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"School" interfering with Prison Education

The Unknown's picture

In order to negotiate the silences and opportunities for voice, one cannot ignore the power inherent in language. Race, class, religion, and all other aspects of one’s identity and background construct the shape of language. In choosing to forge the distance through sliding doors, elevators, and body checks, I am implicated in the dialogue of justifying and questioning our words at the prison. I am redefining and manipulating the power of language through deciding to communicate with voice and claiming that it has reason and should be acknowledged. I am unsure, inarticulate, and maneuvering through the unexplained implications of “teaching” and designing a “classroom setting.”

How does the idea of choice play into the legitimacy of our voices? I cannot fail to acknowledge that I feel that I can speak on more issues because the womyn have “chosen” to participate in our writing and reading group. How does their bodies voice a yearning for knowledge and connection that we have not even begun to touch the surface of? What does it mean that they are “physically with us?”

In many ways, the world of the prisoners has been stripped of agency, confined to set structure and rules, where they are often seen as helpless bodies. Not only do I view them as products of an unjust system, but also I find myself disheartened and angered by our lack of ability not only to dismantle this system, but also to even truly help a collective reach a deeper level of understanding. I cannot ignore that people have told me and many assume that these womyn anything to offer, that they are destructive. James Baldwin claims in “A Talk to Teachers” that society measures people’s worth and importance in obedience: “But on the other hand [she] is also assured by [her] country and [her] countrymen that [she] has never contributed anything to civilization – that [her] part is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured” (Baldwin 1). Yet in proving to myself and to others what these womyn have to offer, I find I am still forcing an uncomfortable speech that begs for quick answers, that still fails to see the nuances in their phrases, gestures, language, and unspoken communication.

The most painful part of being in this group is how often I feel that the womyn give us power through silence, acceptance, and assumed understanding. James Baldwin asserts in “A Talk to Teachers” that education explains and justifies the inequalities and discontinuities in society: “Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society” (Baldwin 1). I find that the statements of Bryn Mawr students carry more meaning, more certainty. I am still entangled in this conflict, but I am more aware of the impact of my words in that classroom. How truthful are my claims? How righteous are my comments, especially when they could carry so much weight and the prison setting does not always give space for dissenting bodies or voices.  Are we creating, instilling, or preserving these unequal structures that we discuss and force these womyn into a life of “marked?” Are they unavoidable?

I am sometimes discomforted with my lack of responsibility and concern with our impact on the womyn we work with. I am confronted with these “ideals” of educational settings where we have learned and observed that the information, understanding, morals, and topics of discussion should come from the students, the learners, yet we have chosen, some would argue, a very strict outline for how we operate the classes. James Baldwin explains the empowerment inherent in processes of learning and exploring deeper meanings in “A Talk to Teachers”: “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not” (Baldwin 1). This notion of incorporating the incarcerated people’s interests into the lessons can be especially difficult and complex when we consider access. Access to books, news, art, and other concerns that the incarcerated people would like to analyze are often not easily understood or found. Also, in this observation, am I assuming that the womyn can accurately voice their concerns? I feel that whether intentionally or not, we have created a language of discussion.

How do we encourage voices without shaping them into a “respectable and preferred” language? “To ask questions of the universe, and then to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity” (Baldwin 1).  How can our different usage of language and tonalities be more fully understood and appreciated? I find that we often silence or quiet people in the prison when they are speaking in stories, sharing a perspective through an encounter, rather than “just telling us what they mean?” Though I think that we cannot ignore that we have been conditioned to converse in certain ways and we have expectations for educational settings, I find that we are constantly quieting others, “redirecting” conversations, as we seem to justify our obstruction of certain pathways of voice. Are we uncomfortable with these new dialogues? Do we not know how to incorporate them into our “set” lesson plans?

I was also thinking about how it is never quiet in the classroom. I cannot recall a humyn, voiceless silence that was not constructed around the writing assignment. I do think that there is a power in silence, specifically the way it is shared and how it unites people under a conscious, recognized action, and yet allows for different interpretations and experiences. Would the womyn want more organized silences?

I am constantly struggling with the power in our voice, because we attend a well-established, high-esteemed college, we have more access to a broader range of news, but most importantly we are not incarcerated. Our words and ideas can more easily be backed-up and complicated through our access to a wide range of materials. We can articulate our ideas in relation to other scholars, activists, and educators. It is assumed that in order to be in college, we have some knowledge of social issues and history.

We are also given so many resources while in college. The examples that our education endows us with gives us an opportunity to see more connections, to link facts with experiences and in many ways to “justify” the thoughts, perspectives, feelings, and experiences of the womyn we work with, as well as our own. Our “power” comes from seeing broader pictures, analyzing cause-and-effect, and often, uncomfortably viewing and understanding these womyn as objects of study. Though this term “objects of study” is complicated, being in prison is a constant struggle between embracing new perspectives and listening, while also understanding how these womyn fit into unjust, racist, classicist systems. I can not deny that each statement, phrase, movement of the womyn in prison subconsciously as well as consciously defies, questions and at the same time strengthens my stereotypes and racism. My ideas about womyn, different races, and the importance of education are complicated and reinforced.

Our silences and voices shape into space filling a container that is constructed by inequality and indeterminacy. I am molded and perpetuate a system that keeps certain people behind bars that determines that people do not belong in society and yet I somehow believe in working and meeting with womyn in a prison. They said that the justifications and reasoning behind our work at the prison would become clear, yet each time I feel more lost and that doors and guards prevent deeper feelings of connection. The silences are overwhelming and yet I am trying to make sense of them. I need to embrace and question the discomfort of the obscure, nameless, inexplicable distance between myself and seeing these womyn in their multi-layered, changing bodies.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. ""A Talk to Teachers" James Baldwin, 1963." "A Talk to Teachers"  James Baldwin, 1963. The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948- 1985, 1985. Web. 03 Sept. 2015.          <>.


jccohen's picture

The Unknown,

Your struggle is palpable here, as you seek to see, understand, and perhaps ultimately make some change in what’s going on in the jail setting.  And yet even as your struggle is evident and powerful throughout, I’m also finding myself unclear at times about how you’re perceiving and making sense of the experience.  You seem to use Baldwin as a kind of guide and counterpoint to what we are doing inside, and indeed, Baldwin makes a compelling argument about the nature and paradox of education.  While he claims that “the purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions,” I don’t think he really tells us how to accomplish this, and I’d even say (and now this may be me rather than Baldwin) that there are many paths to this kind of education.  For example, Rhodessa Jones, a Freirian educator, believes strongly in the power of “discipline” for teaching women to do their own thinking, and Freire describes dialogue as involving “naming” in which all participants are engaging in genuine ways in inquiry.  So a “lesson plan” per se doesn’t seem to me to negate Baldwin’s intentions here…  How does any of this impact or relate to your understanding/questions about what’s going on in the site?  What would it look like to “encourage voices without shaping them into a “respectable and preferred” language”?  For example, I like a lot your point about "sharing in stories" - might you and your team acknowledge this as another viable way to "voice" in the classroom?  How might you use all the work we’ve been doing specifically around “voice” and “silence” to enable other kinds of possibilities for learning/teaching in this setting?