Intersecting Free Schools and Other Oppressions: Prisons

July 2, 2008 at 2:02 pm 2 comments

Periodically I will be doing a section relating the various aspects and efforts of free schooling to the oppressions that plague our society. I am doing this because I recognized that all oppressions are interlinked and to ignore them would be to help sustain them and to be complacent in my privilege. I will attempt to follow each of these sections with some recommendations of what you might be able to do in your free schooling to fight these oppressions and to learn. Of course, I do not know everything, and I do not have the answers to everything.

Prisons are touted as a place where “criminals” are sent to “reform” their ways. Supposedly through isolation, alienation, and dehumanization these individuals will come to “learn” why what they did was “wrong.”

The United States has the most people behind bars of any nation on earth (with the possible exception of China). In fact, 1 out of every 100 people in the U.S. is incarcerated. In total, the United States contains 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. (PDFs containing these figures available at the end of this post). In the early 1972, there were 375,000 people behind bars in the country.* Today, there are roughly 3 million. Those numbers are nothing but staggering and frightening.

How can defenders of the prison-industrial complex, which makes a profit from putting people behind bars and their forced labor, continue to claim that the system works? That it helps people? Granted, there are some that claim prisons should be for punishment only and to have people “pay their debt to society.” But what debt are they paying? Through the prison system, more and more people become dependent upon that very system for survival. It teaches them nothing. When they leave, they are worse off then before because they haven’t been given a chance to learn anything and they’ve been cut off from the world that they knew (not to mention they can’t make a living wage, they lose ties to the lives they already have, and so on). The prison system forces people (especially the poor and people of color) into a dependent cycle, where their knowledge and lives are based around remaining incarcerated, and when they leave they are less prepared to deal with the difficult world than before.

One-thing prisons used to have on a wider scale then they do today is the ability for inmates to access learning tools, including books and classes. Currently, those opportunities are severely reduced for several reasons. First, the prison-industrial complex is a system that is aimed at making profits, not “reforming” people, so it causes people to become dependent upon it (especially the poor and people of color, laws are made that directly target them). Second, many (mostly middle to upper class, white) people argue that prisoners shouldn’t be given the opportunity to access education or learning tools. “Why should they get a free education when they’ve done something wrong? Isn’t that rewarding them instead of punishing them?” Even dropping the argument that the prison-industrial complex might be inherently wrong, putting aside the notion that these people should stop being so obsessed with what is punishment, escaping for a moment the claim that our society purposefully targets historically oppressed peoples and “deals” with them by putting them in prisons – can they not see that without the opportunity to learn and grow (something that was denied to them on a scale that white, middle class folks will never understand), inmates will likely repeat history and return to jail? I fully acknowledge that the laws that are put in place to attack the poor, people of color, and so on should be addressed and confronted – I am simply adding that during their time behind bars, they should be given every opportunity to access learning tools.

Thus, free schooling is directly linked to the prisoners’ rights movement. I work with an organization called the Prison Book Project (PBP) in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts (note: my comments do not necessarily represent the views of the PBP organization). The front page of the PBP’s website states:

The Prison Book Project is a secular, volunteer collective that distributes books free-of-charge to prisoners in New England and Texas… We are dedicated to offering men and women behind bars the opportunity for self-empowerment, education, and entertainment that reading provides.

The Prison Book Project assists incarcerated people in their attempts to learn and to grow – the things that many prisons attempt to hinder. Prisoners write to the project and ask for a vast array of books. In my time, I have read requests from prisoners asking for books on topics ranging from romance novels, Indonesian histories, westerns, philosophy books, prisoner rights/other law books, spiritualism, learning the Spanish/English/etc. language, starting a business, mysteries, biographies, African American/Native American/other people of color studies, and on and on. Often times, the prisoners explain that they want the books to keep them from succumbing to complete boredom, other times they note that this is what they were studying before they were incarcerated, some individuals just had their curiosity sparked while behind bars, there are those who want to defend themselves or other prisoners from the law or unruly guards, and there have been those that want to do something immediately when they leave prison. These incarcerated people are free schooling. They are directing their own learning so that they may be stronger and more knowledgeable, defying the prison system. They are in control of what they learn and how they apply it (well, that goes for what we are able to send them and what the prisons will allow in – they often have tight restrictions). But, they are attempting to free school, to learn topics of their choosing for reasons that they need and want. They could not do this alone, however. They depend on the prison book projects that are all around the country, that bring the prisoners opportunities to read and learn – something their pitifully bare libraries do not offer.

My work with the Prison Book Project has also affected my free schooling and my learning. I’ve done extensive reading around the subject of prisons, but I never learned more about the topic until I started volunteering with the PBP a couple years of years back. For instance, here’s one nugget: The organization’s mission statement says “The Prison Book Project is a secular, volunteer collective that distributes books free-of-charge to prisoners in New England and Texas.” Seems random, right? Why New England and Texas – two very different places that are very far away from each other. Well, it just so happens that Texas has the most prisons in the U.S. out of any state, due primarily to financial successes of building prisons in Texas, and the large number of prisoners there could use all the help they can get. On top of that, huge quantities of New England prisoners get shipped out to Texas (again, for profit reasons). These prisoners get their lives ripped out from them and they’re moved halfway across a continent, locked up in an unfamiliar landscape with the people they know thousands of miles away. So, by sending books to incarcerated people in Texas, the PBP is in all likely-hood assisting New England locals.

I’ve read dozens of letters from prisoners, many of them explaining their situation and the lives they now lead, and I’ve even begun a dialogue with a few. Through these correspondences I’ve learned more about the lives and conditions of prisoners than I could in any other way. In the spirit of free schooling, my actions and do-ings was the true path to my learning and growth around this complicated and difficult topic.

So, what can you do? Well, you can free school, obviously. But around this topic, you can research and start to formulate your own views. Equally as important, however, you can start to take actions. Find a Prison Book Project-esque organization or effort that is going around in your area. Contact them and find out what they need. Volunteers? Try to organize a group of friends, or just yourself, to go and help out for a day. Funds? Set up a fund-raiser or donate any extra cash you might have. Books? See if you or anyone you know has any books that they’re willing to give up and donate to the organization. Every single effort someone takes goes a long way. Is there not an organization or project in your area? Contact an existing one and see what you can do to start one – or what you can do to help that existing one.

Our free schooling should not be reserved for ourselves only. There are those who want to free school, with whatever name they may give it, but face many obstacles that we might not currently endure or understand. Part of free schooling efforts should be to help those in need, those that want to learn, but who do not know how to or cannot for various reasons. When it comes to incarcerated people, they face amazingly difficulties and resistances in their efforts to learn, grow, and take action. There are many things we can do to help them in their attempts and free schooling, and we should act upon these things in whatever ways that we can.

*Statistic taken from A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

PDFs: Prisons in 2005, Pew Center for Research: 1 of 100, World Prison Population.


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, General Free Schooling, Learning, Related To Free Schooling. Tags: , , , .

Education for Liberation Network The Freedom Schools of 1968

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lydia  |  July 3, 2008 at 1:16 am

    This is great. Everyone, no matter their past discretions or the unfortunate situations they’ve been thrown into, deserves the opportunity to learn what they want and to empower themselves. I’d’ve never thought to connect free schooling to prisoner movements (though clearly that’s something I need to learn more about), so thanks Brian for the great post! ❤

  • 2. Shut Down Youth Prisons « Adventures in Free Schooling  |  September 20, 2008 at 4:31 am

    […] This is definitely extremely important – and prison justice is definitely related to education justice. […]


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