The Potential Transformative Power of Education in American Prisons

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For those whose lives are the most controlled and exploited by systems of domination, the potential for a critical re-imagining of pedagogy is an unknown myth of academia. Philosophers and college students extol the transformative potential of education. Rarely, however, do their accolades manifest as tangible action in the ghettoes, slums, and cities of America. Nevertheless, these archetypal zones of exclusion have seen their share of new educational movements. Magnet and charter schools, increased community involvement, and innovative extracurricular programs all carry significant potential for breaking past the omnipresent economic boundaries which masquerade as intellectual impasses. While these programs have their faults and deficits, …show more content…
An institution stigmatized as a production site for malaise and boredom may instead reallocate its wartime production—the creation of an educational currency of grades and scores and ranks and diplomas to assist in the war on the revolutionary imagination—to the production of activism and social integration. Prisoners might leave smarter—by their own terms, not by some upper middle class white norm of intelligence—, dedicated to causes that matter, and prepared to engage in the world rather than retreat from or violently and mindlessly rebel against it. This is the potential of education which must be seized by those who understand its importance. This is also, however, the site of a void within the prison system.

The Malcolm X Institute

Few experiences are as capable of dispelling preconceived notions about the American criminal system as a visit to a prison. Teaching in a prison is surely one of them. Each Tuesday I embark on an hour-long excursion from the East Village to Riker’s Island Prison. This traversing of worlds is perhaps most powerful while the bus makes its way across the uneasy, uneven bridge which constitutes the only physical connection between the prison and the rest of New York City. The prison’s placement is terribly discomforting. It is a world unto itself, and yet is surrounded by the “normal” and highly visible world of New York City— on a good day, I could probably toss a Frisbee…