Introduction: Teaching against the Prison Industrial Complex

By Agid, Shana; Bennett, Michael et al. | Radical Teacher, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Teaching against the Prison Industrial Complex


Agid, Shana, Bennett, Michael, Drabinski, Kate, Radical Teacher


Angela Davis begins her influential book Are Prisons Obsolete? by pointing out how naturalized the system of mass incarceration has become in the United States. She observes that "the prison is considered an inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives," rendering the very idea of prison abolition "unthinkable and implausible," (9). For many, even if we might think current models of imprisonment are untenable--that there is something wrong with putting millions of people in cages in an attempt to solve social problems--doing away with prisons absolutely just seems impossible, politically and morally: It is as if the logic of incarceration has become so inexorable that we simply cannot imagine our lives or our safety without prisons.

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When we proposed that this issue of Radical Teacher focus explicitly on teaching abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC), there were worries from many on our Editorial Board that we would be unable to find enough people teaching from this point of view to write for the issue. Others expressed reservations about the political goals of abolishing prisons and the systems that support, maintain, and legitimate them. Severing prisons from systems of profit makes sense; getting rid of prisons altogether is a much harder sell. As editors actively teaching about prison abolition, we knew we could easily find a critical mass of radical teachers pushing to get their students to imagine the unimaginable, and we were right about that. We received proposals from people teaching abolition from preschool and secondary school through various university settings. And we also knew that this issue was urgently needed, precisely because the very notion of a world without prisons is so immediately controversial. Teaching our students to imagine this new world demands radical teaching at its best and most challenging.

The conversations we had during meetings of the Editorial Board of Radical Teacher mirrored the debates on the left about how best to resist the PIC. Many members of the Board felt that the contemporary PIC abolition movement was utopian in the pejorative sense--a pie-in-the-sky faction ungrounded in the socio-political possibilities of this historical juncture. Others expressed the commonly held fear that prisons, though overly relied upon in the United States, are necessary institutions to house those members of society who have caused certain kinds of harm, such as murderers, rapists, and perpetrators of hate crimes. While those of us on the left might imagine ourselves to be less inclined to be persuaded by arguments for the necessity of prisons based on the racialized "threat" of the "criminal," we sometimes have a hard time knowing where else to turn to address violence against queer people, people of color, immigrants, and others.

And what, our fellow radical teachers asked, of other approaches to resisting the PIC? Why not focus on model programs for teaching in prisons, the literature of prisoners themselves (see, for example, H. Bruce Franklin's excellent syllabi for courses on Crime and Punishment in American Literature at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf), or efforts to decriminalize recreational drugs and so rob the PIC of its most lucrative business? (We received an interesting query from Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who directed us to the useful videos and reports posted on his organization's website, http://www.leap.cc.) Some of the thoughtful essays that developed from proposals we received on each of these topics will be appearing in future issues of Radical Teacher. However, we decided to focus the current issue on what seems to us to be the cutting edge of radical politics with regard to the PIC--the abolition movement.

In some ways, the idea of prison abolition is nothing new, with a genealogy stretching back at least to the 1970s, when the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that prisons be phased out because "the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure" (597). …

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