Activating Activists: Practicing Social Change in Prison Classes

Activating Activists: Practicing Social Change in Prison Classes

Justin M. Smith (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, USA) and Elizabeth A. Bradshaw (Central Michigan University, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 25
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch009


The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the pedagogical and practical importance of learning skills around political advocacy and community engagement in prison-based classes. The primary focus of the exercises described here is upon engaging students in exercises that develop their skills in advocating for social policies that affect them directly. Learning objectives include understanding the challenges of community organizing and consensus-building, developing policy proposal- and grant-writing skills, and developing skills around public messaging.
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Rationale: Learning The Practice Of Civic Engagement

In their report Equity and Excellence in Practice: A Guide for Higher Education in Prison, the authors argue for the importance of framing prison education as:

…centrally concerned with promoting the flourishing of individuals, communities, and civil society, rather than as a “correctional” intervention in “criminality.” We also view this work as part of a larger movement that asserts both the value of equity, excellence, access and accountability in higher education (in prison and outside), and the central importance of creativity, critical inquiry, and independent thought—the essence of higher education at its best—in a high-functioning democratic society. (Erzen, Gould & Lewen, 2019, pp. 2)

The rationale for the pedagogy and learning activities described in this chapter align with this call for developing critical-thinking and civic engagement in prison education. Rather than concentrating on the “rehabilitation” of some “criminality,” this approach demonstrates the benefits of cultivating the assets that incarcerated students can contribute to their communities.

This focus is largely in response to the collateral consequences of disenfranchisement from voting and civic engagement imposed by the carceral system. Miller and Alexander (2016, pp. 312) outline how the carceral system imposes “carceral citizenship” under which the formerly incarcerated are “uniquely branded by the mark of a criminal record and are subject to forms of legal exclusion that would be unlawful if directed toward other social groups.”

The importance of these pedagogical strategies and learning exercises also lies in the growth of formerly incarcerated advocates and activists and their significant role in the transformation of the criminal justice system and other social institutions. Research demonstrates the importance of formerly incarcerated individuals serving as leaders and members of reform efforts (Maruna & LeBel, 2003; 2009). In addition to contributing to the success of reform efforts, civic engagement has direct effects upon their own reentry success (Uggen & Janikula, 1999). The increasing, yet limited, availability of paid and voluntary positions within reform organizations offers returning citizens opportunities to engage their first-hand knowledge of prison and can serve as a key part of the reintegration process.

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