Critical Pedagogy in Prisons? A Brief Reflective Essay, By Jodie Lawston and Gabriel Jones

1 Dec

Education programs in which professors, teachers, and even students enter prisons to teach adult education classes are shoddy, at best, with some institutions having educational programs and others not having them.  With almost 2.5 million people incarcerated across the nation, the educational opportunities to which prisoners have access can significantly shape their social and economic mobility upon release, as well as affect their rates of recidivism.  As critical educator Earl Shorris (1997: 6) told his own class of poor and disenfranchised students:

You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned again you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political…. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics.  The humanities will help.

Education, then, offers the means not only for economic mobility but for critical consciousness about power and its effects, as well as about how power can be bent to the will of the people.  Critical pedagogy has been defined by Ira Shor (1992: 129) as

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse.

Critical pedagogy offers a reflective praxis for understanding power and resisting its effects (Kincheloe 2008).  In Freire’s (2000) terminology, it encourages the development of “conscientization,” “consciousness raising,” which focuses on understanding and resisting social and political oppression.  Within the specific context of prison education, such an approach analyzes and critiques the nature of the American criminal justice system, conceptualizations of criminality, and the reasons for the cycles and patterns of poverty, crime, and incarceration that characterize much of prisoners’ lives.

Educational programs for women prisoners are particularly important at present.  While men are still more likely than women to experience incarceration, for the past three decades the female prison population has increased at a significantly higher rate than that of men.  In a report for the Sentencing Project, Mauer, Potler and Wolf (1999) show that between 1980 and 1997, the women’s prison population increased by 573 percent, while the men’s prison population increased by 294 percent.  More than 200,000 women are now confined in prisons and jails across the country (see Talvi 2007, xv).  As stated before on this site and in Razor Wire Women, incarcerated women are disproportionately of color and poor.  Moreover, nearly forty-five percent of women in local jails and state prisons and twenty-five percent of women in federal prisons have not graduated high school, with between sixty and seventy percent never having attended any college (see Greenfeld and Snell 1999).

Despite the need for educational opportunities that would improve women’s ability to transition back into society upon release from prison, women’s prisons have fewer educational and vocational facilities in comparison to men’s prisons (see Pollock 2002).  When courses are available for women, they continue to be in areas that are underpaid and traditionally relegated to women, such as beautician classes (see Talvi 2007, and Pollock 2002).  While GED classes are sometimes available, books and materials cost money, so even when such opportunities are available women cannot afford to enroll.  Moreover, GED courses, although necessary, do not necessarily teach critical thinking.  Often, the only way to ensure that education courses are offered in women’s prisons–especially those with critical thinking angles–is for outside volunteers to go inside to work with the women.  Simone Weil Davis’ and Eleanor Novek’s chapters in Razor Wire Women discuss their work inside women’s prisons–in the Inside/Outside Prison Exchange Program and through facilitating a journalism class, respectively–and and the importance of such work.

Educational programs within prisons thus often need to fill significant gaps in students’ schooling, providing particular challenges to teachers who also want to offer a critical approach that examines the forces of power, domination, and control that have largely structured prisoners’ lives.  The work of Paulo Freire offers a significant resolution to this challenge by focusing on a pedagogy of reciprocity, one that resists the traditional teacher-student dichotomy and instead provides an educational environment in which everyone is both teacher and learner; by empowering students as teachers with their own base of knowledge and experience, and by giving them the responsibility of communicating this knowledge effectively to others within a participatory learning environment, programs can create classrooms that give students both the tools for literacy and the reasons and desire to use them.

With this in mind, Jodie Lawston created and facilitated a writing workshop with three university students, “Empowerment Through Writing,” for incarcerated women in California, which houses the largest number of female inmates in the country.  The workshops were created in response to women’s requests to have writing workshops in the prison and to an arbitrary parole board mandate to some women that they would not be paroled until they could write a “book report.”  The idea was that the facilitators and the incarcerated women would all be learners and teachers, and was therefore grounded in Freire’s notion of the pedagogy of reciprocity.  Prisoners were seen to have their own base of knowledge that we from the outside could learn from; they were not empty vessels into which we poured our knowledge (a la the banking concept of education).

The focus of the workshop, prompted by incarcerated women’s concerns, was to improve writing and communication skills as well as to expand critical thinking and political consciousness.  This approach created another even larger challenge, however, as the bureaucracy of prisons and the hostility some staff had toward outsiders and toward educational programs for women made the workshops extremely challenging.  Given that one of the basic tenets of critical pedagogy is that social and economic conditions cannot change until oppressed subjects have the tools to understand and resist the forces of their own oppression, this resistance presented a significant obstacle to the overall effectiveness of the program.

However, what we found was that although the institution of prison itself posed significant challenges to implementing a Freirian model of adult education in prisons, the women in the program thrived when we met.  Women wrote eloquently about their past and current life experiences, their hopes and dreams, and in addition, applied the critical consciousness that they already had developed from living in a prison environment to their writing.  Although the women in the workshop reported that they learned from the facilitators, the facilitators perhaps learned much more from the imprisoned women about the interworkings of the carceral system and its effects on individual women.  Indeed, it was the critical consciousness of the women, and our structural analysis of prisons, that we believe ultimately led to the shut down of the workshop; the more vocal and critical women became, the more the institution sought to silence them.  Of course, that silence is always short lived, as women clearly know how to resist and find their voices to critically analyze the institution around them.


Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Greenfeld, Lawrence and Tracy Snell.  1999.  Women Offenders.  Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Retrieved on November 11, 2011, from

Kincheloe, Joe. 2008. Critical Pedagogy. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang.

Mauer, Marc, Cathy Potler, and Richard Wolf.  1999.  “Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs and Sentencing Policy.”  Washington, DC: The Sentencing

Pollock, Joycelyn. 2002. Women, Prison, and Crime. Wadsworth: Thomas Learning

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shorris, Earl. September1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor.” Harper’s, pp. 50-60.

 Talvi, Silja.  2007.  Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.  California: Seal Press.


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