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Prison and Education Paper

han yu's picture

Fighting systematic oppressions, People with high aspirations often express deep doubts and contradictory feelings about any acts that seem to work under the same system they want to fight against, and will be discouraged if there come no salient, quickly showing achievements of institutional changes. However, without gaining enough strength within the system at the first place, without temporarily enduring the unfairness to survive, without being somehow more successful or productive by the current social definition, how can people collectively get any opportunities to cause any changes forcefully in a long-term process, without being silenced, oppressed and excluded again and again, in the criminal justice context, prisoners being trapped in the cycle of incarceration? Therefore, I truly believe that the changes should start within the individuals, prisoners in this essay, by getting proper education and encouragement from the educators. After knowing their places, recognizing their urgent responsibilities with a vision of future, and gaining autonomy in their own empowerment, those individuals will have the hope and fuels to survive, and more and more individuals will be able to give back to their community. Finally, they will become a new collective force, with justice, capable with challenging the system.


Knowing Their Place

The right to learn the truth of people’s own lives is a civil rights issue. Irizarry and Raible analyze the internalized shame within the students of color and point out that not knowing the sociopolitical context of their current situation is a main factor that lead those students to blame themselves, blame their skin color, and form pessimistic views on their capabilities. Fortunately, “[t]hrough dialogue with each other and their Puerto Rican teacher, the student participants enhanced their understanding of the institutional forces that frequently result in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color” (p.439). The students would have a renewed understanding of their lives and know it is the fault of the system, stop internalizing the negative stereotypes into themselves. Calling the Humiliation to Humility Perspective (HHP), Tony Gaskew also emphasizes the “ownership of knowledge” of the incarcerated Black males. He believes that ownership of knowledge, “[allows] Black males access to the truths behind their own cultural history, the criminal justice system, and victimization, inspiring true ownership to make life choices” (p.71). He further suggests specific pedagogical approaches that helps incarcerated Black men to learn the connection between white supremacy and “the politics of shaming”, “self-segregation” and “learned helplessness”.


After gaining a thoughtful and critical perspective on the world and their places within it, they should next be pushed to recognize their urgent responsibility in reconstructing their own future.


Vision For Future

We have spent a lot of time talking about the victimization of incarcerated people about the things they have done and their current situation. The discussion is indeed important. However, Tony Gaskew argues that it is more important to make them know the true victims. “Incarcerated Black males must understand the only true victims of their crimes are their own Black children” (p.74). This is a novel and thrilling point of view and I would like to extend the idea of “their own children” to “their own future” since children represents part of the future and not all the incarcerated people have children. The unfair system is simultaneously trapping them at present and exploiting their future (may have their children included). An alternative for them to break this curse is to seek for higher education after release. In Halkovic’s analysis of a participatory action research (PAR) project “Munoz-Proto (2010) identified that children witnessing their parent’s efforts and achievements in college programs developed positive relationships, were proud of their parents and saw them as role models” (p.496). Other than avoiding their children from being negatively affected, higher education could also breed hope into them by making them realize that their current suffering by being criminalized would not be something permanent. In both Pinkert’s and Fine’s reading, Paulo Freire is quoted about his insights on critical consciousness and destiny. “[What] is true today may not be true tomorrow”, “I like being human because I know that…my destiny is not given but something that needs to be constructed and for which I must assume responsibility”. It also reminds me of Freire’s argument that “reality is not static” mentioned in our Fraden’s reading. To generalize these ideas, I can see that Freire is linking the critical understanding of people’s current situations to a hopeful vision of future for which people must bear responsibility and seek autonomy to achieve. However, while we are anticipating the future and alternatives, we should not forget our past. “[P]ersonal change, or transformation, was not a simple declaration of starting anew with a clean state” (Fine et. al, p.107). Sweeney’s whole book of Reading Is My Window is also emphasizing the link of past, present and future that through reading, inmates reconceptualize their pasts, reflect critically on their present, and move on to the future.


For Educators

Having identified two crucial aspects that should be achieved in prison education, I would like to give some personal suggestions to the educators. Firstly, educators should value prisoners’ autonomy in attainting knowledge. Secondly, educators should make effort to create a safe space and supportive environment for the students. And finally, they need to be realistic and patient.

The participatory action research (PAR) put a lot emphasis on the autonomy and needs of prisoners. Conscientization, a theory by Paolo Freire, which I believe plays a central role in PAR’s ideology states that “education [should] be determined by oppressed groups, rather than being dictated by others” (Halkovic, p.499). In Reading Is My Window, the democratic belief of a correctional library consultant Coyle is quoted that “the opportunity to pursue one’s interests…is essential to becoming a responsible, contributing member of society” (Sweeney, p.42). Therefore, before striving for designing more “proper” courses to teach in prisons, educators should acknowledge their students’ interests, needs, and respect their autonomy in education. They should be allowed and they have the rights to develop their voice in what kind of education they want. Doing this may help educators to avoid creating unnecessary power dynamics that they are there to “empower” the prisoners.

Minding the potential power dynamics is important, but it does not mean that the role of educators is diminished. Educators should open and facilitate the discussion on certain issues by voice their opinions first and their engagement will be beneficial in creating a safe space. In the HHP pedagogy analyzed by Gaskew, “[students] can only be encouraged to seek this intellectual and moral truth in an educational setting where educators are prepared to share their own ‘lived’ understanding of racism” (p.72). I want to extend the meaning of “educational setting” here to the safe and supportive environment for students. Irizarry and Raible concluded that the reluctance and reticence of racial minority students in seeking help come from their perception that teachers seem not to be caring about their lives. Therefore, it is essential for the educators to create and maintain a safe and supportive environment by showing that they care, and actively engaging in the dialogues can be an effective way to achieve that.

Finally, I really want to suggest that the educators should be realistic in setting their goals, and be patient in their prison education career. Before celebrating the positive outcomes of Sankofa, the course about African History, Moore critically discloses some critiques of their course design from the students that “it tried to cover way too much and was sometimes too academic. Because we covered so much history so quickly, we rarely got a chance to really take an in-depth look at anything and often had to simplify complex processes […]This tended to frustrate students” (p.60). While affirming inmate students’ complex identities, educators still should keep in mind that they are teaching a group of students that the majority of them may not have finished high school, let alone any access to higher education. It is crucial for the educators to be realistic when designing courses. Other than designing courses, they should also be realistic in setting their goals in various prison education programs. Gould suggests that the educators should “aim steady” toward their goals. “The work can be slow”, but they should “have compassion for others as well as for [themselves]” (p.106). This directly speaks to my opening paragraph in this essay that the changes will be a long-term process which starts from the individual prisoners through education. It is impossible to have any institutional changes in one day, so it is important to remember to be patient, and compassionate. 


jccohen's picture

Han yu,

You open with a strong, clear statement about nature of change, which necessitates here that “changes should start within the individuals, prisoners in this essay, by getting proper education and encouragement from the educators.”  Although we hadn’t yet read Meiners’ chap. 6 when you wrote this, I’m reminded of her claim that we must move forward on this front of educating folks inside even as we find other ways of working on the outside. 

You go on to call up Gaskew and Irizarry and Raible as educators whose curriculum and pedagogy  emphasize learning about their own lives in the context of larger socio-political issues; how does or can this move from learning in classrooms (whether in schools or in prisons) to taking “responsibility in reconstructing their own future”?  And how might this be individual and collective work?  Such thoughtful work tracing Freirian thinking through multiple texts to help us conceptualize this!  And again, Meiners might be further helpful, specifically via her ideas about “political recoveries.”

Finally, what an important point you make about remembering patience and compassion in this work!  I have a sense here of your really working back and forth through your experience this semester and our readings as you make sense of how to move forward; wonderful!