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The Transformative Power of Holocaust Education in Prison: A Teacher and Student Account
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The Transformative Power of Holocaust Education in Prison:
A Teacher and Student Account

In the fall of 2010, guided by the value of accessible higher education, I taught a course on the Holocaust through the Education Justice Project (EJP), a program at the University of Illinois that provides upper-level college courses and educational programming to incarcerated men at Danville Correctional Center. My chief concern for the class was how to navigate modes of inquiry at the intersection of two carceral contexts: the Nazi camps and the U.S. penal system. While there are clear dissimilarities between the two contexts, I anticipated that a study of the Holocaust through the discourses of public prejudice and state-sanctioned mass-incarceration would lead the students to a critical engagement with U.S. prisons, as well as a more personal identification with the Holocaust victims. Many students in the class—among [End Page 60] them, co-authors Michael Brawn, Jose Cabrales, and Gregory Donatelli—shared my expectation that the Holocaust would hit close to home and that class discussion would turn to a more personal(ized) examination of the carceral context in which they live. In some ways, our shared expectations were born out very well. But we also discovered that the instructor’s assumption about what would be the focus of criticism turned out to be different than the direction in which students took our discussion.

In this essay, we describe class conversations and our views at the intersection of the Holocaust and U.S. prisons, especially as they concern (1) modes of exclusion, labeling, and stereotyping in relation to crime and punishment in contemporary society, and (2) resistance to and transformation of those very discourses of incarceration. Accordingly, Holocaust education becomes a critical engagement with the present as well as the past. And Holocaust education in prison becomes radical education as a socially transformative practice that starts with the transformation of individuals inside the prison system itself. In this respect, we seek to challenge or at least qualify the abolitionist critique of the Prison Industrial Complex,1 the presumed victimhood of the incarcerated, and the skepticism toward teaching on the inside by offering Holocaust education in prison as a particularly viable model for progressive pedagogy based on critical dialogue and self-reflection, and transformation from within.

We begin with a brief description of the course and then focus on a particular class session to illustrate how we engaged the issues of labels and stereotypes at the intersection of the two carceral contexts. Danville Correctional Center is a high-medium security men’s prison in south-central Illinois, forty-five minutes east of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most men are incarcerated for violent crimes and many are serving sentences of ten years or more. In order to enroll in EJP classes and programs, the students need to have earned at least sixty college credits. The one-semester-long courses meet once a week for three hours and take place in classrooms in Danville’s education building, where, on different days, students also have access to tutors, course reserves, and a library, all offered through EJP.2

In total, fourteen men of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, with ages ranging from twenty to fifty-five years old, registered for the Holocaust course. Focusing on German propaganda film, historiographies, survivor memoirs, and postwar essays and documentaries, the course explored the profound break in civilization that the mass genocide of the Jews and other victims represents. Many of our classes revolved around the following questions: What made it possible for people to disregard their own humanity and marginalize, exclude, and finally annihilate their fellow citizens? And are the same underlying mechanisms of exclusion present and even pervasive in society today, in a post-Holocaust era?

In a class midway through the semester, we turned to the power of ideology, especially fueled by propaganda, as it shapes people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Considered from the other direction, Paulo Freire reminds us how ready we are to accept what we are told to believe no matter how distorted it...