Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

You Were Hired to Teach! Ideological Struggle, Education, and Teacher Burnout at the New Prison for Women

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

You Were Hired to Teach! Ideological Struggle, Education, and Teacher Burnout at the New Prison for Women

Article excerpt

Critical theorists consider schools as sites of ideological struggle. The following is an account of Suzette's (pseudonym) attempts to define the educational practices in a women's prison according to the democratic principles suggested in the Task Force Report on Federally Sentenced Women: Creating Choices, (Correctional Service of Canada, 1990). This report led to the construction of five new prisons for women across Canada. Suzette's case illustrates how ideological struggles are experienced personally, and how they contribute to her burnout--disillusionment and resignation. Habermas's critical research program and his concept of system and lifeworld undergirds this interpretation of this teacher's resistance to the correctional ethos at the New Prison for Women (NPW). Key Words: Agency and structure, System, Lifeworld, Voice, Ideology, Rationalization, Image, Teacher practical knowledge, Determinism, and Mediation

Background: Schooling at the New Prison for Women--Change was the Attraction

"Critical theorists ask the following crucial questions. Who controls the schools? Who makes policies that govern schools? Who determines the ethical, social, and economic goals of education? Who sets the curriculum? (Orstein & Levine, 2003, p. 118).

It was early spring when I first made my way through the mud of the unfinished parking lot and into the New Prison for Women. There was no fence, there were no gates; this federal prison for women was going to be different. I was intrigued and hopeful as I toured the institution with many others that day, pleasantly surprised at the homey, almost cozy carpeted "rooms" for the federally sentenced women who were about to arrive. Each room was decorated with oak coffee tables and armoires (which some visitors believed excessive). There were beige curtains on the large windows that let light play on the pale painted walls. Some of the rooms were quite spacious; designed so the women, typically the sole care givers in the family, could raise their children on the inside. Eventually we found ourselves in the gymnasium, to celebrate with other guests and dignitaries, the coming of a new age of corrections for incarcerated women.

As the senior administrator for a private Canadian company providing education programs to the federal penitentiaries, I had discussed the educational requirements for the New Prison for Women (NPW) with the Warden earlier that year. Yes, we agreed, the literacy program would be democratic, dialogic, women-centered, empowering, holistic, and adult-centered. The program would respect women's experience, respond to their needs, and mesh literacy with prison programs. These principles of women-centered programs were underscored in the Task Force Report on Federally-Sentenced Women: Creating Choices (Correctional Service of Canada, 1990), commonly and hereafter referred to as Creating Choices. This document, produced by the Correctional Service of Canada, recognized that the Canadian prison system (which has been designed around the characteristics of male offenders), did not meet the needs of federally incarcerated women.

To ensure our success as the contracting agency responsible for the prison education program at the school, I transferred an experienced prison literacy teacher from another prison in the region to the New Prison for Women. Suzette was bilingual (a Francophone by origin), had lived on a reserve and was highly qualified. She held two teaching degrees; one in adult education, the other in intercultural and international education. She was an experienced outspoken innovator and seemed the ideal candidate for the job.

Suzette also attended the literacy planning meeting with the new Warden. She subsequently read, and was inspired by the Creating Choices document. In a retrospective paper on her experiences at NPW which she presented at an annual conference of prison teachers in 1997, Suzette described her enthusiasm for the new approach:

   When NPW was publicized, Change was the attraction; change of
   conditions, layout, structure, and approach. … 
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