Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

A World Apart: The Conversation Around Education in the U.S Prison System

The conversation around the treatment of inmates in the U.S prison system has risen to the forefront in more recent years, specifically around the education and opportunities that are granted. Angela Davis speaks on this issue in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, wherein she considers issues surrounding the more recent removal of programs that aid in granting access to not only education but programs expanding that have thus lost funding. Davis stresses the importance of education’s role in supporting inmates with their reintroduction back into society, especially as recidivism has become a pressing issue. She talks about the positive impact that it has had on prisoners, even being described as a sense of freedom. Davis notes of Malcolm X’s experience in prison, “Malcolm’s prison education was a dramatic example of prisoners’ ability to turn their incarceration into a transformative experience… ‘months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life’” (56). Malcolm X’s access to education was integral to his development of a sense of freedom, as Davis highlights. She acknowledges the importance of the educational program, as “the program produced dedicated men who left prison and offered their newly acquired knowledge and skills to their communities on the outside” (58). The program was proven to make the reintegration process back into society far smoother, aiding in the transition. This was especially in terms of self-confidence and assurance, as well as (assumedly) an ability to seek out work. It granted the ability of one’s distinct path to freedom outside of prison and offered opportunities, especially to help inmates work their way out of the cycle of recidivism. 

Writing allows for a connection to the outside world, especially for those who otherwise lack communication with greater society. Education overall works to bridge the gap between the prison, serving as a form of exile from society, and the greater advancing society that exists now out of reach. It serves as a matter of normalcy, opening up a new door to welcome in the outside world once again. As a result, it allows for a sense of individuality, as well as empowerment for one’s mind. This development of a narrative offers the opportunity and ability to think as an individual outside of the identity of just “prisoner," as often used to degrade inmates by those outside. This is commonly used in an attempt to create a sense of separation between those who are incarcerated and those who roam free, as a means of excusing the mistreatment of inmates that has grown increasingly prevalent in the conversation surrounding the U.S prison system. Instead, writing enables a sense of individuality that works against the common act of reducing individuals to simply a number within a large unit of inmates— thus greatly dehumanizing them both in response and in an attempt to further this divide between prisons and the world outside.

Davis discusses the loss of these education programs in a 1994 crime bill and its impacts on inmates. She states that the removal was “..indicative of the contemporary pattern of dismantling educational programs behind bars. As creative writing courses for prisoners were defunded, virtually every literary journal publishing prisoner’s writing eventually collapsed” (56). As these creative writing courses are defunded, the connections to literary journals are also removed, thus disconnecting inmates from resources that can not only better their experiences within prisons, but also once they are released. With this removal comes a great loss, not only in an immediate sense but also in terms of larger-scale destruction. These groups allow for connections to be built outside to ease with the reintegration back into “normal” society, which is a pressing issue that often surfaces in the conversation around re-entry. As inmates lose these resources, there is a certain message being sent to those within the system, as Davis argues that “... repressive strategies are being deployed to dissuade prisoners from educating themselves” (56). Not only are prisoners deprived of the ability to educate themselves, but are now being discouraged from working to educate themselves. As these programs are removed, there are little to no resources for inmates to find support from.

This removal of education is indicative of how we view and treat prisoners — as deserving of less. Not only does this deprivation of education provide less access within the prison, but also for those that gain the opportunity of reintegration back into society. This refusal to recognize both personal wants and needs is evident in the dismantling of educational programs, as education is seen as disposable, even despite how much our society depends upon it for success. It creates a barrier between individuals and access to success. This is only further impacting the reintroduction back into society as it greatly complicates job opportunities, as well as inhibiting personal growth. This is a complicated part of the discussion surrounding the importance of education, specifically in the prison system, as there seems to be a narrative of reflection and work to repent to allow for growth as an individual. And yet, as educational systems and outlets for emotions such as creative writing programs are taken away, so is a large opportunity for genuine self-growth. There is a loss in access to opportunities that could aid in becoming a so-called “productive” member within society, as is requested of these incarcerated individuals in order to be deemed as worthy citizens before their release. This only further threatens the survival of inmates in the world outside of prison, as it essentially sets them up for failure

The most startling question in the discussion of removal is the intentions behind this removal: Who is profiting directly? And at what cost? Mumia Abu-Janal raises several questions around this topic as quoted in Davis’ piece, “What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while imprisoned if their education is outlawed? Who profits (other than the prison establishment itself) from stupid prisoners?” (55). Those in places of power above inmates are enabling the suppression of those in the system, as it allows for them to be exploited— and only further supports the success of their oppressors. As they now have a group that is being deprived and treated as sub-human and undeserving of what we have now identified as basic rights, it becomes increasingly easy to utilize this entire population as a means of resource for labor— both in terms of monetary success, as well as wider scapegoating within society. One’s ability to blame these individuals as a whole is allowed through this dehumanization, as this fictitious distinction between the two groups becomes more materialized. This indifference towards incarcerated individuals excuses their exploitation, as their rights and needs are written off as secondary to the success of those seeking and gaining power over this population. This treatment is justified through the excuse of their title as “inmate”, as deemed insignificant in comparison to that of “free” individuals, allowing for a loss of respect as the imbalance of power is solidified between the two groups. This message of uneducated folks being undeserving of respect is becoming increasingly prevalent, specifically in Western society as we value education and use it as an indication of one’s capability, rather than a matter of access and opportunity. The cost of this is astronomical, seeing as the societal impact is one that deeply injures those within the system, extending to many levels of both personal and societal loss.

As there is a lacking (not entire loss, perhaps, but notable lacking) in narratives as a result of this removal, many issues arise that deserve recognition. In this inadequate source of personal narratives, we lose a true sense of how individuals are being treated within the system. This, once again, allows for a disconnect between those who are incarcerated and those who are deemed “free”, wherein a further illusion of distinction is created between the two groups. This divide allows for the pressing issue of a false sense of reality. As we lack true narratives of personal accounts, this provides room for falsehoods to be inserted in place of these stories. The existing population outside of the system is then capable of inserting themselves through false interpretations, despite lacking any experience. Not only does there exist a false sense of narrative, but also a complete lacking for some. As incarcerated peoples now appear as a minority through their loss of connection with the outside world, it allows for their entire existence to be pushed to the back of the minds of those who don’t directly interact with them frequently.

This removal is one that most likely required intention behind its movement, and this only raises the question as to what these intentions truly were— the why behind, and what it was in response to. Carolyn Forché states in her essay on the poetry of witness that “Poetic language attempts a coming to terms with evil and its embodiments, and there are appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resist” (166), suggesting a sense of exposure that is sourced from writing. This exposure poses a threat to the system, as it calls attention to the fatal flaws that are not only endangering those it has been set to oppress— yet it still fails to benefit those who are justifying its usage. There is no benefit in its removal, as this only further complicates the relationship between those outside and within the system, creating an even harsher divide. This removal only reinforces the cyclical functioning of the prison system, one that often results in the recidivism of incarcerated people. It creates a system in which those who are working towards freedom are forced to fight tooth and nail, even after they are finally granted said “freedom." This sends a harsh message that the “freedom” we have imagined is not as clear-cut as once thought, nor is it a given in America, “home of the free." Rather, it is something only certain individuals are granted within specific circumstances, as deemed worthy of by the state and those within places of power. Davis notes this direct correlation between education and freedom, speaking on the “poignant process of removing the books that, in many ways, symbolized the possibilities of freedom” (58).

Vera Figner also speaks to this loss of freedom in her memoir, focusing rather on the potential danger of power that is found within education: “He expressed his astonishment to the inspector that such books were allowed to circulate in the prison. He then ordered that the library catalogue be examined and all books removed which were in anyway related to the social and political views of the prisoners” (218). This only further suggests the power of education, as it was seen as necessary to be removed. Political education especially is posed as a threat, especially against the system that is actively working to oppress individuals. The education of the political system offers insight into the functioning of society and, alternatively, the downfall of a system that no longer works to benefit those within it. It shows the possibility of a downfall, specifically as a result of an uprising. This only offers a source of hope and strength, one that can be seen as dangerous and encouraging of certain acts of rebellion against the system. This source of education also allows access to preexisting ideas surrounding politics that allow prisoners to think freely for themselves and imagine a possible life outside of current circumstances in which their needs are not being met.

Davis confronts her audience with the reality of the treatment of inmates in the US prison system, specifically focusing on the role of education. With this removal of educational systems comes a jarring message on how we view prisoners— with little remorse for our actions done with little to no respect. In more recent years, there has been a push for the development of programs to be welcomed back into these institutions in order to give inmates more opportunities. One of these existing foundations is Freedom Writers, which works to bring poets into prisons to educate and offer resources for writers in prisons. Christopher Soto speaks on the importance of this topic, explaining:

The prison operates as a geographical location that separates the prisoner from the “free world” and creates a purgatory or non-life for the person incarcerated, through which the self is examined. The narratives in poetry by incarcerated people often examine the space between themselves and the outside world, serving as a bridge between the two populations. Narratives about incarceration, whether intentional or not, can help to draw questions to the morality of the court and challenge the court’s notion of innocence.

Soto highlights the importance of writing, specifically the significance of poetry for incarcerated peoples. This depiction of the bridge between the two divided groups aids in visualizing the complete separation between the two groups. Not only does the physical building of the prison function as a barrier, but rather the entirety of the prison itself. The narrative around prisons and prisoners is one that has been developed to demean inmates and divide them from the greater population by creating the illusion that they are existing in an alternate space far away from our apparent “free world”. Instead, the prison is merely a space within the oppressive system that we all exist within. This program is imperative to the success of writers in the prison system, as it offers resources that had previously been stripped. Soto explains that the lacking of poetry is obvious in this space, “In prison, resources are scarce and poetry, in its prolific nature, can be one of the easiest forms of self-expression to diminish the divide between incarcerated and non-incarcerated worlds” (Soto). It works to create a connection between the outside world and inmates, offering both resources and outlets for writers to gain support from those outside. Without such programs, these opportunities would cease to exist for inmates. However, if we work to invest in the education and re-acclimation of imprisoned individuals, we allow for more opportunities to benefit the long-term success of this population.

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