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On working inside an institution of which you are critical...

Anne Dalke's picture
I took this photo outside the Carnegie Museum, just across the street from the Cathedral of Learning @ the University of Pittsburgh, where Jody and I just spent a rather remarkable weekend @ the National Conference of Higher Education in Prison. I’m using it to draw you into this essay, because I think it figures all the sorts of questions I’ll be pursuing below.

This is my first attempt to begin to describe some of what we learned in Pittsburgh, but you can expect to keep on hearing about this, as we keep reflecting and practicing and making sense…

Short version:
We found NCHEP a rich site for continuing difficult conversations about the intersections of prison education, prison reform, and prison abolition. There are lots of  folks, offering classes in prison for two or three decades, who are still wrestling with the same range of questions we are: what does it mean to work inside an institution of which you are critical? In this context, what forms of education become forms of liberation, or forms of palliation, or ….?

Long version:
The first-and really-most remarkable thing about the conference was that it showcased many strong voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. We skyped with quite a few groups of folks who are inside, and also found ourselves in multiple conversations, in multiple venues, with those who had been released from prison.

The second remarkable thing was that, precisely because of these voices, one dominant narrative of the conference was the one that Erica Mieners describes (and critiques) in Right to be Hostile: "I was born; I had problems; I made the wrong choices; I was apprehended by the police; I was incarcerated; I found [education] and [it] helped me. And…my life is now on a better track.”

The third remarkable thing was the way that numerous other presentations and talks directly challenged the salvation narration Mieners describes. I already sent Meera links to some of these (since they speak directly to her project about the links between Native boarding schools and incarceration), but also now want to share them with you all.

Two folks from the University of Saskatchewan, Nancy Van Styvendale and Dianne Block, distributed a manifesto, A Doorway Out of Darkness: Education to Heal, which was written by men incarcerated at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre. The warden at SPCC first critiqued this project, demanding that ‘manifesto’ be replaced with ‘declaration,’ etc., and then refused to let them distribute it inside. So they are distributing it as widely outside as they can! Jody thought we might be able to step off of this for some of our own work, both inside and out.

The fourth remarkable thing (really the most remarkable talk I heard) was by Anna Plemons, who first shared her working bibliography on Decolonizing Methodologies, then showed us clips from the film, At Night I Fly, emphasizing that it does not portray a narrative of uplift. Anna then conducted a wonderful interrogation of, and intervention into, the “colonizing impulse of the teacher to help,” one that she sees as embedded in the Western cultural logic of progress, in narratives of improvement that might hinder or even stymie deeper, slower, more personally meaningful work. I found Anna's refusal of the narrative of progress, to give rise to "the furrows, folds, and taut patches" of meaning, a lovely description of what I think we might be up to when we go inside. I thought you all might also appreciate the way that she rejects the metaphor of linearity, the trajectory towards something “beyond or outside.”

"The paradigmatic distinction between the circle and the line matters," Anna says, and I see us trying very hard to enact this in our classrooms, both inside and out.

There’s a close version of the talk I heard now up @ Tattooing Scar Tissue: Making Meaning in the Prison Classroom; you can also find on-line a range of other short essays in which Anna reflects on some of her experiences teaching @ New Folsom prison.

The fifth truly remarkable thing, though, was that Anna co-presented with the mother of a man with whom she's worked in New Folsom --and the mother's story is explicitly one of all the lives saved by the "Arts in Corrections" program in which Anna and her father teach.

So: this is to say that Jody and I did not leave the conference feeling settled; not @ all. The sixth remarkable thing I want to mention here (though many others remain to be narrated) was the last session we attended on Sunday morning. It began with a Skype interview with a group of incarcerated men who are involved in a community education project with Stetson University. When their presentation ended, one of the formerly incarcerated men in the audience (we DO need other language here) said,

Of course they are going to plug their program. And of course they will be your best students: they are locked in their cell with your favorite book: what else do they have to do but read it? And then of course they are going to mirror you back to yourself.

But all this is an illusion of choice, played out in a confined space where prisoners lack access to any other opportunities. They have no internet access; they are without resources; they are the cave men of higher education. If the purpose of higher education for inmates is their release and reintegration into the world outside, how does such an education prepare them to compete? They want to be free from the doublebind: they are called leaders, but they only lead in the cellblock and the yard; they have no legitimacy outside. I'm out now, and I have several graduate degrees, but I can’t get a job….

We are bringing back the dark ages here, parading inmates in public. We don’t need to pacify them and wish them luck; we need to give them knives instead. The real criminals are not these men, but those in power who keep them inside…I want to bust the whole thing wide open.”


Anne Dalke's picture

Dan Olsen posted a response to the conference on his web site, Communicating Convict: :
"Clearly looking around at this conference with many formerly incarcerated folks the lines between what comprises an 'Educational” Institution and a 'Correctional' Institution have become blurred....I arrived as a force of resistance to programming into a conference of programmers and those who have been programmed."