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  • Education as LiberationAfrican American Literature and Abolition Pedagogy in the Sunbelt Prison Classroom
  • Patrick Elliot Alexander (bio)

In her speech, “The Prison-Industrial Complex” (1997), renowned scholar, anti-prison activist, and former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis articulates a pedagogical philosophy that has inspired my years of teaching African American literature in the prisons of the American South. Recalling her experiences with teaching incarcerated women at a California jail, Davis states: “Coalitional formations that link academic communities and imprisoned communities can potentially produce great changes. [Yet] people in [jails and] prisons are generally considered to be people who have no agency. We often fail to recognize that prisoners are human beings who have a right to participate in transformative projects” (The Meaning of Freedom 53). Davis’s affirmation of the humanity and agency of incarcerated students reinforces a larger argument that she develops in the speech about inviting and incorporating instructional approaches to jail and prison classrooms that aim to undermine, to some degree, the asymmetries of power that operationalize our epoch’s “punishment industry.”1 What Davis calls the prison-industrial complex is the post-Civil Rights era system of racialized social control and profit-driven, mass-based social isolation currently responsible for the punitive confinement of one in every ninety-nine adults in the United States and more black men than had been enslaved in 1850 (Liptak; Lu). The prison-industrial complex [End Page 9] is typified by racial bias, discriminatory sentencing practices, political repression, state violence, sexual abuse, medical neglect, corporate greed, and the increasingly privatized warehousing of black, brown, and poor bodies in overcrowded jails, plantation prisons, supermaximum facilities, and six-foot-by-eight-foot security housing units. Yet what is also disturbing about the prison-industrial complex is its institutionalization of educational deprivation—a practice that I argue constitutes a breach in international human rights standards for the treatment of imprisoned people. Recall that when Congress eliminated Pell Grants for imprisoned learners by passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, it effectively terminated public funding for the more than 350 college-in-prison programs then in existence and thereby reduced the number of these programs to a meager eight by 1997 (Petersilia 34). That law alone—passed under the Clinton administration—relegated higher education initiatives for imprisoned learners to the unpredictable whims of private support and donated labor and thus led to a mind-numbing disciplinary practice at odds with the United States’s position as a United Nations signatory. On the one hand, the United States has essentially institutionalized the deprivation of post-secondary education in prison; on the other, it remains a signatory of the United Nations’s 1990 resolution, “Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners,” which states: “All prisoners shall have the right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality” (emphasis added).

In this article, I argue that the student-centered college preparatory and for-credit college-in-prison programs that I have founded during the past decade at Parchman/Mississippi State Penitentiary and at Orange Correctional Center in North Carolina represent the beginning of an abolition pedagogy, a pedagogy that exposes and opposes educational deprivation and the mass-based social control logic that have come to define the prison-industrial complex.2 Taking cues from Davis’s work, my college-in-prison course curriculum and teaching style contest state underinvestment in the intellectual well-being of incarcerated learners—an underinvestment that simultaneously numbs minds, scars psyches, and stunts educational development. By designing courses and learning activities collaboratively with imprisoned students in ways that respond to their expressed intellectual curiosities and literary interests, I seek to cultivate classrooms where imprisoned men can, if only temporarily, [End Page 10] experience desired learning community and human community amid ever more extreme forms of social isolation.

The political significance of my developing abolition pedagogy is also noteworthy because I teach in prisons that are located within the Sunbelt—a region of the nation that legal scholar Mona Lynch defines as a distinctively carceral southern geography where “the bulk of post-rehabilitative innovations that increase[d] the severity of institutional...


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