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Is Another Pedagogical World Possible? Teaching Globalization to My Fellow Prisoners
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Is Another Pedagogical World Possible? Teaching Globalization to My Fellow Prisoners

Before my six and a half years of incarceration I spent more than a decade as a popular educator for trade unions and social movements in South Africa. During that time I took my role as a critical pedagogue of the Freirian stripe quite seriously. However, my years as a teacher’s aide had lowered my pedagogical horizons to helping people pass their GED math test. 1 I had rigorously studied the mock exams, designed a plethora of practice tests, and tirelessly drilled the motivated and the not-so-motivated on simultaneous linear equations and the Pythagorean theorem. While in free life my workshop plans overflowed with learner activity and critiques of neoliberalism, the watchful eye of prison authorities and my own paranoias had reduced my creativity to pragmatic questions: applying [End Page 40] the formulas for areas and volumes to construction jobs or relating probability to the crap games that regularly dotted the yard. Then opportunity came knocking in the strangest of places: the ultra-repressive, racially-charged yards of High Desert State Prison. Through a convergence of coincidence, luck, and my own initiative, I found the space to dialogue about the vagaries and interpretations of globalization and political economy, momentarily transforming our militarily structured classroom into a space of self-activity and dialogue. I found that another pedagogical world was possible, or at least partially possible, inside the prison.

In this article, I will describe a set of workshops on the global economic crisis in 2008 that I ran at High Desert State Prison (HDSP) in California. I will begin by providing some background about the prison as well as outlining the education program at High Desert. From there, I will describe the planning, process, and content of the workshops and finally offer some assessment. I will pay particular attention to my positionality as a white man imprisoned for political offenses. In addition, I should point out that my goal in these workshops was not simply to inform learners about the economic crisis but rather to create a pedagogical context in which the men in the class could reflect on their own experiences to help unpack what was happening at the global level. Hence, a key principle underpinning my workshop activities was the notion that economic crisis impacts people in different ways, depending on factors like their class, race, gender, and place of residence.

In the spirit of convict criminology I also offer this article as an alternative point of view to the dominant narratives on prison education. As Ross and Richards (2001) have pointed out in regard to studies on prisons, the voices of outside experts often drown out those of people who have actually experienced incarceration. While there is a host of useful and at times brilliant writing on prison education that foregrounds the voice of the incarcerated (Davidson 1995; Trounstine 2001; Lamb 2003, 2007; Tregea and Larmour 2009, Hartnett 2011), precious few “convict educators” have had the opportunity to speak. We do have the voices of those I would call the griots, those who teach us about prison from their critical reflections on their experience inside (Peltier 2000; Shakur 2001; Rideau 2010; Rosenbeg 2011; Gilbert 2011; Abu-Jamal and Lamont-Hill 2011). However, the majority of these griots are held in conditions where they do not have access to prison classrooms or have not had the opportunity to write about their educational work. Hence, I hope this article joins with efforts by people like Boudin (1993) and Zoukis (2010) to highlight the conditions under which incarcerated educators operate. We try to practice our own forms of critical pedagogy under circumstances even far more constrained and at times dangerous than those faced by teachers who come from the street. For while teachers from the streets who come into conflict with a learner or prison guard can summon institutional authority to their rescue, those with a number after their name do not have that option. While those who we called “free staff” could carry their mistakes out the gate with them, we might be forced to pay for our sins in the highly...