Posts Tagged 'Freire'

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.


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.

Teachers as partners in prison education

I believe that teachers are partners in learning alongside their students, rather than dispensers of knowledge to their students. I’m very concerned with the uneven power relations that can occur between student and teacher. You’re most likely aware that this is part of my educational theory based upon my admiration of Paulo Freire who despised “banking” education. The next section of my paper discusses research and theory demonstrating that mutual respect between student inmates and teachers is an important factor in student trust and learning potential. This seems common sense to many, but consider the prison environment where inmates’ rights are stunted and their humanity often stripped from them: an educator who interacts with them as though they are an equal can lead to educational and emotional breakthroughs for student inmates.

(Again, you can refer to my last post for a link to the google doc that contains all references made in this post. Thanks!)

Teachers as Partners

Allday (2006) sought to discover inmates’ perceptions on teacher effectiveness through a survey of 371 inmates in South Carolina. Through a series of statistical analysis, survey results showed that students felt that teachers who showed a “desire for student success” and “care” for the student, were ones they felt they “learned the most” from (p.741). While the survey questions students about K-12 teachers [though only 20% of the respondents had completed high school (Allday, 2006, p.731)], the results can be helpful in showing what factors are seen as important not only to those at-risk of entering prison, but those in prison education programs.

Freire is relevant here as well, for his insistence on student agency in literacy learning is important in that it shifts power from the teacher to the student, calling for educators to be “partners of the students” (Freire, 2010, p.75).  Terry (2003) describes the educator experience that led to his reevaluation of education and identity. “[H]er hands-on teaching style was extremely beneficial…” (p. 109) Teachers “treated us like human begins, as equals…in class, at least temporarily, we got a reprieve from the prison oppression” (p.102-3) This sentiment was also communicated in the inmate’s letter to the college (quoted extensively above) when she thanked him for being “warm and human and kind…who likes learning from me” (Maker, 2004, p.111).

Students in Rose and Voss’s (2003) college program not only asked teachers to “treat inmates as if they are real people instead of crash dummies” (p.147), but to be rigorous. One student asks for “no sympathy…no compromise in standards! Accommodate only those with a desire to learn” (p.146). Another student said the best teaching style within a correctional facility is one that is “very firm…To be constructive without criticism….maintain consistency” (p.147), while another student states that “teaching at a correctional facility requires a teacher to be fexable [sic] taking into account the restrictions that are demanded” (p.147). This diversity of traits described by student inmates reflects the diversity of expectations correctional educators find in their classroom.

Tewksbury & Stengel (2006) state near the end of their article on inmate student perceptions of prison education: “most importantly, inmates understood the connection between success in the academic programs and success after release” (p.23). But is success in academics enough? What will success mean for each student involved in educational programs? Will success in the Insight Project program translate to successful employment upon release from the criminal justice system? Is gainful employment what constitutes success for a participant in the Insight Project? I think that these are important questions when considering all the programs described above. Therefore, as mentioned above, we must consider not only the type of educational programs being administered, but also additional factors that can affect a prisoner’s reentry into society. Visher & Travis (2003) provide a helpful framework when considering these factors, some of which have been touched on throughout this paper. First, they suggest examining four dimensions of the transition from prison to community: individual characteristics; family relationships; community contexts; and state policies. In addition, they advise that those interested in studying reentry consider four phases of the inmate’s life: pre-prison circumstances; in-prison circumstances; immediate post-prison experiences; and post-release integration experiences.

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)

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. 

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