Magazine article Radical Teacher

Feeling like a Failure: Teaching/learning Abolition through the Good the Bad and the Innocent

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Feeling like a Failure: Teaching/learning Abolition through the Good the Bad and the Innocent

Article excerpt


Example # 1, from Jessi:

It is the 8th week of English class in our adult high school completion program, and we have just read a short excerpt from Angela Davis's Are Prisons Obsolete? As a class, we review vocabulary words, and then, piece by piece, work to understand Davis's argument for prison abolition. All of the students have firsthand experience of the system, and they agree that the prison system is clearly racist in its impact. But when we get to the point of discussing abolition--of shutting down prisons--the class quiets. The disagreements start. "I agree with abolishing the death penalty, but . . ." "But some people need to get locked up." "I agree we need to change the system, but getting rid of prisons entirely ...* "It's too much ..." "I don't think we need to go that far ..."

I find myself in the awkward position of being the only person without direct experience of being locked up, and the only vocal abolitionist. By the end of our conversation, I perceive that students have made up their minds and are united in their analysis: the prison system is messed up, but abolition is "going too far." I wonder to myself what went wrong in our conversation. Why was I not able to present abolition in a way that challenged people to go further or question their assumptions about the necessity of prisons?

Example #2: from Erica:

I am teaching a Feminist Activism class at my public, urban, relatively open-access university. We are in the last third of the semester and the course has centered on anti-prison organizing. Students in the course all identify as women, many are mothers, and a few have named friends and relatives who are locked up. All are working full-time or part-time, most are the first in their family to attend college, and the majority are Latinas. They are women who enlisted in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) in high school because it offered a way out of their neighborhood, and they are taking six years to complete an undergraduate degree. For me, our term together has been smart, often funny, full of good, thick conversations, and we have hosted a few guest speakers who are engaged in small-scale anti-prison work across the city of Chicago.

The course has included a range of readings this semester--from Davis's Are Prisons Obsolete? to "The Critical Resistance-INCITE statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex" to selections from Bissonette's When the Prisoners Ran Walpole--and while many admit that the system targets them and their families, and that it does not make their communities safer, the ending discussions, to me, seem to always fall flat. We circulate around "what about the really bad people?": the child molesters? rapists? those who really belong in prison?

I am the one sitting--yes in the front of the room, with my coffee cup, waiting, waiting, wondering. Yes, what about the bad people, Erica? Signing up as a card-carrying abolitionist and admitting there are no "bad people" seems hard for those of us that have experienced violence, or perpetrated violence.

As colleagues and friends involved in working and thinking through anti-prison engagements, we are motivated to write this article because of our commitment to resisting our nation's punishing carceral logic and our similar perceptions of our failures in teaching and learning abolition. We offer these examples because they are immediate, and because, as the people in the classroom were closer to incarceration than most populations in the United States perceive themselves to be, we naively thought that conversations might be different.

We teach and learn about abolition in a variety of contexts. Both of us teach in a small community-based free adult high school completion program for formerly incarcerated adults (Erica for ten years, Jessi for three). Housed in a vocational training center that provides a variety of training and job placement services, evening students are in class every week, often before and/or after their paid work. …

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