of obligation to have such a space and to ask some of the questions that arise from each previous semester.

i find it important to note that this educational piece might be a gradation toward reform or even abolition, but the end goal of this education cannot solely be moving towards a goal of abolition. while texts and ideology on prison abolition can – and arguably should, if possible – be spread to incarcerated individuals, destroying the system also means that there need to be programs or communities in the place of prisons to aid those who were incarcerated and encourage accountability and further education. if there are not programs or communities already doing this work before the abolition of prisons, there would be a great deal of trauma that no one is equipped to handle. this is not to mention that abolition through only education simply may not be possible from this vantage…

i’ve referred to this quote several times, and i will again, because it truly sums up the essence of the issue with this work – “making this environment “more habitable” can indeed help to make it more permanent.” ( educating on prison reform and abolition is absolutely an important stage in making abolition possible, but the work done should not be limited to this. the goal should be to “create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system” (are prisons obsolete? 103). i personally cannot envision a classroom or program that achieves this goal, even if the classroom’s entire purpose is to educate on prison abolition and past effective movements that have occurred inside prisons. this is not to say that such education is ill-fated or pointless; in fact, i certainly believe the opposite. whatever education that is done within the prison system is only one aspect of the work, and the education cannot only be focused on prison abolition if we are to provide more tools on critical thinking, understanding systematic issues, and self-awareness to those currently incarcerated. i believe that in order to do prison abolitionist work, one must do some work beyond education or alongside education.