Magazine article Radical Teacher

Bringing Freire Behind the Walls: The Perils and Pluses of Critical Pedagogy in Prison Education

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Bringing Freire Behind the Walls: The Perils and Pluses of Critical Pedagogy in Prison Education

Article excerpt


For more than 20 years before my incarceration, I was an educator. I worked as a high school math and history teacher in Zimbabwe and in South Africa as a college lecturer and educator/trainer for unions and social movements. As a white teacher in a part of the world with a history steeped in racism, I was accustomed to being a minority and had extensive experience discussing race at both the broad political context and at the level of personal interaction in an educational setting. The critical pedagogy of Paolo Freire (2) was my primary inspiration in this work. This Freirian approach had been useful in a wide range of contexts, from formal college Economics classes to organizational training for municipal workers with very low levels of education.

This was the background I carried with me when in August, 2004, nearly two years into my sentence, I became a math tutor in the G.E.D. certificate program at United States Penitentiary (U.S.P.) Lompoc, California. During my first few days in the classroom at Lompoc, I felt quite nervous. A U.S. prison felt very different from South Africa where I had taught in a highly politicized environment, one in which nearly all learners had fully adopted a philosophy of non-racialism. In places like Lompoc, racial hatred, even violent confrontations between various "racial groups," was commonplace. Stabbings over drug deals or debts were regular events. In light of all this, I did not know how I would be received. While previous experience provided much grounding for adjusting to the classroom at Lompoc, I also had a lot to learn. In the end, I had to modify many of my techniques and teaching strategies to perform effectively as a prison educator.

In this article, I will detail my first year as a G.E.D. math tutor in light of my prior education work as a "free" person. I will begin by describing the education program at U.S.P. Lompoc. From there I will summarize my practice in the classroom, then offer some concluding observations relating my experience in the prison to critical pedagogy.

Background on the Program at U.S.P. Lompoc

The medium security Federal prison at Lompoc held about 1200 inmates. The Education Department included five full-time civilian teachers. Facilities comprised leisure and law libraries, five classrooms (capacity of 12 learners each) and two computer rooms. While neither vast nor state of the art, the facilities were more than adequate. Security apparatus (a metal detector and a number of cameras) remained fairly innocuous.

The five full-time teachers focused on administrative tasks while the incarcerated carried out nearly all of the actual teaching. I worked in the G.E.D program, at a monthly wage of about $50. Like all other tutors, I received no training or orientation.

There were 40-50 learners "assigned" to G.E.D. at any given time. Men came to the G.E.D. program for a number of reasons. A minority arrived with a desire to advance their education. The remainder landed there because a G.E.D. could yield a few days off their sentence or get them a better paying prison job. A person assigned to G.E.D had to spend either the morning session (8-10 a.m.) or the afternoon session (1-3 p.m.) in the Education Department. Failure to arrive in the Education Department could result in disciplinary action. Repeated no-shows might spend time in the Special Housing Unit (the "hole") and/or lose privileges like visits and phone calls. Attending actual class was not mandatory. More than half of those enrolled just "kicked it" with friends or read newspapers from the leisure library. For those who preferred to study, staff provided textbooks, scratch paper, pencils, and access to calculators and computer-assisted learning programs.

In the best of times, an eager and resourceful person could have come to the department five days a week, received all books and stationery resources he needed and attend a focused two hour class with half a dozen other like-minded individuals. …

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