Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning in Prisons

The next section of my paper explores Freirian philosophy of education in the prison classroom. I’m still investigating Freire and the use of “liberation education” in an environment so devoid of freedom. There are many questions that arise, a few include: what if an inmate isn’t motivated to learn?  What about those students who have no interest in education? One of the most troubling issues that is impossible to address in the paper is the lack of voices from those who do not participate in prison education programs. At times I fear that the paper gets too positive – too sentimental for the possibilities posed by the prisoners who found value in education. What about the negative stories?

What I’ve read of Freire so far (which, I admit is not enough!), there is a focus on basic literacy. While there is a population in prison who are illiterate (larger than the illiterate general population), how do you implement Freirian ideals outside of basic literacy skills? In addition, what if students are expecting a traditional, teacher-led classroom? Should we push them past that state of mind if what they want is the traditional classroom? I know some of these words are loaded (“traditional” and “literacy” and “education”), and I hope that throughout my writing you’ve come to see a bit of what these words mean to me.

Here’s a brief description: “Traditional” relates to the formal schooling model that many of us have been exposed to – teacher-run classroom, some rote learning, unnecessary doses of direct instruction. “Literacy” is all-encompassing – I have a very broad notion of literacy that goes beyond reading and writing text and includes reading and producing visual cues and human behavior – we are constantly making meaning (and expanding on that meaning) through our interpretations of others’ actions, words, etc. And “education” – well, it’s what takes place inside and outside the classroom. I think “learning” is “education”. Whether we’re learning how to interact with the next-door neighbors or how to do long division – we are experiencing education.


Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. – Paulo Freire, 2010, p.72

Freire believes literacy is a critical tool of liberation for the oppressed to gain agency. Freire (2001) states: “[T]o acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate these techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands; it is to communicate graphically” (p.622). His overall philosophy, seeing literacy as a tool for liberation, condemns rote learning and teacher-centered classrooms – classrooms in part to blame for higher dropout rates and increased prison populations (Winn & Behizadeh, 2011).  It encourages a culture of inquiry and critical thinking that asserts “an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context” (p.622). Freire (2001) wants students to “achieve critical consciousness so that they can teach themselves to read and write” (p. 627).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) also note the importance of the Freirian idea of critical reading and writing skills as tools for transformation when discussing the disproportionate number of minority students who are in special education, suspended, or expelled (p.149).

Muth (2008) notes another tenet of Freire: the use of “problem-posing to engage learners in dialogue” (p.272). These conversations produce themes generated by the students and then used as the basis of literacy learning. Freire found success using culturally relative generative words and themes when working with adult basic literacy students in Brazil, (2001). “Generative themes are transformative, because literacy learners

…are aware of themselves and thus of the world [and]…exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world…as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them. (Freire, 2002, p.99)” (Muth, 2008, p.272).

This concept of the dialectic as a means to transform the learner and the world around them is clearly illustrated by this female college student inmate’s letter to the president of the college who provided courses in prison:

College is making me realize that I can no longer blame my ignorance or lack of opportunity if after my release I should again stumble and fall and return to prison. My college education has destroyed the perceptions that I had lived by for so long. I always wanted to think that the things I did, the actions I took, were not my fault. They were the fault of society, of those who hated me because of my race, color, gender. The truth is now I have to see myself and acknowledge myself as an educated human being who is responsible for her own actions…For the first time in my life, I am actively dialoging with myself to find out who I truly am. I like sharing this with you, you who are an intellectual but who are also warm and human and kind and who seemed to like talking to me, who likes learning from me, that’s what you said after we had talked for awhile. (Maker, 2004, p.110-11)

While listening to the final draft essays of his class of incarcerated women, Shafer (2001) saw Freire’s idea that “freedom is acquired through conquest, not by gift. It is the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion, (Freire, 1991, p.31)” (p.80).Through the process of writing drafts and collaborating with other woman inmates, Shafer’s students presented “a true sense of control, introspection, freedom, and human understanding” (p.80).

For such transformations to take place, a classroom environment must be conducive to such dialogue, as well as utilize students’ self-generated literacies, and include teachers who seek partnerships with students rather than power over them. These themes are illustrated through the analysis of student inmates’ voices below.

(Next: Classroom Environment: Open for Reconstruction of Identity)


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