Dr. Gillian Harkins’ research interests include U.S. literary and cultural studies, sexuality and childhood, and education justice. Gillian teaches at the University of Washington, Seattle and with the University Beyond Bars, the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (fepps.org), and the Black Prisoners Caucus T.E.A.C.H. program.

Dr. Erica R. Meiners’ research interests include queer lives and schools, critical childhood studies, prison abolition and decarceration movements, and restorative and transformative justice. Erica teaches at Northeastern Illinois University.

Together, Harkins and Meiners consider opportunities for new ways to engage abolition in relation to college in prison programs.

Interview by Policy People

Policy People We are interested in fugitive responses to Policy, rather than modes of reform. Your invocation of ‘abolition’ in your text, Beyond Crisis: College in Prison though the Abolition Undercommons, is the kind of thinking that inspired this project and fuels it. Can you speak to how you conceive of abolition in relation to response or strategy? What would the abolition of Policy be? We are thinking of Policy in terms of Moten/Harney’s use of it, which refers to both ‘actual’ Policy, but also a particular regime of social control, which they summarize as the “act of pronouncing others as incorrect.”

Gillian Harkins I really like the question of how one might “conceive of abolition in relation to response or strategy.” For me “conceive” registers natality — creation as well as labor — and figures thought in line with Arendt’s conception of work. It helps me to think about the gendered dimensions of abolition-as-conception, in particular the subtle (and not so subtle) ways gendered formations of race, class, and education inform the differentiation of abolitionist philosophy from its practice. To frame abolition as conception makes “response” a way of reposing unasked questions, rather than a reaction or rearguard defense opposed to more forward-thinking or avant-garde “strategy.” This reframing might in turn mobilize strategy beyond its familiar associations with militarism and State-defined battlegrounds. Otherwise the opposition between response and strategy will be reproduced to minimize radical conceptions of abolition, as we saw in mainstream media descriptions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as more response than strategy. One thing I like about Moten and Harney’s difficult piece is that it reminds us that language, and the semiotic systems through which we participate in the material world, are part of the strategic — and without acknowledging and fighting for that, the politicized languages of Policy will define the struggle over and over again.

Erica R. Meiners This is perhaps just rehashing Moten and Harney, but there are reasons why movements against our prison nation get locked into struggles around Policy. Policy matters — will people inside eat soy/sawdust loaves or be shackled while giving birth or be denied financial aid for college because of a drug related conviction? — these policies administer life and death. Yet the work to mobilize against or around these policies can reaffirm the punishing paradigms, legitimize the killing institutions. The line between engaging in liberal or “reform reform” that strengthens and expands the logic or power of the prison and “revolutionary reform work” (to use Karlene Faith’s terms) is often faint, dynamic and contextual. And yet, perhaps just cruel optimism1, but I’d argue that struggles to build or dismantle policies sometimes produce other affects, sets of relationalities, movements, and communities that have little to do with the Policy.

PP We think that Policy instills hierarchy – that as a discursive regime, it manifests as layered and unfolding social hierarchies through its organization of population. In the introduction of your text, you state: “we are often dissatisfied and at times dismayed by the prevailing frameworks used to rationalize and navigate [college in prison programs].” Can we understand “prevailing frameworks” as Policy? If the promise of education is used in both college and in prison as a means of incarceration (legitimatizing prisons, producing debt) how can solidarity be built when the experience is so vastly disparate?

ERM Let’s start with the question of building solidarities: Perhaps this is not a strong example, but naming people inside as university students creates an opening, yes problematic and temporary, to imagine other circuits of relationality. Claiming those in a prison education program as students forces a recalibration of the work done by the prison and the university to produce particular subjectivities. Yes, these temporal interruptions can be reinscribed, and with the increased interest in college in prison programs (as we note in Lateral) the identity of “incarcerated student” will undoubtedly be absorbed by prevailing (and racialized) criminal justice reform tropes that seek to protect/exonerate the innocent: the student/prisoner is more worthy, more innocent than the real prisoner. Even given this imminent absorption, for many audiences this is a temporal, contingent interruption that produces the possibility for imagining a line of solidarity previously unthinkable for some.

GH Picking up on Erica’s comments, building solidarities must be contingent and adaptive. The prevailing frameworks change and adapt, as do relations between those frameworks and Policy. At this very moment, new interest in 2-year institutions at the level of Policy — exemplified by the Obama administration America’s College Promise initiative — dovetails with changing frameworks about the value of higher education for job preparation and humanist uplift. We need to keep track of the porous and semi-permeable relations between Policy and prevailing frameworks without collapsing them. On one hand, Policy is one of those systems whose institutional parameters appear relatively closed. This is what makes Policy an appealing forum for “strategic” approaches. On the other hand, regimes of social control are (seemingly) more malleable as open systems because they depend upon some level of consent to prevailing frameworks. Such regimes require deeply stratified and non-homogeneous networks of common sense so that consent, coercion and domination can co-exist without seeming to refer directly back to Policy. Policy and regimes of social control meet in various institutions that are charged with reproducing — through adaptation if necessary — prevailing frameworks that explain and legitimate a given social order. Universities and prisons are key institutions in this process, and exposing, analyzing, and “responding” to the relations amongst them is a key way to forge adaptive solidarities and relevant strategies.

PP How would you characterize the work of Policy as a “positive” exclusionary force (again through the rhetoric of humanistic education) in college in prison programs? Who among the prisoner population is denied access to college in prison programs?

ERM Where I work the prison generally disqualifies anyone convicted of a sex offense, people in protective custody, those identified as a “security risk” and anyone with active and known gang affiliations. These are ALL vague categories, defined by the prison/criminal legal system, and cannot be challenged. While the prison is overwhelmingly full of poor and/or non-white people these restrictions disproportionately impact those who are actively organizing inside and are connected to others, particularly politically, queer people, and/or young Black and Brown men. Not surprisingly our program then replicates forms of exclusion and punishment produced by the carceral state.

Of course our universities do the same, also exclude, through policies and prevailing frameworks that are overlapping and also dissimilar (“merit”). Those marked “less than” in college and university are denied access to symbolic and material forms of capital that shape the “best of” life pathways: programs, financial aid, internships (the list is endless). The impact of these policies and institutional norms in an education program in a prison is perhaps more nakedly coercive and exclusionary than the site of the university, but this is arguable.

GH Agreed about the above, although my specific situation differs in the details, as they all do … which causes significant problems for collective organizing across regions. Nationally, there is wide variation in how each region negotiates federal Policy (such as Pell Grant restrictions for currently incarcerated students), state Policy (in Washington we have a legislative ban on public money for degree-granting higher education inside prisons), Department of Corrections Policy (at the levels of state legislation, state-wide DOC administration, and facility-specific DOC administration), and college/university Policy (in Washington community colleges have specific contracts with DOC to offer GED and vocational classes, which must abide by DOC eligibility restrictions for student enrollment as Erica describes above including low or excluded status for undocumented people). Independent higher education in prison programs may be able to set their own admission and eligibility procedures within general DOC Policy restrictions (placed on Volunteer programs) rather than educational DOC Policy restrictions (eligibility for DOC contract college programs), but then in turn they must negotiate college/university Policy regarding admissions (admission and eligibility requirements that in the Common Core Application includes felony and disciplinary history boxes) and decisions about if and how to matriculate currently incarcerated students in standard credit bearing courses. Overall, Policy is both ever-present and elusive as a site of direct action. In Washington state, for example, proposed 2015 legislation would allow public money for higher education in prison while placing DOC in charge of eligibility for admission to programs funded by that money: what kind of strategy does such legislation set in motion? Is there room for other modes of response once legislation is introduced?

PP Your critique of the “humanistic value” of the humanities and liberal arts is particularly relevant to our work and this project. Your essay criticizes the idea that “the world may be in economic crisis, but the humanities and liberal arts are there to resolve that crisis and direct the public toward a more integrated, holistic approach to the ‘human’ in human capital.” How would you think this in relation to Policy? Is Policy what sets the register and promotes the values at stake? Where does Policy intervene in the production of human capital, in the prison context?

GH That’s a big question. I guess trying to understand how humanistic value pertains to human capital pushes us to rethink how the humanities pertains to humanitarianism and Policy about human rights and labor protections. The question remains what humanisms will emerge from these conjunctures and what power relations will be institutionalized as Policy through them. Erica and I used the phrase “white ladies bountiful” to signal one specific formation where prison-focused volunteerism can slip into a humanizing love familiar from feminized and racialized humanitarianisms (contra the “white man’s burden”). The problem lies in how gender, race, class and educational attainment shape the conditions through which work becomes legible as activism (political), wage labor (professional) or labor of love (volunteer). While this three-tiered system is easy to identify and call out, it is harder to resolve without transforming how Policy and frameworks intersect institutionally.

In the case of college in prison programs, Policy and frameworks institute divisions of humanity through competing and contradictory systems of value. College/university systems have their own hierarchies of value situating work across these three tiers (political, professional, volunteer), and people from educational institutions negotiate their relations to prison institutions in ways that do not necessarily map neatly onto their college/university role. Incarcerated students negotiate these roles in a differential system imposed by DOC Policy and are often pressed to perform various embodiments of human value rather than participate in systems of valorization as political, professional, or voluntary agents. If all modes of work were factored into this equation, students-as-workers would have to include those incarcerated students who do quasi-paid labor inside to produce the furniture for campus (in Washington state institutions must purchase at least 1% of their goods from DOC labor contracts while LFOs and other debt structures generate revenue from incarcerated people through an intersecting but differential production and finance system). In this context, the classroom seems poised to raise fundamental questions about labor and value in institutional life, connecting to union activities on campus and anti-sweatshop and divestment campaigns connecting campus labor, international relations of production, and financial investment portfolios. This might precipitate new frameworks for human value that would require abolition across college and prison sites. While many program participants can see how abolition relates to the prison, fewer participants conceive of abolition as a collective practice that challenges the political, professional, and volunteer tier system routed through the university/college. All too often these roles just play out in ways that affirm the existing college/university system. And this behavior can actually exacerbate negative effects on campus, including naturalizing eligibility and admissions procedures for campus matriculation, devaluing non-paid labor as “service,” exploiting adjunct labor and other class-stratified wage work, and rewarding “professional” valor in the face of adversity (what Sora Han glossing Moten and Harney calls professional negligence).

ERM Gillian’s point is so central, I don’t want it to get buried. I am railing against the near impossibility of mobilizations around the labor attached to organizing and teaching inside a prison for people the state considers men. In my work cisgendered queer (not all white) women are the bodies readily available (via a range of historical, affective and other ongoing forces) to teach inside for free. We can and do get cleared, navigate the prison and submit — all women must wear “real” bras. Our complicity in the erasure of this as gendered labor, as queer work, seemingly reinforces the heteronormative site of the prison (and the university), extends the work of the university through our unpaid “care,” and, again, hetero-genders and racializes the civilizing project of education. And this, of course, is an old story in the US. While, as noted, Gillian and I don’t see white ladies bountiful as a form of fugitivity, an engagement with this figure — what she forecloses and makes possible in this institutional relay between the university and the prisons — seems both crucial and in need of displacement for any abolition future. Yet even raising this as a critique places our bodies (and our laboring sisters, so to speak), under the bus, and for what? For whom?

PP What would be a radical response to Policy? Because Policy speaks in the language of “participation” and “prevention,” under the pretense of care (as Harney and Moten put it: “hope appears now simply to be a matter of policy”) what kind of response indicts Policy whilst not denying that which it amends? We are thinking this also in relation to your discussion of critique: “Publishing critique of this phenomena threatens to exacerbate the general problem of professional university critique.” What happens then when vocabularies/languages of academia, administration, critique are mingled? What does the hybrid offer and diminish?

ERM A decade ago restorative justice was a radical opposing force and set of analytic tools and today the Chicago Police Department boasts of their restorative justice techniques and focus throughout their juvenile system. My Provost’s recent use of the term intersectionality was devoid of any association with power and was the new proxy for “diversity.” “Social justice” and “public engagement” at research universities emerges at a moment of deeply restricted access to enrollment and stark campus wage inequities. Locating their origins in movements that demanded redistribution, I try to recognize the genealogy of some these policies and frameworks — what they made possible and now simply reform — but also to note where and how these frames still have saliency, force — and these assessments are uneven, surprising sometimes.

Right now I am leaning away from work that has legislative or policy ends or seeks specifically to institution build or change. Perhaps it is a privilege not to, and I work alongside people who do think and act this way and I rely on their labor. I guess I feel burnt. I am paying attention to the mobilizations that can wrench other openings, create other networks and lines of analysis, fragmented or temporary, capable of informing resistances after the closure, the Policy. How to do this, without reproducing the same old prevailing frameworks? What might it mean to name education in prison projects as queer?

GH What Erica said. Additionally, your question suggests that Policy names “participation” within its coercive logics, while Moten and Harney name “critique” as participation in the coercive logics of Academia. So you ask what hybrid “vocabularies/languages of academia, administration, critique” might intervene in these intersecting logics? I think the question here is how languages reflect and shape existing power relations. So I guess I’d ask: how do we hold people accountable for collective learning before they take action (whether participation or critique)? There are many different languages and frameworks used by people across contexts, yet there seems at times an unfamiliarity with — or even a lack of interest in learning about — other people’s languages and frameworks. Collective learning should center the language and frameworks developed by those most impacted by a system, and it should include diverse approaches to framing that system from multiple positions and perspectives. To use the example from the last question, divisions between political labor, wage labor, and labor of love have been rigorously analyzed by diverse feminist activists and scholars … yet this framework is not a prevailing one in discussions of abolition. Is there a lack of familiarity with or undervaluing of feminist analyses of gendered/racialized labor in conceptions of abolition? What and whose ideas are valued and generalized as frameworks for action? We need to generate and share – collectivize — frameworks that enable feminist and queer conditions of abolition. Otherwise given the current hierarchies of institutionalized value we will be steered consistently toward models of production without reproduction, dialectics without desire, anti-racism without feminism, feminism without history, etc.

PP You talk about drawing vocabularies from inside prisons. What is the pedagogy of prison? How can curriculums support the kinds of knowledge being generated collectively? How do they suppress it?

ERM I find “carceral state” helpful to refer to how a punitive logic pervades institutions and systems that many perceive to be seemingly outside of the reach of prisons and policing: job training programs, health care, child and family services, schools and universities etc. Recognizing and naming the saturation of this punitive logic — in our classrooms, on our blocks, in our kinship networks — is pedagogical work, is abolitionist labour. Institutions, “common sense” and as Gillian noted the grammar of our sentiment, normalize and attempt to disappear punishment, isolation, deprivation. This “pedagogy of the prison” shapes our everyday, differentially by race/ability/gender/ and more, beyond the site of the prison. This naming is particularly central as states, motivated by “fiscal crisis” move slowly toward decarceration. How can we anticipate forms of enclosure? Anti-blackness and gender coercion? The relative upsurge of education in prison programs at a moment of uneven but growing state support for decarceration provides an opportunity to trace shifting carceral logics and to recognize and potentially re-route these investments. Yes, I think curriculum can and does provide some tools for engagement (the programs most likely to incubate these environments, Ethnic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and American Studies, are also the most likely to be marginalized or eliminated in moments of fiscal “crises”) but I see openings in the key pedagogical value attached to how people collectivize and mobilize against the “prevailing frameworks” that scaffold policy formation and naturalization: grad student unionization/mobilizations, shit-ins for gender neutral bathrooms, organized challenges to “merit” initiatives or the narrowing of access to key programs and resources, etc.

GH Again yes to what Erica said. One question, echoing Moten and Harney, is how pedagogy can create something other than naming. At the end of our Lateral piece, we listed “ongoing political education” for everyone involved as a goal for college in prison programs. When someone is moving in and out of diverse, interconnected, yet divergent institutional spaces, it seems inevitable that they would experience cognitive and affective disorientation. That seems like an excellent opportunity for pedagogy in a more robust, collaborative mode. But some people are, historically and institutionally, less likely to encounter that experience as pedagogical — a condition in which learning is appropriate, including recognizing one might have a paucity not of specific names but of listening and learning skills. Instead, for people who have been historically and institutionally positioned as dominant, the desire to name often overrides the reflex of learning. This can be exacerbated when the situation includes college professors interacting with students in prison, which can include desires to give affirmative or positive names (students as organic intellectuals, teachers as radical educators) to replace negative ones.

PP A lot of your suggestions at the end emphasize “linking struggles.” This is exciting for us, especially as this project is about thinking the linked subjugations made possible by aligned Policy processes and implementations across industry. However, how can the linking of struggles “stay fugitive,” i.e., not offer itself up – as a program - to Policy?

GH You know, I do not think making college in prison into a “program” is itself a problem. That can be an effective negotiation of the terrain discussed here. Can educational programs emerge through grassroots mobilization and remain outside program-based professionalization (offering itself up to Policy)? Of course, popular education models continue to do this effectively. But it is hard to do this and interface with colleges/universities — which have accreditation processes and Policy-specific protocols — and prisons — which conversely may at times resist “professional” college more than non-accredited programs targeting self-improvement and skill-acquisition. The key is to create accountability with movement-building efforts beyond the program. The program itself may not be “fugitive” but its relations and effects can be.

ERM This is a question for so many contexts not just the education/college/prison linkages! And yes and yes to Gillian’s point about the ongoing need to structure accountability to justice mobilizations beyond the prison and this necessitates invention. How to build relationships with outside organizations when the prison requires as a condition of teaching no contact with formerly or (other) currently incarcerated people or their family members? These conditions require creativity and thinking and organizing as a collective rather than an individual actor, helps. A grotesque generalization but collectivization, perhaps like listening and learning to others as Gillian noted, is not a skill valued or widely cultivated by our profession.

March 2015

References (Endnotes)

  1. 1. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011.