By Jenna Hart
The Petey Greene Program (PGP) hosted an event on the carceral state and education on Thursday, Oct. 8, as a part of their Justice Education series.
The Petey Greene Program offers high-quality volunteer tutoring programs to support the academic goals of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people while educating volunteers on injustices in the American prison system.
The event was moderated by Maco L. Faniel, the PGP director of training and justice education, and Masha Miura, a volunteer tutor for the program and current student at Princeton University.
This webinar aimed to help define and locate the interlocking institutions, ideologies and practices of the prison system while discussing the individual-focused approaches to prison and re-entry education. It was the first of three events hosted over Zoom by PGP for their series and featured panel discussions.
On the panel was Dr. Nora Krinitsky, a lecturer of criminalization, incarceration and surveillance at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor; Dr. Breea Willingham, a professor of criminal justice at SUNY Plattsburgh; and American studies doctorate student at New York University, Michelle Jones.
The panelists spoke of the precollegiate and collegiate education programs offered in prisons, highlighting the need for educational programs to be accessible and tailored to the individual’s academic needs instead of institutional goals.
“Education in prison is viewed as busywork,” Jones said. “When it becomes transformative, it becomes a threat. … Higher education is viewed as a necessary evil that (incarcerated people) shouldn’t have access to.”
Willingham echoed Jones’ point, saying that “the relationship between carceral state and higher education is contentious because if people are smart, you can’t control them.”
“Whether prison, policing, probation, or parole, is about control. It’s hard to control an educated person,” Willingham said.
The type of education in prisons is often vocational, forming mechanics, welders, janitors and chefs. Panelists highlighted the issue in this, as the programs offered are geared to serve the institution itself. It also presents a women’s issue as well — even if women come out of the carceral system with a certificate in vocational programs, these fields are often male-dominated.
“When those programs are offered to women, they are sold as a way to show that (these prisons) are progressive and innovative, performative shows for senators,” Jones said. “Those women are not employed in welding programs. We have to think really hard (about) who is benefiting from the programs offered.”
The panel discussed solutions to improving the path of education for incarcerated or previously incarcerated individuals, and addressed what needs to be done beyond the prisons and on college campuses. According to the panelists, changes should start with the college admissions process in order for previously incarcerated individuals to have the opportunity of a higher education.
The panelists argued that applicants who have been through the system should not have to be retraumatized by paperwork requiring them to recall each detail of their experience in court and prison, especially after serving time and having proved themselves worthy to return to society as a law-abiding citizen.
“I don’t see how interrogating a student about their crime of conviction increases safety on the campus,” Krinitsky said. “A community is more safe when the people there can access education and jobs. Excluding once-incarcerated people makes both of those things much more difficult.”
Willingham also advocated for a liaison between the environments of prison education and the college campus. She calls the change “a culture-shock experience.”
On behalf of the Petey Greene volunteer tutors, Muira asked the panelists, “As students who are removed from the experience of what it means to be incarcerated, how can we avoid being bad tutors so we don’t naturalize the power dynamic between student and tutor?”
Krinitsky addressed the unfortunate fact that the power dynamic is heavily enforced by university systems that go beyond the control of individuals.
“But it is the responsibility of all of us who do scholarship to hold our home institution’s feet to the fire,” she said. “I would press anyone who is working with this program to also be strategic and organize their campus to create pathways for incarcerated people to come in.”
Jones and Willingham also illustrated the importance of seeing and treating these real people as such, not lab rats, criminals or inmates. They want tutors to check their individual privilege, leave it at the door and really think about why they’re doing this.
“Ask yourself ‘Why?’ Don’t come into our space thinking you are going to be ‘the great hope’ and save the lives of these poor, unfortunate people that are in prison,” Willingham said. “Understand why you want to do this work that’s not for the faint of heart. Illustrate that it’s real, not just something you do because you want to be a volunteer.”