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Teaching Literature in Prisons (From Unlocking Shackled Minds A Handbook for the College Prison Classroom, P 18-23, 1980, Frank Cioffi, ed. See NCJ-73190)

NCJ Number
R Hedin
Date Published
6 pages
The perspective of inmates as it relates to the study of literature in the prison classroom is discussed; the importance of identifying and addressing student concerns is emphasized.
Prison tends to attract those faculty members who are not wholly comfortable themselves within the system. For example, Ex-Peace Corps members, children of the 1960's, and those academics who have a sense of mission often volunteer. Despite difficulties, much of what takes place in the prison classroom is genuine and works to the advantage of both teacher and student. Although prison inmates are generally not interested in literary history, their contributions are often intense. They have genuine questions about their lives and problems. Prison students are older, experienced, and have felt a sense of failure and public censure. There is doubtless an element of game playing in the classroom, but even that takes place only when students are genuinely touched by the material. Their response to literature dealing with problems of race, such as 'Native Son' and 'Up from Slavery,' is indicative of the depth of feeling. While students on campus tend to approach the literature of race as a subject to be learned, inmates approach it as examples to learn from. This intense interest in literature which is personally pertinent opens up many possibilities. Autobiography is an ideal genre to teach because it provides concrete models, both positive and negative, for influencing inmate's lives. Historical biographies are a good choice because prison students want to read the truth when they study literature. Interestingly, prison students rarely attempt to abstract an issue from the literature and then discuss it detached from the text. The primary interests are with character, events, and perception of the truth. Thus, teaching materials should be selected according to inmate interests and concerns.


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