Academic journal article Social Justice

Ripping off Some Room for People to "Breathe Together": Peer-to-Peer Education in Prison

Academic journal article Social Justice

Ripping off Some Room for People to "Breathe Together": Peer-to-Peer Education in Prison

Article excerpt

LET US START BY LOCATING THETWO PARTICIPANTS IN THIS EXCHANGE: AS A MEMBER OF the Walls to Bridges Collective, a group of incarcerated and non-incarcerated people that meets regularly at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario (with a second circle in Toronto), Simone Davis helps to coordinate the Walls to Bridges program. The Collective offers a reciprocal learning model and we seek to help usher into this world profound transformations of both educational and justice paradigms. Our work includes training and supporting faculty from around Canada who want to bring incarcerated and non-incarcerated students together to learn in community. While the "I" voice in this essay is Simone Davis's (and I take full responsibility for the views I present), this piece emerges out of and introduces an ongoing conversation between Davis and Bruce Michaels, a peer-to-peer educator (his chosen term) who has helped to found, facilitate, and grow a multifaceted, robust, entirely prisoner-run college program at the facility in a Midwestern state where he is incarcerated. (1)

The central intention behind this essay is to argue that outside allies and faculty who work in higher-education prison programs affiliated with a university need to learn from and work with educators inside, who are "acquiring our education under severe circumstances, and sharing what we're learning," as Michaels puts it.

In the face of the mid-1990s squelching of prison postsecondary programs on both sides of the US-Canada border, long-swollen incarceration rates (now growing in Canada), and today's slashed programming budgets, scores of North American outside groups affiliated with universities are developing higher-education prison programs. (2) These typically navigate a complex ethical terrain on several fronts at once.

The central challenges for such programs circulate around the danger of bolstering up a penal system that needs more radical transformation than reform. In Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the US Prison Regime, Dylan Rodriguez (2006, 75-108) draws a useful and very sharp distinction between the analyses and praxis of radical prison intellectuals and those of formally accepted higher-education prison programs. For Rodriguez, higher-education programs in prison, even when course content or (faculty/student) intent are critical and anti-oppressive, serve ultimately to uphold the prison industrial complex, because they support its claims to a rehabilitative mission. Thereby, they make the prison system more palatable and thus more viable, when in fact it needs to be dismantled and our justice practices need to be entirely reconceived. As Brian D. Maclean argued in a 1992 piece in the Journal of Prisoners on Prison, higher-education facilitators from universities on the outside can wind up increasing the scale and scope of surveillance and scrutiny of imprisoned people. So too, they can find themselves inadvertently eliciting from students the compulsory narratives of redemption and gratitude that they know to be a requisite for people moving through the criminal justice system, seeking appeals, approaching parole, etc.

In so doing, whether accidentally or intentionally, programs of higher education in prison can also promote the myth of education as social mobility for the individual striver, if s/he can just grab the proper bootstraps. Based on a construct of individual fault and achievement that obscures structural, political, legal, economic, racialized, and gendered inequities, this story about the way education works shores up and extends the analogous tales we tell about punishment. Meanwhile, those who choose to go inside argue that the risk of abetting a violent system is worth navigating because of the urgent need for educational justice and for opened lines of communication for and with people locked inside.

I see a bottleneck or stasis that has emerged in the debate about higher education in prison--a frozen place in the conversation about whether these programs help to shore up a flawed system or to instigate meaningful social transformation. …

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