Introduction: Teaching Inside Carceral Institutions

By Drabinski, Kate; Harkins, Gillian | Radical Teacher, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Teaching Inside Carceral Institutions


Drabinski, Kate, Harkins, Gillian, Radical Teacher


This issue of Radical Teacher considers the possibilities and limits of radical teaching inside prisons and other institutions of incarceration. Following on the Summer 2010 issue of Radical Teacher, "Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex" that examined strategies for teaching against carceral institutions from outside their walls, this issue asks what happens when we teach inside carceral institutions such as prisons and detention centers. (1) Assuming there is nothing intrinsically "radical" about teaching inside prison wails, the essays in this issue examine practices of critical pedagogy in the disciplinary context of the prison. We also asked authors to frame their teaching in terms of educational settings on the "outside," some of which are increasingly becoming prison-like in their purpose, nature, and ends. What kinds of alliances across different sorts of institutions are needed to enable radical teaching in the current carceral and academic contexts? What unique issues are raised by teaching inside carceral institutions in a moment of increasingly carceral models of K-12 schooling and deepening resistance to public access to GED and higher education in general?

These articles each situate a specific teaching practice within the broader institutional and structural paradigms of mass incarceration and the dismantling of access to affordable quality public education. The rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty years has often been linked to broader governmental restructuring that shifted resources from education to incarceration. (2) Economic and political logics associated with neoliberalism reduced state responsibility for a viable social safety net at the same time uneven geographic development de- and re-territorialized labor and capital on a global scale. (3) Human life-worlds organized for sustainability during earlier periods of liberal capitalism--Global North working class formations, for example--experienced decimation through the flight of capital to the Global South and the destruction of state-supported infrastructure through the North's version of structural adjustment (where the neo-conservatives meet the New Democrats). Poor and working class people (with a disproportionate impact on people of color) were criminalized--through the War on Drugs and broader sentencing reform policies--and the state re-emerged as the guarantor of "public safety" and a primary engine of a new carceral economy by locking up entire communities rendered disposable in the new world order. Simultaneously, the state used these same carceral powers to suppress and control a whole range of radical organizing resistant to these expansions and uses of state and corporate power. (4) People of color and gender/sexually non-conforming people have been particularly targeted by these transformations. (5)

But the past thirty years saw not only the rise of mass incarceration in the United States--the over two million in carceral lockup inside institutions such as prisons, jails, and detention centers--but also the emergence of an even more massive system of administrative control--the roughly five million under surveillance or supervision via probation and parole. (6) One in every thirty-one adults was caught up in this carceral system as of 2009. (7) This era has witnessed an expansion in the institutional mechanisms and spaces designed to criminalize and control human populations. During this same era, global human migration became increasingly necessary for economic survival, while national borders became increasingly policed as zones of human disposability and resources for capital expansion via new private detention centers. (8) These processes are explicitly racialized, in both their rationales and their effects, both in the context of the long history invoked by Michelle Alexander's resonant phrase, "The New Jim Crow," and in the work of others who increasingly point out that migration itself has become a main focus of racialized criminalization. …

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