Miles of ink have been spilled debating and dissecting the fabled school-to-prison pipeline, a problem endemic to the U.S. education system that almost-exclusively affects its most socioeconomically disadvantaged students; students for whom realistic options for survival and resistance were always slim and high-risk. Less commonly discussed, however, is what options exist for these students' educational attainment following their likely incarceration at the hands of an oppressive capitalist state – and what options for survival and resistance remain in this most-restrictive of environments. March 2017's Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll features some powerful reflections from Lena Tahmassian, a PhD researcher and teacher living in Oakland, CA, and a perennial MRR reader as well as contributor in more recent years. Her column focuses on the importance of not-for-profit prison higher education and solidarity in the post-reason era. Lena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
On February 1, 2017 inmates took over a wing of the Vaughn Prison in Delaware, protesting Trump and demanding better conditions and “remedies conducive to reform and rehabilitation” with education at the top of their list. A guard who was taken hostage died and there is now, at the time of writing, a civil rights coalition asking for a transparent federal investigation. Little more than that information was made known to the public. While most prisons are public institutions, there is not much common knowledge about what goes on in them. Whether or not there will be a further degradation of prison conditions under Trump (there could easily be), this act holds symbolic weight: members of the most marginalized group in society (most can’t even vote) protest an administration that will more than ever place private profit over people, an administration that has already made explicit that various (disproportionately nonwhite) sectors of the population are essentially disposable.
Returning to the prisoners’ demands, this column is in defense of not-for-profit higher education in prisons, not only because I believe that people are not disposable, but also that teaching and learning go both ways. My higher education teaching experience to date has been split between graduate student teaching at an elite university and volunteer teaching for the accredited college program at San Quentin State Prison. I got involved in the latter because there was a need for my particular skills, I wanted to do something less self-serving than just getting a PhD, and to expand my teaching skills. In general, I was up for the challenge of teaching people whose experiences would mostly be very different from my own.
While I’ve taught in two radically different learning environments, my basic objectives are fundamentally the same: to teach them to create meaning out of texts and to critically think and rethink the basis of knowledge production. One notable difference of prison higher education, other than the technological lack (only pen and paper are available), is that when your everyday reality is the very definition of confinement, the classroom acquires a new liberating dimension. Students are eager to speak and share their experiences, and the classroom is, unlike their cellblocks, racially integrated. For us as instructors, being a volunteer in a free program is also in itself liberating (provided you can make time for it). This dynamic does seem to partially inform the students’ attitudes which shift more towards “Thanks for teaching us!” rather than the “Hey, I’m paying for this!” vibe of the increasingly neoliberal academy. That said, I’ve had many considerate and inquisitive students at the traditional university, but some do treat education like a product to be consumed. I suppose in defense of the student-as-consumer mindset (from their perspective), one must recognize that the astronomical cost of higher education and the fact that many students will be indebted into the foreseeable future places increasing pressure on them to see learning as a serious financial investment on which they must see a return.
In my experience, incarcerated students tend to ask “is this how they do things at… (Stanford, Berkeley, etc.)?” They want to know that they are being challenged and not patronized. It’s also a good practice for me to always question and reflect on my methods by having to explain why we assess learning a certain way. I’ve come to believe strongly however that it’s not just about importing and adapting methodologies from the elite academy for those who in many cases were never afforded the opportunity of higher education, but that prisoners also have a lot to teach us. Bringing all of their diverse life experiences to the table opens up new possibilities for discussion. Also, many of us tend to slide through life avoiding our problems, burying our traumas, making the same mistakes, and never facing our insecurities head on. For those seeking rehabilitation, self-reflection is unavoidable and often involves identifying and extirpating the markers of toxic masculinity. I’ve seen how the various programs offered, including college education, help develop self-awareness, discipline, resolve, and a spirit of cooperation that I have not seen anywhere else. For prisoners it can be a matter of life or existential death. Those who go through the rehabilitation process have accomplished the very difficult task of confronting their issues head on and facing those whose lives they have potentially damaged. To thrive within the walls for the time being, you have to be able to imagine something better beyond them. Perhaps this is something we can all learn from.
Upon advocating for prison higher education, I know that on ethical grounds maybe I am mostly preaching to the choir in this column. But for the naysayers (maybe they’ll be at your next family function), it also makes a lot of sense from a utilitarian standpoint. Even though most of us don't have much of a clue what goes on in prisons, we nevertheless fund them through our taxes. Like it or not, most prisoners are eventually released, and access to education while incarcerated dramatically decreases the rate of recidivism. Yes, there are dangerous people who are probably incapable of not harming others–those who fit this profile are not typically eligible for rehabilitation programs in the first place.
Thus higher education in prison is good for both prisoners and society, and those who initiated the Vaughn prison uprising surely knew that. But the current rise of corporate fascism is indeed a double whammy, as it seeks to designate enemies of the state and profit off of their subjugation, which can take the form of public prison labor and private prison contracts, border walls, armaments, etc. Now more than ever, electoral political discourse is beyond logic and reason, with no longer even a semblance of concern for others (unless you’re white and poor, then there is just a semblance of concern for you, but seriously, wake up people: those industrial jobs are not coming back and its not brown people’s fault).
However, on a positive note, there is a whole new generation of resistance cropping up who is questioning what they’ve been told about who the “bad guys” are in the first place. The consensus has fallen out. Let’s hope that sliding back to corporate liberalism is not the best we can do. Specifically, on the topic of issues that impact incarcerated people directly: last year Obama did bring back Pell Grants for prisoners for the first time since 1994 when Bill Clinton pulled the plug on all federal funding for prison higher education by signing the Violent Crime Bill, which was actually written by the then senator Joe Biden. The democrats of old may have reversed their stance on that disastrous bill, but the damage is surely done. Also, I can’t say for sure, but my best guess is that Pell Grants for prisoners will be going away again. (Is the incoming Education Secretary seriously a semi-illiterate billionaire and advocate of for-profit education and arming schoolchildren?)
These days, a lot of people seem to be asking a variation of the question: “What is our responsibility to people we disagree with?” (“Is it ok to punch a Nazi?”) I don't claim to have all the answers (Yes, it’s ok to punch a Nazi). I think there’s actually a simple formula for this: if your worldview is defined by exclusion and denying people’s humanity, then you’re actually the one shutting down the possibility for discussion. Aside from the more extreme examples (unfortunately, I think they’ll be increasing), should we try to change people’s minds? We need to build our resistance, but is there a tool to measure the distance between our ideas, to determine when it’s no longer worth our breath? I think teachers are in a privileged position to promote dialogue, expand minds, and also build empathy bridges in the classroom, but also way beyond. A lot of the students share my worldviews, many don’t. In light of the current reality, I’m all for increasing the possibility of encounters with people you would probably otherwise never engage with. Sometimes I feel like our social media echo chambers will be the death of us. I’ll carry on contemplating the limits of our responsibility.
On a final note, I highly encourage grad students, graduate degree holders, and faculty to get involved with prison higher education in your area. There are also organizations that take book donations to send to incarcerated people–I’ve met inmates who have accessed important literature this way! If you live in the Bay Area, I can point you in the right direction. You will talk to a lot of interesting people, learn about the prison system, and subsequently become a prison abolitionist or at least an advocate for the humanity of those who deserve a second chance, or even an actual first chance at a decent life. Compounded by the fact that American reality is now producing marginality at a rapid rate, it has been reassuring to hear the marginal voices growing louder and more plentiful in the last weeks. We must continue to also defend the basic rights of those who have no voice at all. -Lena Tahmassian