Voices in Education

Can Critical Pedagogies Thrive Within the Prison Classroom?
Can critical pedagogies thrive within the prison classroom?

Sure, as those of us who teach and learn inside prisons are probably quick to attest. But an accompanying question is a bit more difficult to answer: what should critical pedagogies do inside the prison classroom, given the constraints of carceral control?

Michael Brawn, my coauthor, is a student in the Education Justice Project (EJP), a model college-in-prison program affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has extensive experience with critical pedagogy, as he outlines in our article in the Spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, because many of his instructors—including me—attempt to engage the spirit of critical pedagogy in the prison classroom. His criticism of emancipatory authority, a key tenet of critical pedagogy, served as an impetus for our collaboration.

The broad aims of critical pedagogy are to free thought and action from various forms of constraint, such as white supremacy, capitalism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and related social forces. Acknowledgment and resistance of such forces require certain habits and dispositions, such as critical questioning, problem posing, and dialogical engagement—all habits difficult to embody inside the modern US prison. Given the constraints of carcerality, what should critical pedagogies aim to foster in the prison classroom?

Part of the work of critical pedagogies, and anti-oppressive praxis broadly conceived, is to nurture habits and norms toward the cultivation of critical and postcritical consciousness. The authority of the instructor within critical pedagogies begs our attention (for excellent feminist criticisms, see Ellsworth, 1989; Lather, 1992), as does the discourse of empowerment within the specific context of a prison classroom; that is, emancipatory authority can reinforce the very mechanics of power that critical pedagogues seek to dismantle. Nonincarcerated instructors who teach inside prisons and subscribe to critical pedagogies and anti-oppressive practices, myself included, may run the risk of reproducing the very power structures they seek to expose by neglecting to consider incarcerated students’ unique positionalities—specifically, the students’ inability to freely access information and exist in the world as independent thinkers.

Thomas (1995) referred to this unique paradox as the “irony of prison education,” where the vision of emancipatory educational experiences inside prison classrooms can never fully take hold because, by design, penitentiaries are structured to cultivate the opposite of what critical pedagogies aim to foster: dehumanization. For Thomas, efforts toward critical consciousness will ultimately always be thwarted by the brute contours of institutionalized confinement, manifest in hypersurveillance and pursuit for control in the most basic ways.

Michael and I are a bit more optimistic, but only through a reconceptualization of what critical pedagogy should do inside the prison classroom. Through a commitment to countercarceral praxis (Sudbury, 2016), we use dialogue to surface some of the inherent contradictions of engaging critical pedagogies in prison classrooms. We call for an emplaced critical praxis that allows for a living of the paradox and an acknowledgment and acceptance of the ruptures that emerge when attempting critical pedagogical work inside prisons. The prison classroom is ultimately an extension of the carceral state, and this awareness must anchor an emplaced critical praxis in prison—one that seeks to work against systemic state violence in such a way that honors the lived realities of students under incarceration.

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297–324.

Lather, P. (1992). Post-critical pedagogies: A feminist reading. In C. Luke & J. Gore (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (pp. 120–137). New York: Routledge.

Sudbury, J. (2016). Challenging penal dependency: Activist scholars and the antiprison movement. In Activist scholarship: Antiracism, feminism, and social change (pp. 17–36). New York: Routledge.

Thomas, J. (1995). The ironies of prison education. In H. S. Davidson (Ed.), Schooling in a “total institution”: Critical perspectives on prison education (pp. 25–41). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

About the Author: Erin L. Castro is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah. She is co-author, with Michael Brawn, of "Critiquing Critical Pedagogies Inside the Prison Classroom: A Dialogue Between Student and Teacher" in the Spring 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review