Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

A Second Cahnce for Educators

Joie Rose's picture

Joie Waxler


A Second Chance for Educators


The prison industrial complex is populated by 10% of the United States population and the majority of that demographic is not white. There are myriad of structures that have been constructed throughout the conception, building and adaptation of the United States that are pushing against people of color in this country and because of these many intersecting structures, we find ourselves in this ditch of mass incarceration dug by the isms that the United States is built upon. Racism, classism, elitism, age-ism, heterosexism, cis and sexism, and so many other isms that push so hard against any individual other than a white, cis-gendered, straight, wealthy, man are the pillars that we have built the progress of the United States on, and it has led to one of the greatest, most seemingly irrevocable failures in U.S history, something that has come to be known as the “prison industrial complex’.

Many of these structures and isms lead to what has been termed, the school to prison pipeline and I posit that one of the major reasons the United States has such an influx of students is a failure of educators, who have grown within the structures and isms I have been discussing, to truly know their students. Without knowing the culture, background, dialect, methods of understanding of their students, they are failing as educators and creating even more of a vacuum into the pipeline. When it comes to the education that black people and other people of color who make up the majority of the prison population, there is little to no education that focuses on those identities and the ways that those identities have been disadvantaged by structural racism and injustices. As Nathaniel Moore stated in his account of teaching African history in San Quentin, “the majority [of inmates] knew of Africa mostly through the media and/or K–12 schooling. The media they had been exposed to at best lacked depth and complexity, and at worst portrayed Africans living in jungles with apes or other destructive stereotypes. Most students reported that they never learned about Africa in school, and if they did, it focused solely on the slave trade” (Moore, p 60). So the is not to say that the onus is entirely on the educators, these educators, after all, have been told by their teachers, who have been told by their teachers who have been told by the structures in which we exist how to and how not to be teachers and so there is very little push against the damaging structures that keeping herding low income students of color into the pipeline. 

This is a reality that must be changed, but immediate needs must also be addressed and higher education in prisons that are populated by individuals that education has failed, is one of those immediate necessities. Perhaps it is turning the notion of a second chance for inmates on its head, and instead, giving educators a second chance to be fully accessible, responsible, and knowledgeable about those they are teaching. 

Because the prison industrial complex is so densely populated by black people and other people of color, there is a need to teach to that demographic. Nathaniel Moore is an educator who teaches African history in San Quentin Prison in California. It is a class that has been long underfunded and overdue in a prison in a state that houses an “insidious system of racial segregation that is simply part of daily life in California prisons” (Moore, p58) The prison industrial complex, of which San Quentin is an apropos example, is a concentrated version of the racism so rampant throughout the United States, a distillation of the worst of racism that grossly perpetuates state and individual violence against black bodies and other bodies of color. Which is why classes like the one that Moore teaches are so important. Because he is truly teaching to his audience; by acknowledging and recognizing the identities of those in San Quentin who need the education they never received, and tailoring that education to the space they are in, the people they are, and the many ism-ed structures that have brought them all into this space.

Education, particularly higher education on the college level has been shown to drop recidivism rates, has been shown to be empowering for those inside, and the best educations do both while also shedding light on the structures that affect the individuals inside. For Moore, he found that his class “each semester…became an empowering space for students of African descent to (re)discover and engage with their identity” (Moore, p60). An identity that is often consistently denied in intellectual and academic spaces, as well as almost exclusively white space of mass media. The necessity of teaching a class like Moore’s in prison is bred by the unmet necessity of teaching such a class on the outside, and so again, we find ourselves struggling to correct the failed system on the outside with what is has produced on the inside.

“In addition to discovering new dimensions to a continent’s history, students were able to articulate interesting linkages between class content and their own ideas of self, drawing conceptual and at times literal connections between class topics and their own lives (Moore, p61). Teaching specifically to the identities held in a prison means going beyond teaching to racial identities. Educators who go inside must also teach to prison identities. Moore is able to marry these two identities through his curriculum on the South African apartheid and the mass incarceration of black bodies the apartheid bred. And while on a literal level, a class about African history is geared towards black studies and black students, the same concepts can be applied to almost all ‘othered’ identities, particularly those in prison, and can work towards illuminating the structural reasons for an inmates incarceration as well as the academic, social, and personal reasons. Higher education, particularly for ‘othered’ identities is meant to complicate the idea that people who are in prison are in prison because they are bad. Most often they are in prison because a system was built to fail them, and educational systems were built to fail them, and educators who exist in that system failed. Again, higher education in prison has become a second chance for both parties, inmates and educators, and the education system that had a hand creating the school to prison pipeline in the first place.

The empowerment that ethnic studies courses in higher education in prisons does not only work towards empowering specific identities. It moves beyond these identities to build community ties within and without the prison walls. And these ties are built upon a direct challenge of the racial systems that affect so many communities within and without. “Daily life inside prison is intended to dehumanize and isolate, and it is vital that we cultivate spaces that allow students to make connections with one another, dismantle stereotypes about fellow students and the larger world, cultivate critical thinking, and celebrate commonalities” (Moore, p 63). In this way, educators are able to reverse not only the damage done to individuals in the white washed failure of most educational systems in the United States, but they are able to create a space inside prison to practice the ideals that prison was actually built upon; rehabilitation and re-entry.

            Courses like Moore’s, ethnic studies course in higher education in prisons that are built to raise social consciousness, critical thinking about one’s own identity and where it fits in the prison industrial complex as well as in the United States, is an imperative step in breaking silences that institutional racism and other isms have constructed. And while there must be work done in an effort to start breaking those silences in the name of prison abolition, there must also be work done to address the immediacy of the injustices faced by othered identities in prison. A chance for redemption for both inmates and educators.




jccohen's picture

Joie Rose,

Most compelling to me is this notion that the kind of education your point up here has the capacity to be important and impactful for both incarcerated people and educators going inside.  I appreciate your opening with such clarity about the relationship between isms and the PIC.  You go on to raise the complicated question of educators “failing…to truly know their students,” and this is itself a multi-layered issue that relates to the identities of educators themselves and the structures within which educators are embedded, as you speak to later in your essay.  Meiners speaks convincingly to the ways that educators are dealing with a set of constraints and yet can and must take on agency in relation to connecting with and knowing/respecting their students; she opens chapter 5 with a story that’s particularly cogent to your point here in which she uses herself as an example – that is, she describes her own failure to connect with a student’s identity.   Your analysis of Moore’s work offers a powerful model for how to meet this challenge.

Two other pieces from this semester strike me as relevant and useful here:  first, Gaskew’s “humiliation to humility pedagogy” makes some closely related points, and raises the question of the educator’s own identity in relation to the identities of their students.  Also, both Gaskew and Rhodessa Jones (in Fraden’s book) explicitly challenge incarcerated people in ways that both aspire to community-building and in the immediate moment may also threaten that connection, as these educators take on their students’ identities as “dehumanized” and “isolated,” e.g. Jones’ “rants” and Gaskew’s attempts to dislodge Black males’ “comfort” with prison life.  What do you think about these challenging pedagogies, in light of the thoughtful case you make here for a liberating pedagogy?