Reading Freire in San Quentin

During the doctoral class on Social and Critical Foundations of Education, we are digging into the work of Paolo Freire. For me, it is a visit to an old friend. For many, it is their first introduction to his great work and the revolutionary period that gave rise to it. This reminded me of notes I wrote some years back while working with the GED program at San Quentin. I thought they might be of interest so I’m posting them here.

“First full paragraph on page 48,” said Darrell. And he started reading. “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.” The bare table in front of us held nothing but our copies of the chapter, some curled and dog-eared as a result of being carried back and forth from cells. Cement blocks defined the wall, which were painted institutional green. Fluorescent lights buzzed their pale wash across the room.

Kyle, a buff Black man in his late thirties with a ready gap-toothed smile, jumped in, “So that’s like, we can’t even imagine our freedom. Like our minds are controlled by the man. I see so many of the guys in here, they just want to be like the boss man.”

One of the elders in the room, Cleveland, who is slightly heavy-set with tattoos up both arms and a knit cap on his head, added, “You know that’s crazy. I remember we used to get that government cheese, those big blocks. I was always embarrassed, did not want to be seen with it. Then one day I saw a white guy with government cheese. Suddenly I decided it was OK to have it. That’s how much I considered my own life to have no value.”

Today at San Quentin was a meeting for the prisoner-teachers and outside teachers. I might have said inmate-teachers but Maria finds the term inmate to be euphemistic, and she objects to other terms too like convict and offender. Sometimes it’s just the men or the guys. She adds, “The white liberal in me wants to always say ‘man who is incarcerated,’ but it’s a mouthful and at some point pretentious.”

I was there from the school of education at the University of San Francisco as support for their curriculum work. This was one of the Friday morning professional development sessions at 9:00 AM for the prisoner-teachers who lead the GED classes for prisoners who don’t have high school diplomas.

When you get to San Quentin, you drive down to the side parking lot for volunteers and visitors. You have to leave your wallet, keys, phone, everything in your car. Only take in one car key and your driver’s license. Plus a yellow pad and a book.

Maria and I walked to the gate and surrendered our IDs. The gate guard checked them quickly and passed us through. This is the first good moment of the day. The previous guy, O’Donnell, was generally hostile and took like a half hour to check if we were on the approved volunteer list. We walked up the road to the imposing walls themselves and showed our IDs again, signed in again, got stamped, and buzzed in to the lock-up. After showing our IDs there, we were buzzed into the small yard, from which we took the long walk around, past the chapels, by where George Jackson was gunned down, past the hospital and the 1868 original dungeon, to the big yard, then to the education annex sign-in. After this, the last sign-in, we went to the offices of the San Quentin News. Our session was to be from 9:00 to noon. But no one was in a hurry.

We sat and talked to different newspaper staffers — about everything from the latest issue of the paper to the medical care available to the best ways to inspire reading among prisoners. We three outside teachers had a chance to circulate with different groups of prisoners — Maria was checking in on the mechanics of our status in the prison, speaking to a coordinator of volunteers; Pia, a newly minted lawyer and activist, was chatting with some of the editors.

After about 45 minutes, we went in to the classroom, the one where GED math classes are taught. It is a room that seats 20 people in cramped closeness during Tuesday and Thursday evening classes, with a large whiteboard on one end that has been damaged by too many people using permanent markers on it over the years — but it is still used for math lessons because it can be seen across the room. A few months ago the prisoners were excited to hear they were getting a new white board. But when it arrived, it turned out to be like 30 by 60 inches. They keep that one up at the side as a joke, a reminder not to get your hopes up at promises from the prison authorities.

Maria has explained that the prisoner-teachers use this time to develop curriculum, review their plans for the week, and deepen their understanding of pedagogy. Since they have started creating thematic units for the semester, this is the second cycle. The readings and activities are built around a single theme and essential question, in English, social studies, science, and math. The first semester question was, “What is a grown-ass man?” This allowed for exploration of everything from psychology to biology to politics, a look at personal responsibility and broader structures. When it came time for the next theme, the prisoners decided they did not want to remain forever looking at their circumstances, at prison, at the narrow reality they were in. They declared that they really wanted to explore outer space, the universe, the larger cosmos. They built the syllabus around the essential question, “What is out there?” What a wonderful idea! They were reading everything from the big bang to space programs, cosmology to science fiction.

But for today, we were continuing the reading of Paulo Freire. They had decided they wanted to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed during their teacher meetings, in order to honor the life experiences and assets their students brought to the class. They hoped that Freirean pedagogical principles would be an opportunity to overcome the top-down teaching that they had experienced during high school.

I learned, though, that these sessions were not like any Freire reading I had ever done. In the first place, we worked through it very slowly. In the second, this study had more immediate and powerful meaning to everyone.

To start off, Carlos asked Maria to summarize the first three pages that had been read last week. He is a 30-something Chicano from Modesto, one of those prisoners known as a juvenile lifer before the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life. He now has a first parole hearing date, in 2023. Carlos would be known as guapo, ruddily handsome and wearing slightly nerdy black horn-rim glasses. He leads the literacy side of the GED classes. He used to lead it with a man named Black but Black was moved to a prison in southern California, which actually made him happy because it put him closer to his mother.

“Well,” began Maria, “the whole first part was about humanization and dehumanization. And Freire emphasized that the oppressor dehumanized the oppressed but also loses his own humanity in doing so.”

“Yeah,” added Kyle, “it made me think of what Martin would say, that the oppressor is diminished by his acts. But I’ve still been struggling with the idea that the oppressed want to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors. Do we only want to flip the game, be just as bad?”

The lead math teacher for the GED program, Darrell, jumped in, “I don’t think Freire is saying we can only be oppressors. He’s just pointing out that if we stay in the game, the same game that has us oppressed, then the only choice we have is to have individual success, to succeed within the rules of the game.”

Cleveland rolled his eyes and shook his head, “It’s like brothers who want to be successful, who make some money and want to show off gold chains, who want to brag about they ho’s, who strut around like a silly reflection of the oppressor, those are the ones who just reinforce the system.”

Darrell zeroed in: “So the way out of oppression, really out, has to be something more fundamental. How would we do that? How to oppose the whole system?”

Cleveland adjusted his cap and added: “Maybe he is saying that an individual might just try to rise, to have success within the system, but things will only get better when we change society as a whole. See where he says on page 46, ‘The shadow of their former oppressor is still cast over them.’ So it takes some work to make real change.”

Kyle finished it off, again with that big smile: “So the oppressed have internalized the values of the oppressor and we have hard work to do to really get freedom, to even imagine freedom.”

“So this is a great summary of where we got last week,” added Maria. “Where are we now?”

This is when we read that paragraph on page 48. Madupe had come in, a tall older skinny man with a cloth skullcap. He was part of the teaching group but tended to come and go. He did not sit still much. “Well you know sometimes the oppressed who are given a little power, the trustees in here or the overseers on the plantation, they are worse than the c.o.’s. It’s like self-hatred. Me I just steer clear of trouble. If I see some drama going down, I just walk away. I’m not going to get put off my plan by some petty shit.” After a few more minutes, he wandered out, having other work to do for the class.

Madupe, Maria explained later, was kind of the Eeyore of the group, the contrarian who always seemed a little angry or distant, though he was also consistent and caring in his support for the GED program over the years. Really it was Cleveland who was always comfortable to call out Madupe when he was being too cynical in his interventions. But it was always a good natured debate, one that neither needed to win.

Reading on the next paragraphs, Cleveland got to, “How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be ‘hosts’ of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy.”

“I’ve got some stumbling blocks here,” he reflected. “One is ‘unauthentic.’ So that is not authentic. How so? And also I don’t understand how midwife is used.”

Darrell: “It’s just like it sounds. If something is authentic, it is genuine, it is the real deal. If we are divided, we are not getting to live our full humanity. We are acting out someone else’s script.”

Kyle: “Exactly. Sometimes we are beefing with each other but neither side really has an interest in the beef. It is just acting out the oppressor’s script.”

Darrell: “And midwife, well that’s someone who helps in a birth. If you are going to learn in a way that is liberating, then you are giving birth to something new, well maybe yourself as an authentic human being.”

Next it was Cleveland reading and he got to: “The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor — when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.”

“Man,” he reflected. “That makes me think about the parole board, when you go for a hearing. That board is definitely not in solidarity, does not see us as actual people. We are just an abstract category. I’ve been taking this Saturday class that Kojo teaches, how to prepare for your appearance before the board. Because it’s so easy to blow it. They sit up there and throw questions at you and if you get one wrong, even if you have a clean record, then they send you back. You have to know how to answer each question.”

Carlos: “And when to shut up. If you don’t know something, don’t answer.”

“Yeah,” Cleveland added. “I got tripped up when Kojo asked me when I began to change my ways. I said 2009. But, he said, you got a 115 in 2011 so you are lying. Done. Darrell man you just made it through, right? So damn you’re about to walk out in a month. What did the hearing look like?”

Darrell, who leads the GED math classes along with another brother named Smooth, who was off in a programming class so he could not be there, was a striking looking Black man in his early 40’s. Darrell had a calm demeanor and a clear direction for eventually getting out. He had been down since he killed a young man in San Diego at age 19 while in the Navy.

“Well, there was the commissioner and the assistant commissioner and the D.A., who came all the way up from San Diego for this. And on the TV monitor were two family members of the victim. Plus my lawyer. I had to be so ready. Sometimes it is just knowing the vocabulary. They might ask you something and you don’t know the terms and you get messed up. I was prepared. In fact I had taken Kojo’s class and I was telling him some of the things you have to do. But the lawyer told me to stay away from any criticism of the system, to just praise the board, and stay calm. They told me that 14 cases had come up this day and I was the only one who was successful. The families on the monitor, they just said they respected the way I had developed and that their brother was himself getting into trouble, making bad choices. And even the D.A. supported my release; he mentioned that he almost never supported someone getting out. So, yeah, I made it. But I don’t think they were in solidarity. I just had to know how it worked, I had to know better than anyone in that room.”

And it went on like this. We worked our way through the discussion of subjective change and objective change. Freire believes both must be done. Subjective means changing hearts and minds; objective means changing laws and power relations. We discussed how Stokely Carmichael said in the Black Power movement that, “We don’t care about changing white people’s minds; we want power so they can’t mess with us.” That’s objectivist. But activists also need to be aware of the ideological struggle, changing people’s minds, or the objective changes won’t hold. The Cuban revolution changed power and the big task then was to create the “new socialist consciousness” so people could work in a system without capitalist managers.

Mixed in with these were discussions of Twelve Years a Slave (the book and the movie), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (turns out the real Uncle Tom in the story was more of a badass than the term suggests), The Shawshank Redemption, and more. We talked about outside people visiting San Quentin and being appalled by the look of the cells but really not doing anything about it when they went home. We talked about privilege, leading the good life, and how to make it on the outside.

I have read Freire many times. Some of it I can recite. But I never did it in the presence of this kind of deep thinkers, these organic intellectuals. I never heard anyone read the terms “oppressed” and “oppressor” with such immediate meaning. For so many graduate students, this was just another text to master, another paper to write. But here were men reading the words with desperate seriousness, as if locked inside the paragraphs might in fact be the keys to their freedom. They read passionately but they also read generously. They were not rushing to get it done — they have years to work on it. But they were urgent to make it matter, to make it make a difference. That old cliché that I have learned more from my students than they learned from me was never more true.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.