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Teaching the Prison Industrial Complex

By Aparna Lakshmi

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Home > Archives > Volume 26 No.2 - Winter 2011/2012

Illustration: Ethan Heitner

By Aparna Lakshmi

"Harm comes from prior harm.” As Deandra says this, I am sitting in the back of my classroom, taking notes. My students are sitting in a circle in the middle of the room, talking to each other about the questions on the board: “What is the purpose of prison? Do prisons work?” In front of them are annotated readings, lecture notes, and typed response papers. They seem to have forgotten that I am there.

Deandra and Lee are discussing what would happen if there were no prisons. Deandra has just finished telling the story of a boy who, fearful of his abusive father, suffocates a girl rather than get in trouble for having a guest over when he is not supposed to. In this case, who should be punished? The boy who is clearly old enough to know his actions are wrong? The father who has instilled such tremendous fear in his son?

If there were no prisons, how would human beings respond to harm like this? Deandra and Lee wrestle with what Deandra has raised: “Harm comes from prior harm.” People harm others when they have been harmed themselves—by abuse, poverty, trauma—but prison does not address this prior harm. According to Deandra, it only adds a new layer of trauma to that individual, their family, and their community. As Roberto points out, “When you hurt a person, you hurt a bunch of people connected to that person.” Therefore, prison not only harms inmates, but their families and communities as well. But what response to harm is fair to victim, perpetrator, and community? What can stop the cycle of violence?

Conversations like these happened roughly once a week last year in my senior humanities class. I was teaching in an alternative school in Boston Public Schools and working with students who had dropped out, transferred, or been expelled from their previous schools. Many of my students struggled with reading complex texts and had never learned how to make and defend an argument through their writing. I was determined that they would leave my class confident about their research, reading, and writing skills, and the proud possessors of a portfolio that demonstrated those skills. But I was worried about how to engage students when their school careers had been marked by serious academic challenges.

Therefore, I decided to begin the year with a Freirean exercise I had read about in an article by a former teacher at El Puente High School in Brooklyn, NY. On the first day of class, my students walked in to see a large “problem tree” drawn on the board. We spent the whole period filling in the leaves of the tree with the problems we saw in our local communities, nation, and world. After an hour, the leaves were filled with words like racism, probation system, rape, and standardized testing. I explained to students that we would spend the year studying something on this tree and that what we studied was up to them.

For the next two weeks, the students and I worked to choose one problem to study together. First, I gave them cards that represented each of the tree leaves. In pairs, they organized these problems into categories, and soon we had filled in the branches of our tree with broader topics: education, poverty, government, violence, and prison. To give students a glimpse of what the year would be like if we studied any of these topics, I taught a mini-lesson about each one. Next, students interviewed someone in their family or community about the most serious problem that person faced. Most talked about the economy or violence in the community.

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