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Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison
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Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison


Imagine a teacher who has just had a good teaching experience. Looking back at a semester of work, it seems clear that the course affected the language, thoughts, and actions of the students. What is more, the intellectual universe of the teacher was challenged at times, blurring the line between “teacher” and “student.” Everyone in the class had an opportunity to learn something and to share something that the others did not know. While all participants may not have come to the same conclusions, they shared challenges and changes of mind that could not be anticipated when the course first started.

Add to the surprise that the course was taught in a prison. I have become accustomed to hearing teachers say, “Wow—what an amazing class—I had no idea that was possible in prison” after their first experience teaching on the inside. This is good news for teachers in a world in which education is considered by most non-academics to be a bore (OECD 2000). It also clashes with the common image of prisons as places of mindless drudgery and decay. I am skeptical of the “good classroom experience” in prison teaching; this essay sets out to provide interrogations and explanations of this phenomenon.

My perspective on prison teaching draws upon five years of organizing college-in-prison programs in Illinois. Over the past five years, mostly while in graduate school, I helped organize a new college-in-prison program at the University of Illinois. The design of the program was informed by several meetings with college-in-prison organizers from around the country.1 Once the program was up and running, I organized a national conference on higher education in prison in 2010.2 The conversation continued during the following year at a conference hosted at the University of Washington in 2011. Today, I teach college classes in an Illinois prison through a university and a community college. These experiences with teaching in prison, and my critical reading of mass incarceration in the United States, inform the theoretical assumptions upon which my ideas rest.

The central premise of this paper is that many types of teacher, including those who are critical of prison itself, can have positive experiences teaching on the inside. This paper is written for college-level instructors who, I assume, hold no malice toward incarcerated students (an [End Page 22] awkward assumption, but a necessary one).3 In other words, I have written this paper for teachers who intend to teach beyond the required G.E.D. level curriculum found in most state prisons,4 in the interest of helping incarcerated men and women achieve higher education. I provide several perspectives on the various ways in which teachers understand the politics of teaching in prison. The way teachers describe their work, and thus think about their work, influences how they do their work. In this sense, different explanations of teaching correspond to different types of teacher.

I see two main types of prison teacher. One sees prison as an important, though ultimately arbitrary, site for higher education to take place. The other looks at the prison classroom critically, as a specific site of political struggle in the era of mass incarceration. Both can see the disempowerment of their incarcerated students, but the two respond differently when confronted with the realities of prison. The pages that follow explore how different teachers respond to the issues of isolation, oppression, and dialogue in prison. I argue that the critical educator is more likely to intervene and advocate for incarcerated students. This is what distinguishes a radical teacher from one who is merely surprised that prison can be a context for higher education. My intention is to provide a frame of reference that juxtaposes an intense-but-uncritical classroom with a constellation of starting points for radical teaching in prison.


Prison teaching takes places in a remote setting. Incarcerated students live in a profoundly isolated context compared to students in the wider society who have freedom of movement, public libraries, internet access, etc. Most educators I have met teaching higher education...