Archive | December, 2011

Razor Wire Women Recognized at UNC, a post by Ashley Lucas

6 Dec

This week Razor Wire Women is being recognized as a significant new scholarly book at two separate events on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

Last night the Institute for African American Research (IAAR) held a reception to honor members of our campus’ African American Studies research community.  Reginald Hildebrand, interim director of the IAAR, organized this event both to honor Eunice Sahle who has just been named the new chair of UNC’s Department of African and African American Studies and to recognize the UNC faculty members who have published books this year which make significant contributions to the field of African American Studies.  Razor Wire Women was on the list of publications, and Hildebrand praised the book and its authors’ commitment to social justice.

On Wednesday, December 7 from 4 to 6 PM, UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities (IAH) will hold its annual holiday reception to celebrate books published in 2011 by IAH fellows.  I have the absolute joy of being a fellow of the Institute this semester and am honored to be among the IAH authors who will be present to sign books tomorrow afternoon.  The reception is open to all UNC affiliates.

North Carolinians Organize to End the Death Penalty, a post by Ashley Lucas

3 Dec

An organization called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has launched a campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state of North Carolina, and they brought renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean to North Carolina to speak at several events this week.  This effort comes on the heels of the Republican-controlled NC State legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which provides prisoners the opportunity to appeal their death sentences on the basis of racial discrimination.  Successful appeals on the grounds of the Racial Justice Act do not result in death row prisoners being released from prison or in the overturning of their convictions; rather, the Racial Justice Act enables death sentences to be converted into life sentences.

The Racial Justice Act (see full text here), championed by State Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham, responds to the fact that death sentences are much more likely to be handed down in cases which involve a black defendant and a white victim than any other possible combination of races for defendants and victims.  For an excellent report on the statistical data and a review of several studies which prove the racial bias of sentencing in capital punishment, see this article on the Death Penalty Information Center Website.  This body of evidence on racial inequality in capital cases first drew national attention in 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case called McClesky v. Kemp.   In this case, lawyers arguing on behalf of a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia cited the Baldus study as evidence of racial discrimination in capital sentencing.  The court assumed the validity of Baldus et al.’s study yet ruled that this data was “insufficient to demonstrate unconstitutional discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment context or to show irrationality, arbitrariness, and capriciousness under Eighth Amendment analysis.”  McClesky was executed in 1991, and despite many follow up studies which confirm and expand the findings of the Baldus study, our nation continues exhibit blatant racial bias in executing its citizens.

Though the North Carolina legislature has voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, this battle is not yet lost.  Governor Beverly Purdue still has the power to veto this repeal and uphold this ground breaking legislation.  To urge the governor to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, click here.

Last night Sister Helen Prejean addressed an audience of at least a hundred people at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Durham.  The event was introduced by an advocate from Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)–a group which brings together the families of both murder victims and executed prisoners to oppose the death penalty.  A woman named Jocelyn spoke about the day that her son was shot to death in Durham and the enduring trauma to her family, including her three granddaughters who are growing up without a father.  Jocelyn still feels hatred for the unknown perpetrator who killed her son, but she would not want that person, if found and convicted, to be executed.  She does not want another mother to lose a child and feels that all violence, including state-sanctioned executions, only leads to more violence.  The next speaker to take the podium was Rose, the sister of a man named Ernest who was executed in Raleigh.  She described her family’s suffering during the nine years that Ernest spent on death row and the time they spent together on the day of his execution.  Since Ernest’s death, Rose, her family, Ernest’s attorneys, and a community of supporters vowed to work to end all executions in North Carolina, and to this end she, Jocelyn, and others like them have continued to tell their stories to all who will listen, even though it obviously pains them greatly to retell the most devastating moments of their lives.

Sister Helen thanked and honored Jocelyn and Rose as she described her personal calling to end the death penalty.  Retelling a story she recounts in her book Dead Man Walking–which has also been adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and an excellent play–Sister Helen spoke of how what began as simple correspondence between her and a Louisiana death row prisoner led to a life’s vocation of anti-death penalty work.  She has now accompanied six men to their deaths, acting as a spiritual adviser to the condemned and witnessing their executions.  She reminds us of the dignity of human life and urges us not to perpetually judge any person for the very worst thing that he or she ever did.  She asks Christians to remember that Jesus always invoked the sanctity of life and never called for anyone’s death, and as she describes in her second book The Death of Innocents, she urged Pope John Paul, II, to firm up the Catholic Church’s stance against the death penalty.  Through her tireless advocacy, she calls on each of us to stop killing people, through caring for our neighbors and working to end the violence in our communities and the violence being done by the government in our names.

A local religious leader said a prayer after Sister Helen finished speaking.  In the periods of silence in between each portion of the prayer, I could hear quiet sobbing from those sitting in the pews all around me.  I was struck by the sheer numbers of people in my own community whose lives are shaped by murder, prisons, and the death penalty.  I thought of Jocelyn and Rose and their willingness to support the same cause, though public rhetoric often casts victims’ families and prisoners’ families as being irrevocably at odds with one another.  Each of us who believes that killing is wrong must stand together now with Jocelyn, Rose, and Sister Helen to demand an end to the death penalty in North Carolina and in the rest of the United States.  To lend your support to this vital cause, please contact your state and federal legislators, speak to your family and friends about why you oppose the death penalty, and get involved with activist organizations who are already doing excellent work on this front:

  • Contact Governor Bev Purdue to urge her to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
  • Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation: Founded in 1976, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFR includes people of many different perspectives. Because violent crime cuts across a broad spectrum of society, our members are geographically, racially and economically diverse. (descriptions of MVFR and the other organizations that follow in this list are taken from their own websites and promotional materials)
  • Capital Restorative Justice Project: The mission of the Capital Restorative Justice Project is to promote healing and nonviolent responses within North Carolina communities torn apart by capital murder and executions.
  • Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA): DCIA seeks to engage and empower people of faith to create a community of justice and peace through common prayers and acts of compassion; and with prophetic courage we act as advocates for the dignity and well-being of all persons, recognizing that behind every human face is the face of God.
  • People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP): People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to educate and mobilize faith communities to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Founded in 1994 in North Carolina, PFADP focuses its programs on organizing among faith communities in the South.
  • National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP): The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) is the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty. We are comprised of an extensive network representing more than 100 state and national Affiliate organizations and thousands of advocates and volunteers. Our members include families of murder victims, persons from all points on the political and religious spectrums, past and present law enforcement officials and prominent civil and racial justice organizations working to end the death penalty forever.
  • Truth in Justice: Truth in Justice is an educational nonprofit organized to educate the public regarding the vulnerabilities in the U.S. criminal justice system that make the criminal conviction of wholly innocent persons possible.
  • The Innocence Project: The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.  To date, 280 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row.  These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
  • Death Penalty Focus (DPF): Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through public education; grassroots and political organizing; original research; media outreach; local, state, and nationwide coalition building; and the education of religious, legislative, and civic leaders about the death penalty and its alternatives.
  • Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions: Since its founding following the 1998 National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, the Center has been instrumental in the exonerations of 23 innocent men and women in Illinois. Before the founding of the Center, members of its staff were instrumental in 14 additional exonerations — including that of Gary Dotson, who in 1989 became the first person in the world to be exonerated by DNA.  The Center was the first university-based innocence project to accept non-DNA cases as well as DNA cases. Of the 37 exonerations in which the Center or members of its staff have been involved, just over half —21— were non-DNA cases.

Though, as the above list demonstrates, many people in the U.S. are committed to ending the death penalty, executions continue.  Please get involved and help end this long standing practice of state sanctioned violence.

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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