Reimagining the Classroom in Carceral Settings

Classrooms in prisons and jails can return to people what the penal system works to strip away—space and opportunities to self-express, self-advocate, and affirm their own humanity and the humanity of others around them. Performing this function of rights-restoration is not the limit of education in prisons and jails, however. Punitive approaches to discipline appear early on the school side of the school-to-prison pipeline. Responding to crime by trying to “rehabilitate” individuals rather than to address systems level problems in communities (make this person a marketable employee while returning them to a town without job opportunities) finds a complement in schools molding children to be model students or citizens. Education programming in prisons and jails, then, present opportunities, rather than to replicate existing classrooms on the outside, to reimagine the function and possibilities of the classroom.

Working for The Petey Greene Program, a non-profit organization that runs supplemental academic tutoring programs in East Coast prisons and jails, I had the opportunity to reimagine the priorities and structure of education programs in carceral settings. Some education programming, in particular arts classes and college level courses, more naturally focus on strengthening students’ abilities to express themselves and to introspect. Many of Petey Greene’s volunteer tutors work in high school equivalency (HSE) classes directed towards an exam such as the GED.

Because of their narrow focus, these courses do not often prioritize giving incarcerated students experiences geared toward personal development through self-expression. Instead, coursework tends to take the form of exam practice problems. As these academically focused classes are often state-mandated and HSE degrees can be necessary to academic progression or employment, they’re not to be replaced entirely. How, then, can such test-directed courses be structured to not only offset dehumanizing carceral processes but also to students them in ways in which traditional schools may have failed?

The world of HSE and other adult programing such as literacy classes, I learned, is a fertile ground for inverting power structures and pushing forward education as emancipation. Adult education practitioners—including those teaching and writing about teaching while incarcerated, such as Columbia University professor Kathy Boudin—have been developing Freirian-inspired practices of participatory learning. Such outlooks emphasize that students bring to their education their own experiences and skills, which enrich the learning experience for all involved. Further, students can and should direct their own learning.

This approach resists corrections institutional status quo thinking in two ways. First, it rejects the instrumental idea that students must be filled with knowledge and inculcated with habits and morals that will make them “productive” members of society. Instead, students ought to pursue learning on topics that they find important and urgent to their own priorities, in ways that fit with learning styles they have developed over the course of their lives. Second, this approach empowers students to make choices about their own learning rather than giving traditional authority figures license to make decisions in yet another aspect of one’s life. On a day-to-day level, this means that educators support students in setting and achieving their own learning goals on assignments and in the class more broadly.

A key, meta component of this approach is involving students in deciding what matters to measuring their own success. At Petey Greene, we asked ourselves: which metrics should we use to measure our work? What counts as success in serving our students?

In seeking to answer such questions, we held focus groups with incarcerated students. These conversations helped us shape our programming to be more responsive to the needs of those we sought to serve. It also gave students a platform to speak. The process returned control to our students.

These practices were inspired by the work done in corners of prisons, jails, and reentry centers around the country by educators who are disrupting the logic that incarcerated students deserve a bare minimum or a mere mirror of some societal standard. Raising the standard for what incarcerated students deserve forms part of the reparations we owe to those on whom we enact the violence of incarceration.



Grace Li is a law student at New York University Law School. She previously worked as a Regional Field Manager and Monitoring & Evaluation Manager for the Petey Greene Program and volunteered as a tutor with Petey Greene at Princeton University.

This post is part of a series on prison education. For Steffen Seitz’s exploration of arts and humanities teaching behind bars, see:

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