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My Soul Hurts

I don’t really know what to say but their names: Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo. And these are only from the top of my head. I know there are many more. Hold their names in your mouth.

I teach and learn from many young black men. I want to hold their names with joy, not with fear. I teach many black women who have raised or are raising black sons or have black brothers. They’ve held names and hands. I teach and learn from many older black men. Sometimes I witness the exhaustion of a lifetime of holding names. Names that are static. Names that never got to grow old like they did. I know this not only because I sense it, but because they bear witness to it in their classroom discussions and their writings.

I am grateful and in awe of my students’ strength, vulnerability, and most of all, their voices. There’s not much I can do but listen and hold their voices dear – learn from them. I can seek out and present voices and stories that reflect and expand on their own. My students are my teachers – their experiences and stories mold what I teach. If that wasn’t the case, what kind of teacher would I be?

I don’t really know what else to say except that it’s hard. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m terribly sad. I’m hurt. But I know I can’t hold the names the same way my students have and will continue to. That doesn’t mean I won’t stop fighting for their right to keep those names whole and living and breathing.


Reflecting on Research, or Why I Miss Reflecting through Research

I’ve been thinking about my time at the jail a lot recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m working with a new group of students – more of who are young, black men, a population overrepresented in our jails and prisons – or if it’s because I’m flashing back to that space from some tweets I’ve seen about mental illness in prison. Either way, I’m wondering what to do with that research I poured my heart into last year. I can’t believe it’s been almost an entire year since I wracked my brain day in and day out to revise, edit, write, synthesize, apply, and repeat.

Perhaps I’m reflecting on research because I miss it. I miss how it forced me to perceive my actions from a different perspective. I miss how it challenged me to act. I miss how it made me feel uncomfortable, but in a way that I considered productive.

As an observant educator who has a capacity to overthink, I believe I do this to a certain extent everyday, but not in the thorough, ritualized way that ethnography compelled me to do.

Random research thoughts brought to you by an exhausted adult educator on a Friday night.

Two Years Teaching & Think You “Got This”? Nope.

The New York Times published an article on high teacher turnover and how some charter schools are encouraging it. While the entire article was a bit oft-putting, a couple of quotes made me furrow my brow deeper.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ ” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep.


“I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he (a 24 year old teacher) said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Teaching is no longer “it”. Being a classroom teacher is just a stepping stone to what? Why, the “bigger and better,” of course! [To be fair, if I was “on the clock” until 9 pm everyday, I’d be thinking of moving on to “something bigger and better,” too.]

There seems to be a lack of respect for the profession from those who are actually in it! If you feel like you’ve “got this” as a teacher after a couple years, you haven’t been reflecting enough. Teaching is learning – the work never stops. Perhaps you “got it” with that group of students, but what about the next class you encounter? Every student is different – you never “just get it.” You get better yes, but “got it”? Nope. The arrogance that exudes from that quote bothers me. They very well have intended different meanings with their statements, but it comes off to me – someone who thinks of teaching as never ending learning process – as crude.

Look, ambition isn’t totally bad. But when ambition keeps you from gaining the experiences necessary to put students first…I don’t know. Can you at least wait until you’re thirty? Y’all making me feel old! 

A rant for my mom: Romney makes it personal, (aka the difference between grateful & entitled)

So, I don’t usually blog about personal issues, and it’s been a long while since I’ve even written for this blog. Yet, the words of Romney’s address to donors will continue to irk me like cracking knuckles until I write it out. I’ve always been suspicious that Romney has never actually gotten to know anyone that he so easily denigrates, or if he has, he just pities them or considers them castaways in our society. It hurts me deeply to hear him say these things because I’ve watched my mother struggle with poverty (a word heard so little in this campaign). The only way she is able to have her own small apartment and eat is because of public assistance. Due to a series of medical problems, she is unable to work. She is on her third appeal to obtain social security disability benefits. For those who think people are gaming the system, I say look at my mother’s case. She is so burdened with bureaucracy that it’s taken what seems like years for her to get a hearing for her appeals. (I also wonder how much worse she’d be if she didn’t have the literacy and numeracy skills that help her navigate the public assistance system.) She’ll sometimes detail to me how much she goes through to get the help she needs. Maybe it’s just her series of affairs, or the state she lives in, but it seems a lot harder to get public assistance than some make it out to be. This is absurd when someone actually needs it. 
She doesn’t want to be on assistance the rest of her life. She wants to lose weight (one reason she has health problems, but also right now she can’t exercise without the help of special, low resistance machines because of her horrible arthritis and chronic pain), and knows a program/center that has helped her in the past, but she can’t afford it. She can’t afford preventative care and more expensive procedures that may relieve her pain, so she’s left with cheaper, temporary fixes prescribed to her instead. She is waiting for her disability benefits so she can get the medical help she needs IN ORDER TO GET OFF THE BENEFITS. Romney does not seem to comprehend this possibility.
She is not lazy, she is not lacking in personal responsibility, and she damned well doesn’t feel “entitled” to riches, just basic human rights like shelter, food, and health care (!). I’m the eldest of four kids and try to help from several states away as a graduate student whose only expendable income is from student loans. My other siblings (two who are also in college, and one just recently graduated) are all pitching in when we can, but it’s not enough.  She hates borrowing money from us and the government, but is also so grateful – NOT entitled. She even promises to pay us kids back when she gets her disability money, and will have to pay back the state for the help she’s received while awaiting her hearing. 
Her hard work, humor in the face of adversity, integrity, and honesty (she worked three jobs at times after my dad and her divorced), is what I admire most about her and it pangs me to hear Romney deny her humanity and hard work through such spiteful and condescending language. Why does he assume that we feel entitled rather than feel grateful? That is what angers me the most, and makes me realize he’s never really listened to someone who has been helped by our government or who has been poor. It’s baffling for me to hear Romney mention entitlement when all campaign I’ve been asking myself why Romney acts like he’s entitled to the presidency.
— Rant over —

New Ways of Education & Students’ Perspectives on Educational Programs

Finally! The exciting part of my paper – the voices of those in prison education and how those voices can propel us to think of new ways to teach (and learn) in prison. While these are all secondary sources, they are a starting point and an inspiration as I begin my own research (someday…). A good friend and I were discussing research and settled on “good research equating to investigative journalism”. While I think it depends on the purpose of your research (whether it be experimental, a synthesis, or theoretical, etc.), I felt I had the most fun and found the most rewarding, this section of my paper. When writing, it felt like investigative journalism, and I yearned to speak to people myself. I kept unearthing questions. I’m still cogitatin’ a post on research/educational research and storytelling…I know you can’t wait!

 There are several sections to this part of the paper, so I’ve just included the introduction and the first section, asking “why education?”

New Ways of Education and Students’ Perspectives on Educational Programs

“The coercive and authoritarian milieu of the prison emphasizes submissiveness over thinking, and creates an environment antithetical to learning.”

– Richard Arbenz (1994), former student of the Soledad Prison College Program (in Rose & Voss, 2003, p.143)

Unfortunately, my search of the literature resulted in few rigorous quantitative studies seeking to answer the question, “What do student inmates think about education in prisons?” The majority of articles that discussed students’ opinions on education were essays of anecdotal personal experiences. A few of these used more rigorous ethnographic and qualitative research designs. This is not to say that voices are diminished because of a lack of rigorous research, but that again, as Terry (2003) states, we can benefit from writing that deals with “the real-life situations of human beings” (p.110).

Again, prisons and their educational programs vary greatly across state, and even county, lines. Also, due to the vulnerability, diversity, and difficulty in maintaining consistent research populations, rigorous experimental random sample studies are rare. Much can depend on whether the institution encourages a rehabilitative culture or a punitive one. Therefore, while reflecting on the literature described below, I hope not to generalize but to provide examples of themes I found in the perspectives that could inform future research and stakeholders in prison education. Perhaps by examining these voices new opportunities to reframe the debate on prison education can arise, giving inmates some say in the opportunities afforded to them.

Another question worth exploring within the voices of prison education: If schools – largely urban schools – that implement poor instruction failed students before they came to prison, as mentioned above, why would education programs in prison continue similar means of instruction? As voices of inmates are woven throughout the following pages, so are new possibilities for literacy instruction that include Freire’s theoretical framework, a potentially powerful theory for the marginalized population found in prison.

Why Education?

Throughout the literature students expressed their motivation (or at times, lack thereof) to participate in educational programs while incarcerated. Some may enter to get time off their sentence if the state incentivizes education, yet others may enter the classroom merely out of boredom (Terry, 2003).

Tewksbury and Stengel (2006) administered a close-ended question survey investigating student perceptions of education programs to 281 inmates enrolled in educational programs – academic and vocational – at the Kentucky State Reformatory, a medium security facility holding approximately 1,900 inmates. Forty-one percent of those surveyed reported dropping out of school prior to tenth grade (p.18). Interestingly, the motivation of the prisoners in the two types of educational programs differed. Forty-nine percent of prisoners in the academic programs stated their main reason for participating was “to feel better about myself”, twenty-nine percent stating it was “to get a job when I get out”. In contrast, only twenty percent of those participating in vocational programs stated “to feel better about myself” as the main motivation, and fifty-three percent stated “to get a job when  I get out” as the reason (p.19).

In his series of interviews with six inmates in Adult Basic Education classes, Muth (2008) found students were motivated to prove to those outside that they were not stupid. These inmates have been stigmatized by their family members outside and look to education to change that.

They don’t want to come up and see me [in prison]. They say, “No…She was a bad mama.”…I want to be much more when I walk out this door. I got papers – lots of papers – to go home…and show everybody –this is what I’ve been doing since I been in prison. – female inmate (Muth, 2008, p.266)

Along with this motivation to prove others wrong and make others proud, there are voices of students working for themselves, as well as for others. A male student inmate in Muth (2008) wants not only to prove his sister wrong, but also: “I want to be able to read. I want to be able to look at things and, you know, and read it” (p.266). Another inmate, this one female, states: “I have changed within myself. I got tired of being locked up for fighting. My daughter came to visit me and I saw that she was growing up. I realized that I had to grow up as well if I didn’t want her to wind up like me” (Maker, 2004, p.108). Jarvis, in Hall and Killacky’s (2008) series of interviews with student inmates, says: “So my next move was to get in school and get my GED. Everybody in my family got it but me. I wanted to get that for my mom and me too” (p.306).

This sense of empowerment through self-initiated and motivated learning is a goal of Freire’s philosophy of liberation education. 

An attempt to summarize a complicated problem (Final paper, part II)

Here’s a bit more of my paper – hooray! The section posted below is my attempt to provide context to the situation of mass incarceration so I can discuss the state of education in the system, and propose solutions in later sections. I discuss the underlying issue of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, along with the “school-to-prison pipeline” theory and its effect on a growing prison population.

The point I wanted to make in this “brief history”, and I’m not sure if I succeeded, was the integrated, systemic nature of the problem. There are numerous causal factors and infinite ways these factors interact with each other in time and space to perpetuate the problem.

This is a good time to delve a bit into how I think about this problem, and the world in general – I have a very difficult time stating something is “in fact” resulting from something else. I ask too many questions to ever believe that I know why something is the way it is. There is always another voice with a story that allows you to question your preconceptions. You can see why I call my blog “Reserving the Right to Reconsider”. This warrants further reflection, but for now, here’s the next section of my paper, “Mass Incarceration and Education: Investigating Intersections”. Thanks to those who read and/or respond!

Mass Incarceration: A Brief History of the Problem

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

–          Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

The United States prison population has ballooned in the last forty years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (West, Sabol, & Greenman, 2009), by the end of 2009, nearly 2.3 million Americans were in prison or in jail, while over 7.2 million people were entangled in the justice system in some way (probation, prison, jail, or parole) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In 1980, that number was only 1.8 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). In other words, the number of people the United States had behind bars in 2009 nearly matched the number of people who were in the entire justice system in 1980. Indiana has seen a greater increase in prison population than its neighboring states, rising at a rate of 41% over the past eight years (CSGJC, 2010).

The United States is alone in its carceral tendencies. “Between 1970 and 2010 more people were incarcerated in the United States than were imprisoned in any other country,” (Thompson, 2010, p.703). According to the National Center on Crime and Delinquency, “the US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people” (NCCD Fact Sheet, 2006).

In addition, the criminal justice system maintains an inequality between races so disparate that one legal scholar has called the US justice system the “new Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2010). By 2006, one in fifteen black men over the age of 18 were imprisoned (Thompson, 2010, p.703). Adolescent black men face similarly disproportionate incarceration rates. They make up 14% of the total population of those between the ages of 10 and 17, but make up 40% of 10-17 year-olds who are incarcerated (Sickmund, 2004 in Leone et al., 2005).

The effects of incarceration do not end after the convicted leave prison. Several states limit felons’ rights to housing and jobs directly, as well as their right to vote (Alexander, 2010; Loury, 2007; Thompson, 2010). For instance, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allows any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises” and prevent anyone with a drug conviction from receiving student loans (Alexander, 2010, p.52). In 1996, 1.4 million African American males were permanently disenfranchised from the democratic political system because of felony convictions (Karlan, 2007, p.42). Karlan (2007) goes on to demonstrate the impact this level of disenfranchisement can have. Consider what could have happened in the 2000 presidential race in which George W. Bush won Florida by only 500 or so votes:

Florida disenfranchises more people than any other state—approximately 827,000. Slightly over 600,000 of those individuals have completed their sentences and have been discharged entirely from the criminal justice system. Approximately 10.5 percent of the state’s adult black population was disenfranchised compared with 4.4% of the non-black population. A recent study by Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza estimated that, had ex-offenders who had completed their sentences been permitted to vote – presumably at the same rate as their socioeconomically comparable, but not disenfranchised, peers – Al Gore would have carried Florida by more than 31,000 votes (pp.48-49).

More indirectly, ex-felons have difficulty being hired due to their past arrests as well as their lower levels of education. Employers may see them first as a “felon” or “convict,” even long after they leave prison, (Alexander, 2010; Ross & Richards, 2003), and therefore deem them less desirable employees (Coley & Barton, 2006). Thompson (2010) cites several studies showing that ex-inmates’ employment opportunities decreased by 59 percent (p.714). Prison has become, according to the analysis of Pettit and Western (2004) a “common life event for recent birth cohorts black non-college men” (p. 164). More and more, prison is becoming a part of a poor, uneducated, black male’s identity. “In 1999, about 30 percent of such men had gone to prison by their mid-thirties,” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164).

The American justice system was not always so punitive. From 1925-1975, the rate of incarceration hovered around 100 people per 100,000, jumping to nearly 500 per 100,000 by 2001 (Pettit & Western, 2004) and to 743 per 100,000 in 2009 (Glaze, 2009). In fact, the earliest prisons focused on rehabilitation. The first prison school, founded by the Quakers in 1798, was meant to improve basic skills, as well as to show “humanity toward those unhappy members of society” (Coley & Barton, 2006). There was inevitable backlash to this perspective. The Auburn, New York prison system was based in the belief that “too much faith had been placed in [the convict’s] reformability” (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.5).

This debate between rehabilitation (including education) and punishment underlies much of the literature on prison education and reform as the pendulum of public opinion and political power sways from one side to the other. The 1970s was a time of rehabilitation – it was even called the “Golden Age” of correctional education by some because of the numerous Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Education Development (GED), and post-secondary opportunities provided to prisoners throughout the United States (Ryan & McCabe, 1994 cited in Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). In the 1980s and 90s, during the “war on drugs” campaign of Ronald Reagan and the “tough on crime” rhetoric of his and subsequent administrations, the pendulum swung again from rehabilitation to punishment (Alexander, 2010). How this punitive push resulted in an increase in the prison population will be discussed briefly below.

The New Jim Crow & the War on Drugs: Policy’s Impact on Prison Population

It seems obvious that legislation and policy would play a direct role in the increase in prison populations over the past few decades.  Alexander (2010) argues that the war on drugs was in response to the instability of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which left many white Americans unsure of their political power in the future. She argues that rather than explicitly fight against racial equality, conservative politicians at the time engaged in a “general attitude of ‘toughness’ toward problems associated with communities of color” (p.54), connecting those communities with crime and violence. Thompson (2010) furthers this argument, describing the history of the “criminalization of urban spaces” and targeting of communities of color: “law enforcement not only disproportionately targeted cities in its new war on drugs but it also particularly policed the communities of color within them; this, despite extensive and readily available data that these areas were not where most drug trafficking and usage took place” (p.708). Claims such as the need to restore “law and order” were cited as reasons to enforce stricter drug laws (Thompson, 2010). As one would expect, the war on drugs greatly increased the incarceration rates for drug crime. The incarceration rate for drug offenses was approximately 15 per 100,000 adults in 1980. By 1996, that rate grew to 148 per 100,000 adults (Blumstein & Beck, 1999, p.20-21).

As mentioned above briefly, the war on drugs implemented a multitude of barriers for anyone with a drug conviction on their record. In addition to post-release difficulties, new laws enacted also increased minimum sentencing laws. Indiana’s 20 year minimum sentence for selling a small amount of cocaine was noted above, and states throughout the nation enacted similarly draconian legislation. Yet, as Blumstein and Beck (1999) point out, the rate of incarceration has grown not necessarily due to increased time served, but to rates of arrests. They call this “the clearest example of a toughening by the criminal justice system” (p.42). The Clinton administration’s enactment of the three strikes laws further illustrate the use of arrests, not necessarily sentence length, as a means of crime control leading to an increase in the prison population (Coley & Barton, 2006).

In addition to the toughening of the criminal justice system through the war on drugs, urban communities were suffering from a decrease in job opportunities. Just as the labor movement was floundering in post World War II America, the prison institutions looked to make money off of their inmates by contracting them out to both private companies and the government for cheap labor (Thompson, 2010, pp.718-720). This combination of circumstances left few job opportunities  in urban areas, increasing the likelihood of poor black men turning to the drug trade, and the “drug war raised the risks that they would be caught, convicted and incarcerated” (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.154).

Thompson (2010) argues that this population transfer from inner cities into prisons, affects not only on those in prison, but those outside – including students’ educational experiences. Considering that by 2000, “one in ten children in American had one or both parents under correctional supervision” (p.714), a disproportionate amount of whom were in urban areas, the schools filled with these students can be dealing with “negative behavioral and learning consequences” that come from the stress of having a potentially unstable home life (p.715). Coley and Barton (2006) call for further research into these children’s lives, citing some studies that detail the children’s increased risk for trauma, negative behavior, drug use, and aggression, among other negative effects, including a “decline in school performance” (p.24). Growing up in this environment, it is not surprising that according the risk of imprisonment for African American male high school dropouts has increased to 60 percent (Pettit & Western, 2004, p.164). This leads to another pathway to incarceration – poor schools.

School to Prison Pipeline: Schools are Failing

As mentioned previously, Pettit & Western (2004) analyzed race and inequality within the criminal justice system. Another factor they investigated was the education level of those incarcerated. They found that “like incarceration rates, the cumulative risks of imprisonment fall with increasing education” (p.160).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) provide a concise summary of the school to prison pipeline literature. They delve into literacy as a civil right, and how this right has been denied to many students in poor, urban, predominantly minority populated areas.  The authors note that a “focus on basic skills, remediation, and overzealous test preparation” are the problems faced by classrooms populated by students of color (p.150). They go on to chide the irony of No Child Left Behind – meant to close the achievement gap, but only widening it by implementing a decreasingly rigorous curriculum meant only to prepare students for high-stakes testing, not critical thinking (p.152). Such curriculum has been criticized for its “subordination of knowledge and identity historically experienced by marginalized groups” (Lipman, 2008 in Winn & Behizadeh, 2011, p.152). The curriculum described brings to mind Freire’s notion of “banking education”, in which the oppressed are merely fed knowledge by their teacher rather than engaging in critical and empowered thinking. It is this sort of “banking”-type schooling that the authors’ claim promotes high dropout rates that can lead to incarceration – i.e., the school-to-prison pipeline.

In addition to what can be considered poor curriculum in urban public schools, they are also becoming criminalized spaces. Thompson (2010) notes that the tenth largest police department in the nation is the New York City public school’s (p.711). Urban schools’ focus on punishment results in learning environments that are interrupted by police involvement that leads to “arrests for minor noncriminal violations of school rules” (New York Civil Liberties Union, cited in Thompson, 2010, p.711). This increase in punitive philosophy further illustrates Pettit & Western’s (2004) conclusion that the criminal justice system is increasingly becoming a part of poor, lower-educated, African American males’ lives. An extreme example of the criminalization of schools can be found in Lizbet Simmons’(2009) investigation into a school that literally takes place in a prison – all the students are adolescent black men.

While there is no clear reason for the drastic increase in prison populations, many researchers claim it was not due to an increase in crime, but to the institutionalized reasons stated above. These reasons include a changing notion of what constitutes a crime (criminal justice changes through increased arrests and sentencing laws) as well as an increased targeting of minority populations, particularly African American men, and a failing urban school system. That being said, further investigation in the relation between increased incarceration rates and claimed decreased crime rates is warranted.

It is apparent from this limited description of mass incarceration that this is a complicated issue with many entrenched and difficult institutional and political problems. How could improving and changing educational programs in prison alleviate the innately discriminatory policies put in place by those in power? In an April 2011 discussion with Cornel West at a Princeton conference on mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander stated that nothing short of revolution would change these policies (“Imprisonment of a Race” keynote discussion, March 25, 2011). Her statement underlines the complexity of the problem – something I do not wish to cast aside. I merely want to explore the question: what is prison education’s role in this problem?

Long time it has been…

It’s difficult to imagine that I haven’t written a post for almost two years – since the 2008 elections. Sigh… So what better time to resume than during the midterm election mayhem? Ha! Alas, I will attempt to leave my political ramblings an aside, and instead focus this blog on my current educational and research interests – the literacy practices of incarcerated youth, educating for social justice, and literacy practices/education in a more general sense.

Of course, I reserve the right to reconsider this statement and post whatever whimsy I may have. My distracted personality would not allow anything else. (Explains why I haven’t posted for two years…)

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