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Validating Bodies (Education in Prison Paper)

meerajay's picture

Validating Bodies

We cannot seem to go without analysis in this class, in this 360. We thrive in it; it engenders our thinking about our experiences in the prison within the context of the larger narrative. We need it in order to affirm to ourselves that the affect of our presence, regardless of what our intentions may be, is empowering. In this essay, I explore the true purpose of higher education in prison, the kind of education that I advocate for, and the reasons behind this.

Ideologies of merit, deservingness, and blame embedded within and influencing the prison industrial complex are often entangled with, both physically and mentally, the body. This is a concept that I explored in my earliest Sunday reflection post on September 13th:

“As the conversation went on, Andrea* brought up, relating to an image in Citizen, the idea of being a carrier for something, but in the end isolated from it. She compared it to the system that they were a part of and yet isolated from. This brought the Fine and Ruglis reading to mind. ‘…ideologies about merit, deservingness, and blame drip feed into the soul, tagging some bodies as worthy and others as damaged’(21). The dehumanization of prison life grows the idea, deep inside of you, that you deserve to be there. The blame is not placed on the system but on your own body.”

We bring our bodies into prison with us. They are our homes as we enter the unfamiliar space that is the prison to us, as we center ourselves within a narrative that we could, if we want, distance ourselves from. But we choose not to, we choose to bring our whole bodies and with that our whole experiences into the classroom. I believe that the purpose of higher education in prison, through the way that we have been practicing and performing in our book groups in prison, is to bring value and love to bodies that we encounter between each other and between us and the incarcerated women.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me provides a harrowing, intimate account of living with a black body in America. He discusses his identification with the worldview of Malcom X:

“He would say, ‘don’t give up your life, preserve your life’…This was not boasting-it was a declaration of equality rooted…in the sanctity of the black body. You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s. We are all our beautiful bodies an so must never prostrate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder” (36).

Here, Coates interprets Malcom X’s words as a creation of his body as a political weapon. Its preservation becomes a radical act. To be effective, prison education must empower students to see themselves as worth preserving, to acknowledge the way their bodies have been categorized in the system and also bring back value to them. 

Higher education in prisons and education in general should be geared toward providing students with a voice within a learning space, so that they can regain empowerment of their bodies. I refute this concept that education has succeeded when it has created you into a “productive member of society,” and only that. An empowered learning environment can bring out productivity and purpose in people’s lives, but that productivity should not be the end goal. Friere discusses the productivity within the body in Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he states:

“Only products which result from the activity of a being but do not belong to its physical body (though these products may bear its seal), can give a dimension of meaning to the context, which thus becomes a world. A being capable of such production (who thereby is necessarily aware of himself, is a "being for himself") could no longer be if she or he were not in the process of being in the world with which he or she relates; just as the world would no longer exist if this being did not exist” (81).

The body’s production is not possible with a deeper understanding of the bodies themselves, and their context. By encouraging a richer understanding of complex characters and the body within the system, education would create a productive body. Though that productive body is not the end goal, it becomes vital to argue for a humanitarian education.

Helping students see themselves as valued bodies by using the humanities can expand their possibilities outside of prison even more.

By introducing complex characters into a classroom full of incarcerated individuals, who have been categorized one aspect of themselves, prison education can empower prisoners to see themselves in a more complex fashion. We seek to counter the poisonous ideologies of merit and blame that permeate devalued bodies, and we do that sharing reflections of complex characters. In the classroom, we do not allow ourselves to categorize bodies and characters into isolated positions where they cannot mobilize. We instead situate them within their context and emphasize their complexity as beings. There is a radical sense of transformation within this narrative. In Reading is My Window, Megan Sweeney describes the reading experiences for prisoners as an “efferent transaction” with a book, going on to state, “identifying with a character features in a book enables some prisoners-for the first time-to recognize their experiences as legitimate and situate them within a wider context” (7). This realization is the foundation of a more socially-aware education where those affected by the prison industrial complex can actively question the system.

When we first began going to the prison and working together to develop effective lesson plans around the books provided, I began to think about what kind of books we choose to teach in prison. I questioned why we choose to teach texts that connected so explicitly and deeply with the lives of the prisoners, rather than classic literature that would allow an “escape” while still produced critical thought and substance. I now realize that these are connective texts; though they may not always be enjoyable for everyone involved, they aid in recognizing human experiences. Though this “indulgence in humanity” is painful, it leads to breakthroughs in the healing process.

Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.


Sweeney, Megan. Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women's Prisons. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina, 2010. Print.




jccohen's picture


I love the boldness of your opening claims – about the role of analysis in our class/360 and about “true purpose” – you’ve definitely pulled me as a reader!  Also intriguing here are your floating pronouns, and especially the “we” of ourselves/bodies entering and in the jail classroom.  I’m seeing some interesting weaving here of your boarding school project, especially in the attention to physicality.  All this feeds what you’re doing here with the complex idea of “empowerment” (interestingly, you use this as noun, adjective, and verb), calling up the question of how power works in and of the body and, importantly, have it comes into being/moves in and between people.  

 Your analysis of the role of “complex characters” is a compelling way to think about what, how, and with whom we read!  It makes me think of Tuck’s “complex personhood,” of course, and in this sense suggests – as I think you do here – that taking up complex characters in text has the capacity to engender taking up the power of that complexity in one’s own self, in the body.  What do you think about the relationship between this work and “a more socially-aware education where those affected by the prison industrial complex can actively question the system”?  Might this be about forging links over time between what you’re calling “connective texts” and this systemic analysis?  Most exciting here to me is the question of how to intertwine these…!