‘Doing Time, Writing Lives’

A prison writing instructor and the son of a former inmate, Patrick Berry discusses his new book on the role of higher education behind bars.

February 14, 2018

More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States, and yet prisoners are nearly invisible to the American public. Patrick Berry’s father was once among this silent body, spending most of his adult life between prison and the streets of New York City.

Berry, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University who has taught literacy classes to prisoners, weaves his personal experiences into his new book, Doing Time, Writing Lives: Refiguring Literacy and Higher Education in Prison (Southern Illinois University Press).

In his work, Berry discusses the purpose of prison literacy courses. While Berry is an enthusiastic proponent of giving inmates access to higher education, he writes that literacy programs cannot by themselves assure incarcerated people have good prospects when they leave prison.

For prisoners, hurdles to finding employment are, many times, out of their control. Upon release, incarcerated people confront discrimination based on race and class, as inmates are disproportionately black and of a lower socioeconomic status. In addition, the stigma of jail is difficult to escape, with employers often reluctant to hire former prisoners.

To Berry, prison literacy programs shouldn’t be measured by reduced recidivism and increased employment rates -- higher education should be valued in and of itself.

All of Berry's proceeds will go to Project Justice, which supports the college-in-prison program with which he worked.

Q: How is literacy usually perceived in the prison system?

A: While there are many perspectives on literacy in prison, a prevalent one links it with narratives of empowerment. Think of Malcolm X’s painstaking study of the dictionary, his copying of words and pages. So compelling is this story that it has become a touchstone for understanding literacy in prison. While such triumphs do occur from time to time, they are not the norm. I believe literacy educators need to resist the romance of prison writing, because such narratives can overshadow the everyday realities of literacy learning in prison.

There has also been a tendency to prioritize basic literacy skills in prison education, often with the hope that such skills might “cure” the criminal mind and prepare incarcerated people for re-entry into society. To place such responsibility on literacy in isolation is to ignore issues of inequality and discrimination as well as the remarkable obstacles formerly incarcerated students face each day. Literacy skills alone do not reverse the discriminatory employment practices many formerly incarcerated people confront on a regular basis.

Q: What are some advantages and limitations of colleges offering literacy programs in prisons?

A: Of course, not all literacy programs are the same, but in general, I don’t see any disadvantage in offering literacy education in prison. All the men in Project Justice … had earned the equivalent of an associate’s degree and were, by and large, “literate” in the conventional sense of the word before they entered prison. Writing for them was not solely about learning skills, although that played a part. It allowed them to reflect on their histories and to reimagine their lives. By writing about their experiences with literacy, they were able to consider the various social, cultural and material forces that had shaped their literacy learning.

Q: Why do we need to pay more attention to instructors of college-in-prison programs?

A: If you talk to those who have taught in prison, especially the volunteers, you’ll likely hear them describe it as one of the best teaching experiences of their lives. Most of the teachers I spoke with came to the program with the idea that they would be a positive influence at the prison and that the experience would somehow prove satisfying. Nearly all did the work without receiving either monetary compensation or a lightened teaching load on their home campuses.

I wanted to better understand how these teachers perceived the value of their work. What personal connections did they make between their own histories and the program? I came to see that while a commitment to “social justice” was certainly a factor, it did not adequately capture the range of motivations the teachers had. Students’ responses to their pedagogies were overwhelmingly positive, and most of the teachers interviewed, to some extent, rediscovered the pleasure of sharing their disciplinary expertise.

Too often prison education research focuses solely on what the teacher (or program) gives the student -- whether content knowledge, a voice or a space to write and learn. Such focus is particularly the norm in the realm of literacy education, as the writing classroom is often invested with the potential for social change and transformation. Given the tendency toward societal erasure of the lives of incarcerated individuals, a focus on students is understandable and necessary, but in itself it is not sufficient. To fail to consider motivations of prison educators is to allow teachers’ work to appear one-sided and selfless -- and this distorts how the program benefited both students and teachers.

Q: What are the best ways to evaluate the impact of literacy programs on formerly incarcerated students?

A: I believe our understanding and assessment of literacy must go beyond a focus on outcomes such as reduced recidivism rates and the potential for students’ employment after prison. Such outcomes are critically important, but they are not the only measure by which we should assess literacy and college in prison. Rather than thinking of literacy and learning as something we do for some yet-to-be-seen purpose, I suggest that writing and the sharing of writing are valuable in and of themselves. For the inmate students in this study, the act of writing was about community building, making sense of the past and learning to see themselves differently. I use the term “contextual” now to describe those acts of composing and becoming that lead to deeper engagement with the world and one’s place in it as well as to describe the value of being present. Project Justice provided a space in which students could both pass the time and imagine new ways of being in the world. The hope the program offered was not a naïve one based on some future promise, but rather one that involved the complex work of reimagining oneself in the moment through education, writing and the pursuit of realistic possibilities.

Q: How did your father’s experience as an inmate inspire your own career as a writing instructor at a college-in-prison program?

A: I still can't believe that when I started this work I never thought about my father, who initially got in trouble with the law when he was just 16 and would spend most of his adult life in various prisons across the state of New York. My father was “the criminal,” “the murderer,” “the bum” -- those were the labels I often heard as a child. I did not always know who I was, but I knew who I should not be: my father. Other than with a few close friends and family, I had never talked about him. As time went on, however, and through the stories of the incarcerated students featured in the book, I became aware of how my experience of shame over having an incarcerated parent was shared by others. Inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson, I would come to see that each of us is more than our worst deed -- and that the prison-industrial complex affects all of us more than we recognize.


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