Abolition from within: enabling the citizen convict.

Author:Larson, Doran
Position:Viewpoint essay


Prison abolitionists such as Angela Y.

Davis wisely focus upon changing public policy, legal practice, and police enforcement in ways that would choke off the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) by denying it the largely poor, urban bodies of color upon which it feeds (Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? 107). "Prison," Davis remarks, "needs m be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means" (Rodriguez 215). In this essay, I want to suggest that, while such work outside the prison goes forward, abolition teachers can help the prison population begin their own rein-corporation into civil society. We can help to resurrect 2.3 million Americans from "civil death" by encouraging acts of civic community building inside the nation's fourth largest city, and by this action work to abolish the prison by dismantling the difference (and differance) between inmate and citizen. By addressing the social inequities and police practices that feed prisons and encouraging civic organization inside Prison City, the prison that exists today can be winnowed away all the more quickly. It might also, simultaneously, undergo radical metamorphosis into a civil institution that serves as an engine of progressive civic engagement. Abolition work outside, and fundamental transformation inside, pursued simultaneously, might in fact yield one of those "other institutions" that Davis envisions. Here I will ground these ideas in my experience of prison teaching, then review the complimentary effects of teaching prison writing to traditional undergraduates while also bringing these undergraduates inside the prison to interact with inmates. I will then discuss the implications for prison community building drawn from a national prison-essay project.

Prison Pedagogy

On November 13, 2006, I began teaching a creative writing workshop inside Attica Correctional Facility (ACF). In this setting, I have witnessed inmates taking control of their lives not only as members of the workshop, but also, through writing, as critical citizens of the PIC. Since beginning, the workshop has convened from 6:30 to 8:45 p.m. every other Thursday evening. The college where I teach has supplied funding for the texts distributed to all men: a standard creative writing textbook, a thick story collection, an essay collection, hard-back dictionaries, as well as writing pads and pens--items that the men would otherwise have to buy from their prison-job wages of twenty-five cents per hour. At each meeting, we discuss an assigned story or essay, discuss a particular technical point (for example, narrative persona or point of view), workshop drafts of stories and essays, and listen to men read from first drafts. The nuts and bolts are standard for a creative writing workshop. It is the effect of its setting that sets this and every other prison classroom apart.

On the evening of the first class in 2006, I asked each man to describe what writing experience he had had and what parts of his writing he wanted to improve. The question evoked a common desire to introduce form and structure into their writing: "I would like to work on staying in line with my writing. Keeping the theme of the story. Creating a space where I can replace whatever seems out of context"; "structure and form (understanding the marriage of the two)," "techniques for making my work more structured"; "a systematic way of piecing all my ideas together"; and "to maintain a consistent point of view." From the start, all the men were thankful for the technical vocabulary offered by me and by the textbook, and for my insistence that they follow through to the completion of essays and stories, despite doubts, interruptions, or even loss of motivation on a topic. Their writing, while losing none of its vibrancy, quickly began to assume greater coherency of form and structure. Reponses to the works assigned from the essay and story collections also became more focused and incisive.

The men in the current class come from a wide range of backgrounds. of the nine men on the call-out today, four are Black, four are White, and one is Hispanic. One is a former middle-school teacher, one a former university student. The others hold only G.E.D.s. None have studied literary technique. These differences in education were not reflected in their early writing, which universally had difficulty with structural consistency and follow-through. Nothing in my twenty-four years of teaching could explain it. Bur as I began to hear more about the conditions in which they lived, the answer became clear: the problems they faced in keeping the sense of the whole in their minds, and in seeing their efforts to completion, were shaped less by their disparate experiences as writers than symptomatic of their common experience of incarceration.

Each day is a challenge to inmates' skills in physical and psychological self-defense. Prisons are horribly loud environments, full of unceasing talk, bells, shouting. Writing regularly, keeping consistent focus, and working through to the ends of projects are all challenges in the settings of their daily lives. For these reasons, the simple consistency of the class meetings is extremely important to these men's development. (After more than three years, the men are still anxious to hear that I will in fact be visiting again in two weeks.) I am convinced that their writing has improved not simply because of the acquisition of knowledge and vocabulary, but, equally importantly, due to the assurance that the class will continue to take place, and in it they will receive continuing, consistent support for their efforts. That is to say, the emotional relief and reassurance found in the course is inseparable from its pedagogy--a relief they would find, at this point, even were I not in the room.

One of the deepest values that the men in the group take from these meetings is simply the time they spend in an environment of mutual support and respect among other inmates. Men in prison have to work daily at establishing and maintaining their reputations, preserving allegiances, and watching for new dangers. Yet from the beginning, the men in the group have been consistently encouraging of each other's work across tines of race, class, and ability. As one man remarked, "When I come into this class, I feel like I leave the prison."

Despite the various levels of writing experience and skills represented in the group, verbal feedback is universally positive. For the first year, after much practice, critical discussion of their work would not begin until I modeled for them how to shape constructive criticism. In virtually every other hour of their lives, their efforts at self-development are subject to open disdain, ridicule, and, commonly, simple confiscation of materials. For the purpose of reporting to my college on the progress of the class, I asked the men to write about what they value most about it. They noted the access to books, pens, and paper. Equally consistent were comments such as the following: "The camaraderie of aspiring writers has presented me outstretched hands and smiles in a very lonely environment"; "Would it sound melodramatic ... to say that I feel as if I benefit spiritually? To be able to share what I do with like-minded people ... brings me a deep, genuine feeling of happiness, something very hard to grasp in this environment and so greatly appreciated on every level"; "The class has been, and continues to be, the most positive experience of my seven-plus years of incarceration. It is easy to feel less-than while incarcerated, to feel irrelevant, useless, and unimportant. When people ask me what I miss...

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