Educating those outside the prison gates

As I finished my research last semester (it’s never really over though, is it?), I knew how much more work I had to do in order to fight the forces brewing against rehabilitation and meaningful criminal justice reform. The systemic injustice can’t simply be overthrown by educating on the inside – all of us need to work harder as advocates and educating those on the outside.

Shakespeare Behind Bars PosterMovies like “Shakespeare Behind Bars” – a documentary featuring the inmates of Luther Luckett correctional facility in Kentucky – provides a prism of nuance not usually afforded the incarcerated. Viewers witness transformation, regret, and redemption – all within the context of literature, collaboration, and learning. All these men want is to be known for something other than what put them in prison.

“This American Life” devoted an entire episode to the same topic of inmates performing Shakespeare. The episode, titled “Act V”, digs into the prisoners’ work on the fifth act of Hamlet. The intelligence and life experiences that inform the performers’ analysis and performance of the characters is astute and memorable. Their thoughts are worth sharing with those on the outside the prison gates, and we all should be listening.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West at a conference last spring, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”. She later states that we need nothing short of  a revolution to change the system.

Without further ado, here are the last parts of my research paper, including the conclusion, which I hope provides some context to this and previous blog posts. By simply publishing this paper on this site, I’ve had the opportunity to reexamine my research and thoughts on Freire, education, and prison. It’s motivated me to continue working toward a more equitable criminal justice educational system. I look forward to more reflection and writing and thank anyone who’s taken the time to read.

Educating Those on the Outside

“I wish the findings throughout this course [Convict Criminology] could be used to help make a stand and statement to the rest of the world about how bad the criminal justice system really is. Because those of us on the inside have voices that could prove very valuable, and we need to be heard.”—28-year-old female prisoner (Richards et al., 2008, p.134)

It is also evident through the writings of prison educators that they have not only educated their students, but have been educated by them. Freire would have applauded their efforts to fight alongside the prisoners/oppressed rather than simply fight for them. There must be a level of trust though, claims Freire. “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions n their favor without that trust” (p.60). In order to fulfill a commitment to Freirian ideals of education, the teacher must be open to trusting and learning from the student, again sharing power and becoming partners in learning.

Richards et al. (2008) and Vasudevan et al. (2010) allow the voices of those caught up in the correctional system to educate those who may have little to no contact or context of what is happening the system. Richards and his colleagues begin with those who will be working within the system, providing them with a perspective that they may not have received – that of the inmate. The course is taken by both sociology and criminal justice students and their inmate counterparts. As mentioned above, their required reading is a collection of scholarly articles called Convict Criminology, many of which are written by ex-inmates who are now using their past experiences to inform the debate of mass incarceration and the conditions found within the institution. The following quotes from students indicates that the course is succeeding in illustrating the nuances of the criminal justice system and those entangled within it:

“The course reminded me not to be so quick to judge and that there are a multitude of ways a person can end up behind bars”— University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student


“It gave prisoners a voice and humanized them in a way that I have never encountered.” –University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student

The Insight Project informs the general public of its work through a series of performances of the play in a New York City theater (Vasudevan et al., 2010). Those working with the students daily began to see the youth “as actors and engaged participants” (p.62), and the performances allowed students to share that with a broader audience. Here students not only get to demonstrate their new identities as actors and writers, but they share their work with an audience that may know little about where the students came from. Every performance ends with student actors and writers fielding questions from the audience. This places the students in the role of teacher, the audience learning from the Insight Project participants’ experiences.

The Insight Project, as well as numerous other programs that the students cited throughout this paper participated in, offered opportunities for student agency in learning. Freire’s philosophy that cites literacy learning as a tool for liberation and agency could be seen amid these programs as well as educators sought to open classrooms for dialogue, connect curriculum to students, and learn with and from their students.

Conclusion

I recognize that this paper, while dreary at first, ends up with perhaps too rosy of a perspective – speaking of mutual respect, learning, and shared power within a diverse institution stricken with injustices. Of course it’s not as simple as changing educational philosophies and pedagogies, and there are many factors outside of the classroom that affect what takes place inside it. I hope that I communicated that these suggestions are simply a potential step toward a more rehabilitative and humane institution.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”(Chang, 2011). One way of raising others’ consciousnesses is to inform them of different perspectives, including those who are incarcerated. As noted above, several ex-inmates, as well as their teachers, have begun the difficult work of informing others about the injustices of the criminal justice system, attempting to whittle away the stigma that is associated with the incarcerated identity. Yet, these examples also show that this information hasn’t been disseminated only by those in power, but by those who are oppressed, through a partnership of mutual respect between inmates and educators. Freire (2010) states: “the correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao” (p.65). In other words, educators merely create with students an environment for students to achieve consciousness and liberation, not teach them consciousness and liberation.

So even though ex-convicts face numerous barriers, a loss of rights upon release, discrimination, and “institutions of education and justice are often characterized as sites of oppression, there are hopeful and generative possibilities for imaginative education within the institutional walls” (Vasudevan et al., 2010, p.64). The programs and student voices discussed above demonstrate these possibilities.

As states including Indiana consider reforms to save money, let’s hope they also consider the intentions behind cost cutting by further shifting their philosophy to a rehabilitative stance that values education as a means to empower inmates, not merely prevent them from reentering the state’s increasingly expensive correctional facilities.

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