Radical Teacher is an independent magazine for educational workers at all levels and in every kind of institution. The magazine focuses on critical teaching practice, the political economy of education, and
institutional struggles.

Radical Teacher #95: Teaching Inside Carceral Institutions

Introduction: Teaching Inside Carceral Institutions
By Kate Drabinski and Gillian Harkins, cluster editors

This issue of Radical Teacher considers the possibilities and limits of radical teaching inside prisons and other institutions of incarceration. Following on the Summer 2010 issue of Radical Teacher, "Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex" that examined strategies for teaching against carceral institutions from outside their walls, this issue asks what happens when we teach inside carceral institutions such as prisons and detention centers.1 Assuming there is nothing intrinsically "radical" about teaching inside prison walls, the essays in this issue examine practices of critical pedagogy in the disciplinary context of the prison. We also asked authors to frame their teaching in terms of educational settings on the "outside," some of which are increasingly becoming prison-like in their purpose, nature, and ends. What kinds of alliances across different sorts of institutions are needed to enable radical teaching in the current carceral and academic contexts? What unique issues are raised by teaching inside carceral institutions in a moment of increasingly carceral models of K-12 schooling and deepening resistance to public access to GED and higher education in general?

These articles each situate a specific teaching practice within the broader institutional and structural paradigms of mass incarceration and the dismantling of access to affordable quality public education. The rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty years has often been linked to broader governmental restructuring that shifted resources from education to incarceration.2 Economic and political logics associated with neoliberalism reduced state responsibility for a viable social safety net at the same time uneven geographic development de- and re-territorialized labor and capital on a global scale.3 Human life-worlds organized for sustainability during earlier periods of liberal capitalism—Global North working class formations, for example—experienced decimation through the flight of capital to the Global South and the destruction of state-supported infrastructure through the North's version of structural adjustment (where the neo-conservatives meet the New Democrats). Poor and working class people (with a disproportionate impact on people of color) were criminalized—through the War on Drugs and broader sentencing reform policies—and the state re-emerged as the guarantor of "public safety" and a primary engine of a new carceral economy by locking up entire communities rendered disposable in the new world order. Simultaneously, the state used these same carceral powers to suppress and control a whole range of radical organizing resistant to these expansions and uses of state and corporate power.4 People of color and gender/sexually non-conforming people have been particularly targeted by these transformations.5

But the past thirty years saw not only the rise of mass incarceration in the United States—the over two million in carceral lockup inside institutions such as prisons, jails, and detention centers—but also the emergence of an even more massive system of administrative control—the roughly five million under surveillance or supervision via probation and parole.6 One in every thirty-one adults was caught up in this carceral system as of 2009.7 This era has witnessed an expansion in the institutional mechanisms and spaces designed to criminalize and control human populations. During this same era, global human migration became increasingly necessary for economic survival, while national borders became increasingly policed as zones of human disposability and resources for capital expansion via new private detention centers.8 These processes are explicitly racialized, in both their rationales and their effects, both in the context of the long history invoked by Michelle Alexander's resonant phrase, "The New Jim Crow," and in the work of others who increasingly point out that migration itself has become a main focus of racialized criminalization.9 One of the most often noted effects of this system is the destruction of African American communities in particular, with one in ten (10.4%) black men aged 25-29 incarcerated in 2008.10 Rising rates of incarceration for people of color in the United States—including Latino men at a rate of 1 in 26 (3.8%), as well as less statistically documented numbers of Southeast Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Native peoples—repeat longer histories of incarceration that link displacement and dispossession to practices of containment and immobilization.11

Many have argued that early modern systems of impressment, indenture, and enslavement created the spatial organizations of freedom and captivity in which we now live, including the reservation, the detention center, the jail, the prison, and the school. Increased carceral reach, coupled with decreased support for quality public education, has created what Erica Meiners calls a "school-to-prison nexus" that funnels youth (disproportionately poor, of color, and/or gender/sexually non-conforming) from education to incarceration.12 Educational spaces become more and more like carceral spaces, with police presence to uphold zero tolerance policies that criminalize diverse forms of youth activity previously addressed within educational settings. Youth can be removed from educational institutions and placed in juvenile carceral facilities (replacing older forms of school discipline), creating obstacles to academic achievement beyond those associated with lack of adequate funding for public education in low-income communities. Poor and working-class youth of color and gender or sexually non-conforming youth are often the hardest hit by the increased carceral logic of public education. Meanwhile, public higher education institutions become more like corporations serving the highest bidders. Rhetorical calls for increased educational opportunities as a means for addressing social, political, and economic problems are belied by cuts to education funding at all levels and the increasing privatization of public schooling.

Each piece in this volume focuses on its own intervention in these intertwined systems of mass incarceration and public education and explores what might be "radical" about teaching inside carceral institutions in this context. The day-to-day practice of teaching inside carceral institutions in the twenty-first century inevitably exposes the contradictions and outright antagonisms of institutional life in the new century. And yet exposing these contradictions does not necessarily lead to radical teaching, and teachers in this context must constantly work to develop pedagogy that can effectively navigate this institutional crossroads of education and mass incarceration. This requires teachers to negotiate the structural contradictions of educational and carceral space while remaining focused on the pedagogical needs and interests of specific people in a specific classroom. This can introduce new contradictions as we discuss what is "radical" about such pedagogical work, especially when those teaching inside prisons and those teaching against prisons on the outside enter into critical dialogue.

As this special issue developed, some overarching themes emerged in our own editorial dialogue. Reviewers wanted to understand how these pieces would situate their interventions in relation to broader political projects of dismantling mass incarceration and increasing access to education (and higher education in particular). More specifically, many readers of the first issue in this series wanted to see how practices of teaching inside prisons would square with the abolitionist approaches to teaching against the prison industrial complex that shape much radical thought about prisons today. The Summer 2010 Radical Teacher issue focused explicitly on the pedagogies of what it called "the cutting edge of radical politics with regard to the PIC [prison industrial complex]—the abolition movement" (4). Prison abolitionism focuses on the intersections of mass incarceration, neoliberal governance, and late capitalism, asking us to formulate our resistance to the PIC as a demand for economic, political, and social self-determination for all peoples.13 This earlier Radical Teacher issue explored the pedagogical imperatives of prison abolitionism, suggesting that teaching abolition was not only essential to radical teaching about the PIC, but that the abolitionist frame could be useful for teaching about wider structures of power and difference in ways that might enable new visions of radical systemic transformation of a whole range of power formations.

As editors, we were struck by the challenges posed by this seemingly simple request. Whether one identifies as abolitionist or seeks to achieve abolitionist ends when teaching inside carceral institutions, once entering the prison, these political commitments are subject to the regulations and practices of Departments of Corrections. When one chooses to teach inside a prison, political self-determination is not always possible. As a result, some critics have suggested that working inside carceral institutions can too easily become working within carceral logics. This criticism points out that these programs deliver an educational "service" under conditions approved by the Department of Corrections, conditions that are not necessarily in line with the conditions abolitionists would seek. This can include providing volunteer hours as a rehabilitative "alibi" for corrections and working within corrections hierarchies and structures that inflict harm. These programs also do not necessarily intervene in the school-to-prison nexus or redistribute resources and revise educational goals for broader public education systems.

And yet many who teach inside carceral institutions believe that the intellectual and political exchange fostered by these programs outweighs the concerns. In this view educational programs empower those inside the carceral system to resist the systems that have led to their incarceration, bringing their voices into the resistance and interrupting intergenerational routing from education to incarceration. Perhaps even more importantly, these programs take seriously the intellectual contribution of people who are currently incarcerated and support critical thinking about a range of topics not limited to one political position or situation; they create space for intellectual exchange in conditions where that institutional space is highly restricted. Anecdotal reports from students in such programs insist that their studies have an enormous impact on community members both inside and outside prisons and allow people inside to act as leaders in the movement for prison abolition and education justice, able to speak effectively about the secret intersections of these institutions.14

In other words, although teaching against and teaching inside prisons often share key assumptions and goals, these practices can appear very different as they negotiate the institutional contradictions of public education and mass incarceration. This issue of Radical Teacher works to situate teaching inside prisons within these broader contradictions, while drawing much needed attention to the particular struggles teachers face when working within the carceral classroom and its power dynamics. Here we have gathered essays by people working to develop effective pedagogy within the prison's unique contradictions. These essays help us pose new questions that arise in the context of incarceration: What does it mean to demand a course be "radical?" When we demand, for example, that individual courses serve as abolitionist experiences, we must ask for whom: the teacher? the students? the Department of Corrections? the university partner? Our goal in drawing together these essays is to foster ongoing dialogue among teachers working inside and against the carceral system. This dialogue can be disabled by the structural constraints on programs and teachers who teach inside, and yet it is the dialogue we need in order to better understand how abolitionist pedagogies and "radical" pedagogies developed within carceral spaces may work together as part of a movement.

Several of our authors address the question of whether or not radical teaching inside the prison industrial complex is even possible. Writing from his position as a student and teaching assistant in the University Beyond Bars, a program at the Washington State Reformatory, Atif Rafay challenges the notion that teaching in prison is inherently radical and the institutionally complex assertion that any education is better than none at all. He argues that the neoliberal impulse to use education behind bars as credentialing programs risks treating students who are incarcerated as a separate class, rather than students whose critical mindfulness is best cultivated through exposure to critical reading, writing, and thinking practices. Robert Scott draws on his experience organizing college-in-prison programs to address the potentially devastating effects of isolation and oppression on student learning and argues that these intense limitations on learning can also become opportunities for transformation, if instructors tackle them head on by way of pedagogical strategies that encourage exchange across the many differences that striate carceral contexts.

In a similar vein, Stephanie L. Becker and Tobi Jacobi address the effects of these constraints on efforts to teach literacy, discovering that feminist and queer pedagogical strategies and aims often butt up against institutional demands that undermine those goals. Rather than becoming "buffer zone agents" unable to work for systematic change, they offer tactics that enable teachers to become allies in a collective struggle for radical transformation. James Kilgore's essay describes the challenges he faced teaching classes about globalization as a political prisoner himself in the context of the highly racially segregated High Desert State Prison while also incarcerated there. Attendant to racial and class differences, as well as his own position as a political prisoner, Kilgore argues that although the prison is an incredibly constrained place, it is still possible to create a space, however ephemeral, for transformative learning.

We have also asked several authors to share examples of specific strategies and lessons they have employed as they attempt to navigate radical commitments and institutional demands. Dan Colson builds on his experience teaching Richard Wright's Native Son to argue that every pedagogical setting demands close attention to power dynamics and prejudices for radical teaching and learning to take place. Kirsten Coe describes the challenges of teaching science courses in carceral contexts that prohibit resources teachers in other settings often take for granted, including basic laboratory equipment and the time and space to conduct experiments. Working with, and sometimes against, the carceral institution, she explores the radical potential of teaching science outside the cell walls while still inside the gates. Anke Pinkert, Michael Brawn, Jose Cabrales, and Gregory Donatelli's collaboratively written piece describes how a series of class readings and discussions about the Holocaust helped the group develop a critical engagement with past and present discourses of imprisonment and confinement to challenge stereotypes of incarcerated people as one dimensional victims or survivors, criminals or convicts. Rather, the course cultivated a sense of the shared fullness of the human experience. Each of these shorter case studies offers practitioners ideas and strategies for building new and resistant curriculum in the face of overwhelming political odds that constantly mitigate against the critical modes of human life radical teachers seek to cultivate.

Together these pieces ask how the assumptions driven by campus and community pedagogies inform teaching inside carceral institutions. They also ask how assumptions driven by teaching inside carceral institutions can inform teaching on campus and community spaces. The intersectional analysis developed in these pieces foregrounds the relation between race, class, gender, and sexuality in learning communities across institutional space. In particular, these pieces clarify that prison pedagogies which focus on race and class must inevitably engage with gender and sexuality, or else run the risk of reinforcing hetero-patriarchal norms articulated as the vanishing point of anti-racist and anti-classist pedagogies. The same holds true for pedagogies undertaken in campus settings. Taken as a whole, we hope the pieces included here spur conversations about not only how we might practically teach against the PIC from within it, but how our teaching strategies and approaches might more broadly reshape our world and what it means to share it with each other.


1. Shana Agid, Michael Bennett, Kate Drabinski, eds., Special Issue: "Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex," Radical Teacher 88 (Summer 2010).

2. Laura E. Gorgol and Brian A. Sponsler gather these statistics in their Issue Brief: "Unlocking Potential": 1) between 2005-2009 state spending on corrections increased 25% compared to 18% increase on higher education (National Association of State Budget Officers State Expenditure Report 2009); $1 out of $15 state discretionary funds is spent on corrections (The Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008); Gorgol and Sponsler, Issue Brief "Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons," Washington, D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy, May 2011.

3. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neo-Liberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2003; David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

4. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; Joy James, ed. States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison Industrial Complex, New York: Routledge, 2004.

5. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Oakland: AK Press, 2011; Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBTQ People in the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

6. Lauren Glaze, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2009" NCJ 231681, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 21, 2010), Online: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus09.pdf.

7. Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2009).

8. The rising number of detainees and costs of incarceration are examined in National Immigration Forum, "The Math of Immigration Detention," Washington DC: August 2012. The most often cited example of this relationship is the role of the Corrections Corporation of America in the creation of Arizona's anti-immigration law SB 1070.

9. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press, 2010. Alexander's cross-over book popularized the phrase "New Jim Crow" for a mainstream audience; the already well-established academic research and radical organizing on mass incarceration provides a more contentious and complex picture of this transformation; see also new work by Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right, New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming. Scholarship on immigration and detention is equally vast; see Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, Boston: 2006; Dan Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History, Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.

10. Recent figures show a slight decline in incarceration rates, with a 0.3% decline in 2010 that marked the first decline in incarceration since 1972. See "U.S. Has World's Highest Incarceration Rate" Population Reference Bureau, accessed 9/3/2012: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx.

11. The Sentencing Project lists these familiar statistics: "One in nine black males ages 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2009 as were 1 in 27 Hispanic males and 1 in 60 white males in the same age group." See "Facts about Prisons and Prisoners" The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C.) accessed 10/29/11: www.sentencingproject.org. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics (6/11). On Chicano/a imprisonment see B.V. Olguín, La Pinta: Chicana/o Prisoner Literature, Culture and Politics, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

12. Erica R. Meiners, The Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, New York: Routledge, 2007.

13. Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.

14. Studies of the positive impact of higher education in prison include Wendy Erisman and Jeanne Bayer Contardo, "Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy," The Institute for Higher Education Policy (November 2005); Minatiya Dawkins and Erin McAuliff, "Higher Education Behind Bars: Postsecondary Prison Education Programs Make a Difference" Centerpoint, American Council on Education (10/14/2008): ; Daniel Karpowiz and Max Kenner, "Education as Crime prevention: The Case for Reinstating Pell Grant Eligibility" Bard Prison Initiative: http://www.bard.edu/bpi/pdfs/crime_report.pdf. The Education from the Inside Out Coalition, led by The Fortune Society and College and Community Fellowship (CCF), is working to reinstitute Pell Grant eligibility and broader access to higher education for people in prison (http://fortunesociety.org/get-involved/advocate-for-change/drcpp). Kaia Stern of the Harvard University Prison Studies Project (which partners with Boston University's Prison Education Program and the Massachusetts Department of Correction) has completed a National Directory of Higher Education in Prison: http://prisonstudiesproject.org/directory/. See also the "Special Topics Issue: Post-Secondary Education" of The Journal of Correctional Education 62.2 (June 2011).