All our Community’s Voices: Unteaching the Prison Literacy Complex

by Michael Sutcliffe

Education, and particularly literacy, is often held up as a panacea for criminality and the key to prisoners’ reinvented social mobility. Reformers, educators, administrators, and government-funded corporate surveys tell us that if prisoners are educated, their behaviors will change as they learn to “solve their problems” in constructive rather than destructive ways. While much is to be said for the value of education, learning to read and write according to institutionally authorized conventional modes of discourse does little to counter the systems of state-sponsored violence, near-permanent poverty, racism, and devastating economic inequity that propagate the prison industrial complex.

This essay will demonstrate how current applications of prisoner education contribute to a “Prison Literacy Complex” by assuming deficits in the prisoner and positing education as remediation or as therapy. Traditional top-down models of literacy and their “voices-in” pedagogies mask systemic privilege and stratification. Instead, I argue for a “voices-out” pedagogical reframing for community programs in prisons and jails that can further substantive, redistributive social change. By bringing silenced voices and counterhegemonic memories out from behind bars, community efforts can reveal inconsistencies in popular “truths” and inspire the historicized criticism necessary for sustained projects of abolition. While primarily addressed to educators and community organizers working inside, the theoretical reorientation is a broader call for rethinking and reteaching ideological inheritance and community participation.

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