"What good would a college degree do for these women?:" The politics and paradox of teaching higher education in women's prisons
Willingham, Breea Chaunte
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The instructors I interviewed for this study are pioneers in a revitalization of prison education during a period in which it has suffered one of its greatest setbacks - the government pulling out of the prison education business. They develop and teach their courses with little to no pedagogical support or training, and at a great personal cost for some. They deliver a bare-bones yet imaginative education whose benefits suggest that state governments should return to the business of college-in-prison programs. This study examines the ways that instructors navigate the politics of teaching in prisons and jails to create safe learning spaces for incarcerated women to challenge the disempowering environment of their confinement. I argue that while teaching in prison may not be an intentional political act, the very location of a prison makes it political. My findings in this qualitative analysis are based on in-depth interviews with professors, community volunteers and formerly incarcerated women who teach in women's prisons. These instructors must negotiate power relations with prison administration and staff, including navigating their place in the prison's typically male-dominated hierarchical power structure. Critical pedagogy is used as the theoretical framework to analyze the tension between punishment and education that creates the paradox of college-in-prison: the classes promote critical thinking and questioning while the prison protocols requires obedience and sanctions imprisoned women when they question authority.